Mahta Gharaei: Young Iranian-Canadian Karate-ka
Interview by Mashoud Nasseri
Mahta Gharaei, a fifteen-year-old daughter of an Iranian immigrant family, has had remarkable achievements at such young age as an athlete. Canada and Canadian immigrants' success stories are intertwined, as one propels the other, both gain higher ground in global stage. This Month, in this series of interviews featuring successful Iranian-Canadians, we reached out to young Iranian-Canadian athlete Mahta Gharaei.
Q: Mahta, tell us about yourself and your background.
My parents and my older sister immigrated to Canada 16 years ago, while my mom was pregnant with me. I was born eight months after, so you can imagine as a newcomer family how difficult it may have been for them to raise me in a new environment without the support that relatives and friends would offer back home. My parents lived and studied in Germany prior, and later they moved to Iran for a few years before immigrating again, this time, to Canada.
As I grew, they noticed my hyperactivity and my love for sports from early on, so they decided to put me into various sports and even ballet to see my preference. Well it was not too difficult to figure as I chose Karate over dance right off the bat, and it was the perfect choice for my over the top energy. I was five then, and it has been a decade since, but my passion for this sport hasn’t dimmed a bit. I love the challenges Karate offers in different facets such as Kata and Kumite: Kata, due to the performance aspect of it and precision which really improves my memory, focus and motor skills and kumite for keeping me well-fit physically, and the fact that it prepared me mentally not just in karate but also in life.
For me, it wasn’t really a question of getting involved in competitive karate as I’ve always loved a good challenge and in a sense always been thirsty for rewards. This drive for success has seen me through years of competition in the various disciplines of Karate. Smaller tournaments led to provincials, then to nationals, and then to several international events, and in most of them fortunately I was able to receive medals. As a member of the Junior National Team of Karate Canada since 2017, I’ve had the chance to participate in Junior Pan American Championships twice and in World Karate Federation (WKF) Youth World Cup once where I was able to receive the Silver medal in U14 Female Kumite.
Although, ultimately for any Karate-ka the end-goal is to win certain tournaments or reach new heights in terms of ranking, likewise for me, at one point in time, I realized that perhaps I can share the spotlight and divert the attention I received to much greater causes. I have to say, this decision has been even more rewarding for me than any competition. The value in seeing children or youth smile is worthwhile beyond measure.
Pageantry was the perfect platform for me to use my voice to raise awareness and raise funds for the non-profit organizations that I was already involved in, namely Operation Smile Canada and 360Kids Youth Program in support of homeless youth in the York Region. So, last year, I entered the Miss Teenage Canada competition (in affiliation with company of Miss World Canada) because their motto of having “Beauty with Purpose” really resonated with me. Moving past provincials, I was able to reach Nationals where I competed in a group of 40 teenage girls from various provinces across Canada. There, I put my experiences in competitions and leadership skills into good use, and eventually I placed first-runner up to the crown winner from Manitoba.
This year, I have had the honour and pleasure of representing Canada as the National Delegate in the Miss Teen Globe 2019 in Paraguay where 20 delegates from countries around the world participated. I placed as first runner-up to the winner from Mexico and earned the continental title and crown for Miss Teen Globe Americas 2019 as well as won the sports portion of the competition. It is truly humbling, and I’m thankful for the wonderful turnout of events.
Q: You are only 15, and had several achievements especially in sports so far. Recently you made a proposal to the York Region District School Board to include martial arts and self-defence training, especially for female students, into the health and physical education curriculum. Tell us a bit about your proposal and what are the next steps?
I sent this request to the YRDSB in a proposal package containing my letter of request, benefits of martial arts and some general information pertaining to my athletic background. I received the confirmation from Director of Education, Ms. Sirisko. She was very generous in her response. She informed me that the information provided has been forwarded to Superintendent of Education, Curriculum and Instructional Services, for further review and consideration.
I am waiting for a response, but in the meantime, soon I will be having a meeting with the current Mayor of Newmarket, Mr. John Taylor, as he has kindly invited me to join him at his office to be presented with a certificate for my recent achievements. It is truly humbling, and I’m beyond thankful. It will also be the perfect opportunity for me to talk about my concerns and request as I truly believe all schools, not just within York Region, but all over Ontario and ultimately Canada should reinforce martial arts and self-defence teachings in all elementary and high schools.
While Canada is a safe country, many women especially at younger age fall victim to violence and sexual assaults and many times they feel powerless and defence-less in face of predators. Boys also many times have been victims of violence and bullying. So every child and teenager should know how to properly defend themselves. This measure can potentially save lives, and I insist that we must act sooner than later.
The truth of the matter is, for any decision to be put into effect, especially the introduction of a new teaching curriculum, it is time-consuming. I also know, there needs to be some extensive financial investment put into place by the Government of Ontario. But I also know this, with any change, it starts small, and it will have a ripple effect. The important thing is not to give up and continuously act towards that goal. Some day, I’m certain martial arts teachings, hopefully free, would become available in every school across Ontario. My next step would be to form a petition to get more people on board with my mission.
Q: This past weekend 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu, became Canada's first athlete to win the championship in 139-year history of US Open. Do you see her as a role model?
Absolutely! Bianca Andreescu sets a perfect example for us younger athletes to follow regardless of which field of sports we participate in. She started tennis at an early age. According to her, what separates her from other elite Tennis players was not just her technique but also her mindset. That’s a big thing for me and other Karate-ka. The mind is a powerful tool, both in a good way and also a detrimental way. You can only go so far with your perfect technique and deliverance. Ultimately on the mats, tatami or field, it is your mindset that will take you another further step which often determines the result of the game.
I haven’t been flawless in this aspect despite my victories. Many times, I have allowed the fear of failure get in the way of me attaining my desired results. For this reason, I have lost matches that would otherwise be easy on normal days. I think, with age, this attitude will change as I have a lot of learning to do. Many Junior athletes like me have faced similar situations in the past, but our coaches and mentors show us techniques to get over this and get back on track. It’s all part of the game.
So yes, Bianca is definitely an inspiration for me and many other young athletes or competitors in other fields of professional sports. I can take away a lot from her advice. Similarly, I dream that one day I can raise the Canadian flag as a gold medalist in the WKF Karate World Championships and hopefully Olympics if karate makes a return. Really the best feeling in the world is the moment when I can see all those years of hard work, training and many sacrifices be brought into fruition and my dream finally coming true like Bianca Andreescu.
Q: In August you were competing in the Junior Karate Pan Am Championships in Ecuador representing Karate Canada. What was the result?
Unfortunately, this time around I didn’t receive a medal. Karate is like roller-coaster ride and as the saying goes "there is no loss, it’s win or learn". Some things in the game did not go in my favour which were out of my hands. But despite this setback, I will come back stronger than before in future years. I have a long way to go as a junior athlete and a lot more to learn. Next Karate Canada National Championships would be in Toronto, which is a bonus as it’s close by. I am looking forward to a new competition season and working on new strategies for the next international tournament.
Q: What do you think of Iran's Sara Bahmanyar winning gold medal at World Karate League in Japan this week?
It is no secret that Iran has one of the best Karate teams in the world both for seniors and juniors. Many Iranian athletes have top rankings in the WKF. I always look up to these men and women, and they are an inspiration to me and many others. It also makes me proud because I’m ethnically Persian, and I have a very Iranian upbringing. Sara Bahmanyar’s gold is very valuable at such a high caliber event as Tokyo K-1 Premier League 2019. The results also make the Iranian athletes as one of the favourite teams to win gold medals at Tokyo 2020 Olympics next year when Karate will make its first appearance in the Summer Games. I wish her and all in Iran Team the best of luck, and I will be cheering for both countries, Canada and Iran, at the Olympics.
Q: You mentioned your involvement with the organization called 360Kids. Tell us a bit about the work they do and your involvement.
360Kids is a non-profit organization in York Region that helps with the needs of homeless and at-risk youth right in their own backyard of York Region, Ontario. For over 29 years combined organizations, now known as 360Kids, looked internally within their communities to see how they could improve and build up together. Their efforts now help over 3,000 youth a year thrive and grow while continuing to raise awareness for the 300 estimated homeless youth in York Region as well as other factors that stop youth from thriving.
As a Youth Ambassador for this organization, I aim to also shed light on their HOPE Program which provides transitional housing and services for female survivors of human trafficking, aged 16-26 in the York Region. According to Peel Regional Police, the GTA is a hotbed of human trafficking, with 62.5% of related court cases across Canada originating here.
The second annual Dignity event which helps to raise funds for the HOPE Program is happening on September 15th, and people can gather as a community to enjoy an afternoon of high tea, fashion, photo-shoots and shopping. Similar events happen throughout the year and usually receive great support from the community, the regional government, school boards and the police department.
Q: Any other comments for our readers?
I must say, that I consider myself very lucky to have very inspiring people in my life without whom I wouldn’t be where I am today. Perhaps the most important is my Sensei (coach), Nassim Varasteh who also happens to be Senior Head Coach of Karate Canada. She is the daughter of a martial arts grand master, late Shinan Farhad Varasteh who pioneered Karate in Iran. Nassim is two times Vice World Champion, six times Pan American Champion, among other things like being a Youth Olympic Role Model for Buenos Aires 2018. But all of that comes second to her character. In my opinion, not only she is a successful athlete, but outside Karate she is an exemplary person to those who know her. As her student, I consider myself truly lucky to have someone like her to look up to and I wish to continue giving back the same effort and care as she unconditionally gives to us.