Skip to content

From Afghanistan to Fraser Lake: the mechanics of a refugee

Mahdi Taheri shares his unlikely journey from the Afghan army to opening a shop in small-town B.C.
Mahdi “JJ” Taheri may be a newcomer to Canada and North BC, but he isn’t new to the small engine repair business. (photo courtesy Blackbeard’s Small Engine & Repair)

In 2001, Mahdi Taheri was an 11-year-old Afghan refugee living in Iran. If you asked him then, he probably wouldn’t have predicted that he would end up owning his own business in Fraser Lake, B.C.

But thanks to some small-town networking and support from his family, that is exactly what happened.

Less than 70 days after arriving in Canada on March 24, Taheri has gained permanent residency and, in a May 31 Facebook post, announced the launch of Blackbeard’s Small Engine & Repair. In addition to working on engines, he is also trained in auto detailing and mechanical work.

It’s a marked change from the life he was leading prior to Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban in August.

Taheri, 34, discovered his passion for working on engines when he was a preteen. Taheri’s father had a friend who owned a motorcycle repair shop in Iran. After weeks of pleading, his dad finally gave him permission to help around the shop.

Taheri’s enthusiasm for mechanics remained once he arrived in Afghanistan at 14. However, he was not able to pursue his interest right away because of his family’s difficult financial situation. Instead of returning to school, he began working in whatever jobs he could find in order to support his family.

After spending about three years cycling through odd jobs, Taheri and his brother decided to join the Afghan National Army in 2005. Taheri lied about his age and joined the military at the age of 17.

“I needed to become a man,” he said. “I needed to travel to learn about life.”

Taheri went on to enjoy a 15-year military career. During his tenure with the Afghan National Army, he spent time as a commando, conducting raids alongside Canadian and American forces. He also worked closely with the US Special Forces as a cultural advisor, offering insight to the foreign military on their interactions with civilians and the local political systems.

Because of his close partnership with NATO forces, Taheri was evacuated out of Afghanistan in 2021 after the country’s rapid fall to the Taliban.

That evacuation was spearheaded by his American supervisors, and he ultimately made it to Philadelphia. Upon his arrival in the United States, Taheri spent time in a refugee camp in New Jersey which he described as “feeling like a prison.”

“The hardest part was having to listen to the children crying,” he said.

Taheri was largely a solo traveller as a refugee and arrived in the United States without his family.

After a month-long struggle, Taheri eventually made it to Colorado Springs, CO, where he was able to reconnect with his now-wife, Jennel, a native of Fraser Lake.. Jennel and Taheri connected on Facebook in 2016 through a mutual friend in the United States military and met for the first time in India in 2018.

The couple had plans to see each other several more times between 2018 and his eventual arrival in North America, but COVID-19 travel restrictions and further political turmoil in Afghanistan prevented them from being able to do so.

They got married in the United States in Feb. 2022. One month later, Jennel was able to bring her husband into Canada.

“It’s very different,” Taheri said of his new home. “I really like the quiet and the nature.”

After arriving in B.C., Taheri was tasked with managing an old airplane hangar owned by a friend of Jennel’s. Taheri repurposed the space and began using it to work on small engines.

After receiving his work approval from the federal government, Taheri finally opened for business. Blackbeard’s Small Engine & Repairs was among the businesses featured at the Fraser Lake Small Business Expo which was held at the Fraser Lake Arena on June 3rd and 4th.

RELATED: More than 200 Afghan refugees land in Vancouver after fleeing the Taliban

RELATED: More than 1,200 people with links to Canada still in Afghanistan: Garneau