Embracing new opportunities: Katayoun Ghanai’s journey in Canada

By Helia Mokhber

Posted on February 23, 2022

A mother of two, a piano teacher, a book club leader, and PhD candidate, Katayoun Ghanai has truly done it all. Since moving to Canada in 2007, Ghanai has sought out and embraced every opportunity and followed her true passion: Music.

Life in Iran

Ghanai studied anesthesiology at the University of Tehran and began working at a hospital shortly after.

“I wasn’t happy with it because it was during the war time. And I had worked in operation rooms with many, many badly injured soldiers,” Ghanai said.

After a few years, she realized she couldn’t continue working in her position. She went back to university, receiving a bachelor’s in economics and a master’s degree in planning and development in economics.

Though her true passion lay in music, a passion she indulged in throughout her life. Ghanai began playing the piano when she was 10 years old after seeing a grand piano at her uncle’s wedding. She immediately fell in love with the instrument. She hoped to study music as well; however, the subject was not offered at any university in Iran.

“Actually, it was abandoned,” Ghanai said. “So I had to study it privately. In the beginning of the revolution, I had to study it really underground. My teacher was an American. And after the revolution, she had to leave Iran. So I had to look for another teacher.”

When she was 19 years old, Ghanai began teaching piano lessons alongside her studies and career until she left Iran.

Moving to Canada

In 2007, Ghanai and her family decided to leave their home country after her older son won the bronze medal in the Iranian Physics Olympiad and hoped to start his university studies in Canada. The decision to immigrate was quite sudden.

“We had no plans, nowhere to stay, nothing. And we just decided to go. And we all came to Canada with him. […] My other son finished his school here, his fourth year of elementary school, and we packed and came here.”

As a newcomer, Ghanai and her family had to start over. Her husband travelled back and forth between Iran and Canada, so Ghanai was left with her two sons who also had to adjust to a new life in a foreign country.

“We didn’t know anybody here. That was our challenge. My husband stayed with us for three months, and he left. So for the first years, he would go back and forth. And I was here alone with two kids with an eight years age difference.”

Life in Canada

A few months after settling in Canada, Ghanai turned to her passion, music, to not only find a sense of familiarity with her old life but to find a community in her new city. She completed the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM) exams and received her license to teach piano as an RCM teacher. She started by teaching piano lessons to the new friends she made in Toronto and gradually found a network of students that continue taking her lessons.

“We had just moved in, […] there was no furniture, there was only one piano, and I was willing to teach anyone willing to learn.”

Ghanai also became familiar with yoga philosophy and credits her learnings and meditation for the gradual adjustment to her new life in Canada. Realizing she now had the chance to study what she truly wanted to pursue, Ghanai combined her lifelong passion for music with her newfound interest in spirituality and healing and decided to study the healing power of music.

“I was very interested in music therapy and the healing aspects of music, beyond entertainment, so I applied to university. And it was interesting because I didn’t have any degree in music. So I never thought that they would accept me into a graduate program. I was willing to go to undergrad because I wanted to learn.”

She completed a graduate degree in neuroscience and then pursued a PhD in music, studying the effect of music on the brain. She is currently less than two years away from finishing her degree.

Greatest success

While she has found success in her academic life and career, she defines her greatest success as taking care of herself and her family amidst their immigration journey.

“I’m so proud of myself that I could handle all these years, for myself, for my kids and for my husband.”

She has not only found her community but has also created a community for others through her piano classes and book club. What initially began as a discussion amongst two friends regarding a favourite book turned into a book club with 23 members.

Advice for newcomers

When asked to share any advice for newcomers to Canada, Ghanai advises that you discover and then embrace the tools that can help you adjust to your new life. These tools can be as simple as reigniting a passion project you used to pursue back home or taking on new opportunities.

“I just want to tell everybody who has immigrated to Canada that this is a great country with lots of opportunities. Everybody can do whatever their passion is or has been; everybody can do whatever they want. They just need to find the right path. And never think it’s too late.”

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