"The minute you think about others, the minute you forget about yourself for just a day, the world is a better place to live in. The majority of people are good people but they are silent."
Shirzad Ahmed is a member of the Alberta legal community who is recognized as a respected and compassionate advocate of immigrants and refugees in need and a tireless champion of human rights within Alberta, across Canada and around the world.
Shirzad’s great affinity for the struggle of refugees is born out of the arduous and often frightening path that eventually brought him to the country he is now proud to call home. He was born on January 10, 1962 in Kirkuk, Kurdistan and grew up under a brutal regime that didn’t recognize the ethnicity, language or customs of the Kurdish people and frequently delivered punishing artillery bombardments, chemical weapons genocide, violence and discrimination. It was a place that only allowed Shirzad and his many brothers and sister one simple dream - to survive.
In the midst of all the oppression and violence, Shirzad was fortunate enough to enjoy the guidance and protection of his parents, Sabir and Fatima, who did everything they could to give their children an education. Because information was tightly controlled and many books were banned, materials had to be smuggled into the home so that the children could read subjects like philosophy and explore different ways of looking at the world. His parents also led by example through the generosity and kindness they extended to neighbours in need. Shirzad recalls his father telling him that, despite the circumstances he might be forced to endure, the only way forward was to “just be yourself and do what you can do… don’t sit and complain…you have to get involved and you have to help.”
When Shirzad graduated from high school, his father realized his son would need more than good advice if he were to hope for something better in life. He handed Shirzad four hundred dollars that he had painstakingly saved and told him that the next day he was to begin a journey toward the promise of freedom and opportunity. Shirzad said good bye to his family and his world and set out with the first of a series of guides who had agreed to shepherd him along a dangerous mountain trek. He made it out of the country and soon found himself alone, knowing only that he needed to make his way to a place that would accept him. He went through 15 borders in almost as many days. At every turn he was rejected because he held no official papers, other than the photoless library card he carried in his pocket. Finally, he was permitted to stay in Italy temporarily.
Shirzad added Italian to the other languages he already spoke and, in time, found work as a translator and interpreter at United Nations offices in Rome. After five years, he was required to leave Italy. He asked his UN coworkers for help and they made arrangements for Shirzad to go to one of three countries: the United States, Australia or Canada. He remembers that moment as the first time in his life when he had been offered any real choice. Shirzad made a choice that would end up being a very good one both for him and for his fellow Canadians.
Shirzad Ahmed’s plane touched down in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on October 31, 1984. He admits that he had read about Canada but had no idea about the extremely cold weather. He also found himself somewhat confounded by the Halloween-costumed revellers he encountered both on the aircraft and in the streets of his newly found home that first evening in Canada. But he soon adapted. Shirzad worked as a translator and language tutor and began settling into Canadian life. He also committed himself to using his hard earned freedom to support organizations like Amnesty International and adding his voice to dialogues taking place around the world on the plight of those who have been denied basic human rights. He also fell in love with Yvette Kroeker, a student he met through a mutual friend and who would become his life partner. In 1988, Shirzad Ahmed became a Canadian citizen.
When Yvette landed an articling position with an accounting firm in Vancouver, they travelled to British Columbia and Shirzad studied at the University College of the Fraser Valley (UCFV) and then Simon Fraser University. While working to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts, he also founded chapters of Amnesty International for both schools and was appointed by the Government of British Columbia to the UCFV Board of Governors where he served for three years. Shirzad knew that he wanted to dedicate himself to smoothing the way for other refugees and recognized that a law degree would allow him to do just that. He attended law school at the University of Calgary where he discovered a wealth of new friends and mentors. He graduated with a Bachelor of Laws Degree in May 2000.
Since 2004, Shirzad has been practicing as a sole practitioner specializing primarily in the areas of immigration, refugee and human rights law. He often takes on cases from clients who have fallen through the cracks of the immigration system. They come from every continent and have suffered persecution based on political opinion, gender, religious belief, race, nationality or membership in a special group. Shirzad focuses less on a client’s ability to pay than on the urgency of their appeal. When asked about the extensive pro bono work that makes up a fair portion of his practice, he says simply “I have never thought about it for a second. When people knock on my door, they need my help. I can’t say no.” That commitment earned him the 2008 Distinguished Service Award in Pro Bono Legal Service from the Law Society of Alberta and the Canadian Bar Association.
Shirzad has worked to assist people in need through his contributions as board member for the Fig Tree Foundation, a Calgary-based initiative that supports the work of non governmental organizations around the world. He also serves as a respected speaker for media and post secondary schools wishing to shed light on the plight of refugees and people around the world who are struggling to secure the most basic of human rights. While it might seem to be a daunting task, Shirzad sees hope in that struggle. He says, “without hope, there is nothing to live for. Without hope, we might as well forget about what is happening in areas such as Darfur…in Kurdistan, et cetera. I do have hope in humanity that we will overcome all of this.”
The journey toward human rights for all people has found a humble, fearless and unflagging champion in Shirzad Ahmed and his efforts have already made a real and lasting difference in the lives of many people in Canada and around the world.
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence