By Duke Omara
In 1984, 19-yearold Tooraj Talebi made a mad dash across the Iranian desert towards Pakistan, enduring sleepless nights, numerous police check points and human traffickers. He didn’t have a final destination in mind.
But he knew he had to get out of Iran, find a place where he could practice his religion without fear of persecution, and where he could finish his education.
Tooraj is a member of the Bahá’í, the largest non-Muslim minority in Iran, and he was in danger of being conscripted into the Iranian army. Because of his faith, he feared that he was also barred from pursuing higher education.
After wandering the world on a journey that took him finally to the United States, Tooraj finally got the education he sought. He and others like him in Chicago and across the country are now trying to extend that dream to others.
“There is a push by the Bahá’í community to educate everyone in the educator community of the United States to try and awaken them to what is happening in Iran. Education is not a crime,” said Tooraj, who lives in Chicago not far from Wilmette, which plays host to one of the world’s eight Bahá’í temples.
Members of the Bahá’í faith say they are barred from pursuing higher education solely because of their religion. Indeed, human rights groups back up their claims. The faith is not officially recognized by the Iranian government and Bahá’ís have been discriminated against and treated as subversives for years, according to the U.S. State Department and human rights groups.
Iran has repeatedly refuted claims that it discriminates against the baha’i.
The Bahá’ís are now pursuing innovative methods of bypassing the Iranian government’s crackdown on their educational goals and are using 21st century technology to do it.
The most prominent effort has been the expansion of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, (BIHE) which was established in 1987 as a correspondence school and now is an online university. Though not accredited, students who complete studies at the school receive a certificate.
Using virtual classrooms and other web resources, BIHE has enabled the community to produce a cadre of scholars. To avoid detection and targeting by the Iranian government, the school has established proxy servers accessible to students from inside the country.
“BIHE is a grassroots endeavor that was established because youth were denied access to higher education. At the moment, it is the only way for Iranian youth who are Baha’i’s to be able to study,” said Diane Ala’i, the community’s United Nations representative in Geneva.
“It is a community enterprise, and involves the contribution of many, inside and outside of Iran, whether professors, administrators or hosts of classes,” she said.
The institute’s success has reignited attention to the plight of the community, which has for years asked the world community to do more to force the Iranian government to extend equal rights to all of its citizens.
“It is this public outcry that is essential particularly because Iran gives a lot of importance to its public image,” said Ala’i.
“Any policy that denies the right to education to an entire segment of the population amounts to collective punishment of that community,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. He lives in New York City, where the organization is based.
More than 20 years after blocking Bahá’ís from its institutions of higher education, the Iranian government has doubled down on its prosecution of the community “by barring or expelling activists and Baha’i students, discriminatorily denying them access to higher education on the grounds of political opinion and religion,” he said
“At the moment there are 11 Baha’i’s who are imprisoned for activities related to the BIHE, some of whom have sentences as long as 10 years, and some who are married couples with small children,” Ala’i the UN representative said.
One of the activists, Azita Rafizadeh, is currently serving a four-year prison term after being convicted by an Iranian court, along with her husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi. The couple were accused of “membership in the illegal and misguided Bahá’í group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute,” according Harana News, a publication of a Iranian human rights group.
The couple, both graduates of BIHE, left behind their six-year old son in order to begin serving their sentences. Azita is being held at the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, say Iranian human rights activists.
A report by the United Nation’s High Commission for Human Rights released earlier this year pointed to a lack of legal protection for the community, which, it said, left them “vulnerable to discrimination and judicial harassment and persecution.”
The US Department of State also joined in the condemnation of these arrests, calling the detainees “prisoners’ of conscience.”
The Iranian government has always insisted the arrests are part of a security crackdown that has nothing to do with religion and that the trials were fair.
In 2010, the New York based-group, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said the moral criteria set by the government “explicitly requires university students to profess belief either in Islam or other recognized religions in the Iranian Constitution” and only those students can gain admission to universities.
Ala’i said this stipulation amounted to state-sponsored crime.
“Many of the youth who are denied access to higher education in Iran have had very high grades in the entrance exam,” she said.
When Toraj Talebi fled Iran, his country was locked in combat with Iraq. Day after day, young men were being bused to the frontlines to replenish his country’s army. The Iran-Iraq War would ultimately become one of the 20th century’s longest conventional wars with massive casualties on both sides.
His choices, he recalls, were dangerously few but clear: stay and fight in a war that went against every fiber of his moral being, or take a perilous journey into unknown lands and places, hoping he would survive and someday be able to go to school.
He decided to flee and after a perilous journey made it to the United States, where he eventually earned a degree from California State University in Northridge. He is now a successful businessman.
It has been 32 years since Tooraj left Iran, and since then, like many Bahá’ís in Chicago, he has made it his mission to ease the transition of refugees settling in the area as they pursue their dreams.
“Nobody should have to go through the same bitter experience I did. I can’t save the whole world but I can help the people around me. My goal is to be a sponsor for people who come here and want to finish their education,” he said.