Bahai's struggle to educate their youth
18 February, 1999
The following article is by a Bahai academic who cooperated with the Bahai Institute of Higher Education in Iran, commonly referred to at the Bahai Azad (Open) University. The university's offices and more than 500 Bahai homes were raided in Tehran last September and October and 36 staff and faculty were arrested. According to Glen Fullmer, assistant director for external affairs at the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States, those arrested were forced to sign a statement that they would no longer collaborate with the university but all refused. Most were eventually released but three remain in prison in Isfahan, Fullmer said. Bahai university's faculty and students have resumed their activities for the new academic year, Fullmer added, but they are "hampered by the loss of equipment, especially computers, which they suffered during the raids."
I was standing in line to clear customs at Mehrabad Airport, in the middle of a cold winter night, and was sweating bullets. The reason: My brown suitcase. It was full of books with titles such as "Designing Structures in Earthquake Zones", and "Handbook of Wastewater Treatment". I kept telling myself to calm down, repeating that "I was not doing anything wrong." Well, maybe yes, maybe no! Was it wrong to bring textbooks to give away? Only if they were to be used by Bahais.
How did I get myself into this situation? Why was I bringing textbooks into Iran?
Miraculously in the Autumn of 1993, after so many frustrating attempts, I managed to get my Iranian passport, and more importantly an exit permit. After eighteen years of exile I went home to Iran. The joy of being home, seeing my beloved Alburz mountains, and visiting old friends and relatives was overshadowed by many things that broke my heart. I saw many crippled veterans of the war with Iraq. There was a sadness and indifference that permeated people often making them act with resignation. But nothing saddened me more than meeting Nilufar.
Nilufar was a Bahai in her late twenty's. She had a distracted and sad look in her eyes. Although beautiful she hunched forward as if to avoid the world. What's the matter with her, I asked my cousin, who had introduced me to Nilufar. My cousin explained that Nilufar had been the top student in the School of Dentistry at Tehran University. After the revolution, Nilufar, like all other Bahai students and professors, was kicked out of the university. They were banned from all higher education or government jobs.
Nilufar like many other Bahai students, thought this was a temporary problem. Months turned into years. The level of worry and despair intensified. Nilufar and her younger sister tried to go abroad. They were denied passports, as were almost all other Bahais who applied. In desperation, and against everyone's advice, the two sisters attempted to cross the boarder into Pakistan. On the way there, they were caught, arrested, and imprisoned for several months in Zahedan. The imprisonment broke Nilufar's resolve, hope, and it seemed her spirit as well.
My cousin saw the look of incredulity and disbelief on my face, after listening to her story. She pointedly said, "Nilufar is not the only one, I will introduce you to others." In the following days I met dozens of college-age Bahais, each trying to cope with his or her sense of hopelessness.
The plight of the Bahai students affected me greatly. There were thousands of youth, raised in accordance with the principles of their faith, to believe in the importance of education. They were taught that to develop one's intellectual and spiritual potential, and to become a productive servant of society, is a human being's highest degree of achievement. To be stymied in their quest to fulfill what is their natural right was disheartening and discouraging. In Iran the brain-drain has become a major problem. Yet thousands who consider Iran a sacred country are kept out of the main stream of society.
I visited Iran again four years later. I immediately noticed something was different the second I entered my family's home. The basement room, where I usually stored my bags, was clean, freshly painted and looked very much like a classroom with chairs neatly arranged around the room. Educational posters hung on the walls. My father's workshop looked extraordinarily neat with all the tools set on the benches according to their type and size. The floors were swept and the cutting saws were shining clean. Also, there was a stranger living in my sister's room.
"The classrooms and the workshop are for the Azad (Open) University," my father said, " and the girl living in your sister's room is a first year accounting student from the north of Iran (Shomal)."
"Azad University?" I asked, thinking that my father was pulling my leg.
"Yes, it is a Bahai University."
My father answered with such heartfelt pride and satisfaction, that I immediately knew that he was not joking. The university had about 1,000 students, ten academic departments and a correspondence arrangement with Indiana University in the U.S. I asked about the teachers. My father explained that the classes were taught by Bahai professors and experts of particular fields who had been fired from other universities and government jobs.
In the following days I met with students and professors of Azad University. The joy and pride of all the students for being a part of this incredible experience was uplifting and inspiring. I asked about Nilufar. I was told that her depression had reached such depths that she could not pull herself out to resume her studies again. The university was a labor of love by a beleaguered community. These Bahais refused to lie down and let youth, their most precious asset, wither. The classes were dispersed throughout hundreds of homes. All classes were of a very high academic standard. Minimum grades had to be achieved before moving to the next level and graduation. The first graduates, accountants, engineers, dentists, teachers and technicians had already begun working in the private sector.
So there I was, in Mehrabad, with my suitcase full of books. It was finally my turn to clear customs. The customs officer, with his three-day-old beard, looked tired and impatient. He took my customs declaration form and barked, "What's in the brown suitcase?" With a barely audible voice, and through a dry throat, I stammered, "Books." "BOOKS!" he seemed to shout. "What kind of books?" Other custom officers turned to stare. "Open it," he demanded without waiting for my reply. Now the other officers leaned in my direction trying to see the inside of my suitcase. The sight of the piles of books inside the suitcase startled even me.
One of the other officers left his side and came over to our side of the table. He looked hard at me, his eyes were saying "got you!" With a choking voice I managed to say, "These are academic books." "ACADEMIC BOOKS!" he shouted again. "Who for?" "For the university," I said, already thinking fast about the next likely question and what my reply should be. He said nothing. After he and his colleagues examined each book, my customs officer threw the last one on the pile in the suitcase.
He started to write something angrily on my customs form while shaking his head right and left. I knew I was finished. Was it going to be the Qasr prison or maybe, God forbid, Evin? He handed back my form, and slammed shut my suitcase. "Befarma'id (please move on)." As I clumsily latched the locks with my shaking hands, he turned to me and pointed to the other passengers' luggage. With a conspiratorial tone he leaned towards me and said, "I wish more people would bring books into the country instead of all this junk!"