Existing as Baha’i in Iran, Fighting as Refugee in the United States

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In this text organized in two parts, Rooha Haghar describes first how her family had to flee religious persecution in Iran and struggle in exile for the Baha’i community. Later on, she recounts how she refused to be a disciplined refugee in the U.S. by speaking up against carceral and police violence.

Article published in The Funambulist 26 (November-December 2019) Kids of the World, Unite! Click here to access the rest of the issue.

I was vocalizing my concerns and demanding change way before the term activist had reached my ears. In Iran, when my third grade teacher continuously raised her voice and threw school supplies at us students, I wrote her a letter voicing my grievance about the way she controlled and disciplined the classroom: “Mrs. teacher, I did not like the way you threw that girl’s pencil case across the room. You are mean and curse at students. Your job is to teach us, not yell at us.”

Perhaps the language and the tone of the letter screamed insolence and disrespect, even in the context of my young age, but I knew I was right. It’s a very dangerous thing, believing with absolute certainty that you are right. Such conviction in one’s judgement and rightfulness can make the most challenging of decisions effortless. This intuitive force, I have come to realize, has informed more of my decisions as an activist than any other factor ever could.

If you had asked me in third grade what I thought my future would look like, I would have never predicted that two years later, my family would leave Iran to embark on an immigration journey. Though familiar with small instances of religious persecution — such as my brother being told not to touch his classmates as Baha’is are inherently dirty or me being told I can’t play my violin in school — I was, at such a young age, incapable of grasping the severe extent of isolation, dehumanization and persecution that the Baha’is of Iran are subjected to on a daily basis. I had never given much thought to the idea that maybe the reason why neither of my parents have college degrees, the reason why my aunts attend clandestine classes held in homes instead of enrolling in a public university, is somehow related to our religion.

When I heard about the Education Is Not A Crime campaign in 2015, I had lived in the United States for three years already. My Persian accent, once thick and obviously present, had slowly disappeared, giving way for the birth of a more americanized Rooha — for better or worse. Now safe from the Iranian regime’s harm, I was searching for answers. How terrible was our situation in Iran to prompt us to leave the only life we knew?

From my parents, I learned the devastating effects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution on the Baha’i community. Several of our distant relatives were killed in the years following 1979, and as the killings slowed down, other forms of persecution continued. By imprisoning Baha’is for teaching and existing, by raiding the homes of Baha’is and confiscating their belongings, by denying Baha’is access to higher education, by banning Baha’is from working in the food industry, by destroying Baha’i cemeteries, by burning Baha’i businesses, the Iranian government has effectively pushed its largest religious minority to the absolute margins of society. The Baha’iexperience in Iran is characterized by fear, because at any moment, your life could be completely altered. That’s exactly what happened to Azita, my father’s cousin, and her husband, Peyman. Soon after they started teaching computer science to Baha’i students–who had the desire to learn but could not enroll in a university, they were arrested and charged with “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group” and “acting against national security.” They were sentenced to four and five years in prison and were forced to serve these sentences simultaneously. Their seven year old son started first grade with neither parent present. While writing this article, Azita was released from prison; her husband still has a year left in detention.