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



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.

#EducationIsNotACrime — a campaign started by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist who was arrested during the 2009 election — is a beacon of hope for us. It believes that, if enough international pressure is put on the Iranian government, the systematic persecution of Baha’is will have to stop. Inspired by the campaign’s goal to utilize public murals as a means of spreading this message, I sketched what would soon become the first #EducationIs- NotACrime mural in Dallas. I remember walking into Trans.Lation, a community center I had heard of before, with my sketch in hand, hoping the organization would provide the paint and canvas necessary to create a mural. I was received with open arms. Carol Zou, the director of the organization at the time, has been instrumental not only in transforming my tiny sketch into a full-blown mural and having it displayed at El Centro Community College, but also in teaching me what it means to be a true ally and stand in solidarity with others. Carol, and most of my friends who helped paint the mural, are in no way impacted by the persecution of Baha’is in Iran. However, they have gladly helped and supported these efforts without hesitation.

Thanks to an article written by D Magazine, the mural gained popularity throughout Dallas. My fellow Baha’i friends and I took this opportunity to organize film screenings and panel discussions about the persecution of Baha’is. At these events, we encouraged more and more people to take pictures with the mural and post them on their social media, letting the Iranian government know that the international community was watching. The panelists were usually Baha’i college students who, while residing in Iran, had attended the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). BIHE is an underground university where classes are held in the homes of Baha’is and are taught by former Baha’i teachers who had lost their jobs as a result of the Revolution. As I was quite familiar with the #EducationIs-NotACrime campaign, I was invited on several panels to speak from a youth perspective. At only 16 years of age, phrases such as “the Islamic regime”, “human rights violation” and “solitary confinement” had become part of my everyday language. Public speaking was the strongest tool I had to educate large numbers of people, who usually knew little of Iran or the Baha’i Faith. That’s why when the International Rescue Committee, the refugee resettlement agency that brought my family to the U.S., asked me to speak at their national fundraiser dinner in New York, I accepted immediately.

However, it is impossible to live in a country for years and not become aware of its internal struggles. Though mainly focused on the persecution of Baha’is in Iran, I was soon faced with the reality of “freedom” in the U.S.: it is an illusion for the majority of the country’s population. The phrase “prison industrial complex” first reached my ears three years ago when I watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (2016) on Netflix. “The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners,” the documentary asserted. I couldn’t believe that a nation supposedly founded on the ideals of freedom and equality would subject 2.3 million of its people, disproportionately Black and Brown, to absolute alienation and dehumanization. When my 10th grade English teacher handed us our research paper assignment, I quickly skimmed the paper looking for “The justice System in America.” Though not one of the topics on the sheet, my teacher allowed me to write about it as long as I cited credible sources. The more I read on police brutality, the so-called “war on drugs,” the privatization of prisons, the astronomical rise in the rate of incarceration, labor inside prisons, and how race played into it all, the more this image of a perfect U.S. was shattered, revealing the ugly reality of its judicial system. Interestingly, when I was just a young girl living in Iran, I dreamed of becoming a police officer. I remember spinning the globe that was sitting on my cousin’s desk while telling her about my plan to leave Iran and pursue this career in the U.S., where female cops don’t have to wear the hijab.

Sitting in our apartment in Dallas, reading about the abuse of power prevalent in the U.S.’ law enforcement, I couldn’t help but laugh at that innocent dream. “I don’t want to contribute to this system,” I thought to myself. But perhaps I was an indirect contributor by knowing the system’s flaws and not speaking up about them. Frankly, I sometimes felt the need to be extra cautious when criticizing the U.S., the country that willingly took my family in as refugees.

When it was time for me to write my high school valedictorian speech in May 2019, I couldn’t help but think of all the kids who deserved this diploma as much as I did. The more I thought about Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, the more my graduation felt like a privilege, and not so much a direct result of my efforts. In the first draft of my speech, I wrote: “While we’re receiving our diplomas tonight and moving on to bigger things, there are students who were robbed of this opportunity.” I continued to list the groups of kids who had been taken their youth and the basic right of education because of police brutality, mass school shootings, religious persecution, poverty, and war. When I submitted the draft for approval, I never expected my principal to call me into his office to convince me to delete the names of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown. I couldn’t understand how those three names comprised the only “political” section of my speech, which then fell outside the valedictorian speech guideline, when the lines before that spoke of mass school shootings, a hot topic that had polarized the country over gun rights in recent months. “You are sending a message to the graduates that if they’re Black in America, they will get shot.” I could not believe it. Did my principal really think the graduates were oblivious to the issue of police brutality? Did he not know this hell of a country his generation left for us had shaped our reality for years? His last attempt at changing my mind happened the day before graduation when he threatened to hold my diploma. At that point, I had made peace with my choice. The same force that had led me to writing a letter to my third grade teacher had once again helped me make a difficult decision. I knew with absolute certainty that I was right, and I also knew the push for the erasure of those names reflected an ugly truth: a relatively sizable group of Americans believe the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown were justifiable.

The evening of my graduation, I expected to leave that auditorium without a diploma. Instead, I walked out with a speech cut short (the provisor ordered the microphone to be cut off) and a myriad of messages asking what had happened. Even now, four months later, the irony of a refugee’s speech being censored and cut short in the U.S. is not lost on me.

I often reflect on the role fear has played in my activism. I remember asking Alaena Hostetter — the journalist who wrote the article about our efforts regarding the #EducationIsNotACrime Campaign in Dallas — to omit my last name from the piece. The possibility of not being able to go back to Iran to visit my relatives became a running fear in my early years as an activist. I have now come to terms with the reality of my situation: I cannot protect myself and at the same time, openly advocate for human rights in Iran. One of the two options has to take precedence, and the obligation I feel as a Baha’i refugee who “made it” will simply not allow me to choose myself.

I have also made peace with my (perhaps strange) position of criticizing the U.S. as a refugee. Many articles, books, and hours of self reflection later, I object to the notion that immigrants have to lose their identities to become American — the idea that immigrants must be absolutely disloyal to their home country, fully grateful to the new one, and completely submissive to its authority. To me, accepting refugees and immigrants is simply the right thing to do when you have abundant resources, which the U.S. does. However, once you accept refugees and immigrants for international praise and with strings attached — when you have to rely on stats and figures of how much immigrants pay in taxes or when you have to point to successful refugees to convince your representatives to value refugee resettlement, as if the lives of immigrants matter only when they’re exceptional — you lose the essence of the act and abase it to a mere transaction. My name is Rooha Haghar, a youth activist and a Baha’i refugee from Iran. I refuse to be a commodity.■