Starting in 1979, the Iranian government started with policies of assassinations, kidnapping, theft of businesses and land, and general attacks against the Baha’i. Due to international pressure, the government switched its policies to that of soft persecution: denial of education for the Baha’i and propagation against the Baha’i in state television and schools. All this was an effort to economically strangle the community as well make the community a pariah in the general public.
The Baha’i believe in education not only for its practical benefits but also as a religious duty. These beliefs motivated community leaders to create in 1987, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a secret educational system designed to provide higher education for Baha’is that were not allowed to pursue a degree in an Iranian university. Classes are mainly conducted online with sporadic whole day meetings in discreet locations in people’s homes so as to avoid the surveillance of the Iranian government. The BIHE offers 32 university-level programs across 5 faculties and continues to develop and deliver academic programs in Sciences, Engineering, Business & Management, Humanities, and Social Sciences.
These unique strengths of BIHE, together with the top-ranking marks of its students, have helped BIHE graduates secure graduate studies at close to 79 prestigious universities and colleges in North America, Europe, Australia and Asia (India).
There have been several times that the Iranian government has cracked down on the university arresting its leaders, confiscating computers, documents, and ransacking space used for classes. The most horrific time was in 2009 when dozens of students and faculty were arrested, some of which are still in jail. It is these attacks on the right to education that has caused the international Baha’i community to cry out and create the campaign “Education is Not a Crime.”
Watch Rainn Wilson, a Baha’i, advocating for the BIHE:
Here are some of the stories that we have come in contact with that we have been allowed to share by those involved:
I spoke with Hessam Rahimian, a Baha’i who fled Iran in the late 80s and lives in Arizona. He has a horrific family story – probably one of the families that has been most persecuted by the Iranian regime. His uncle, Rahim, was arrested, tortured and assassinated in 1980 for being a Baha’i. He has two cousins, Kayran and Qamran, who were first students and then teachers in the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. Kayran and his wife and Qamran were arrested in 2009 and are still in jail. Qamran’s wife had died of cancer two weeks before he was arrested. . Kayran has a 5-6 year old boy and Qamran – has a 11 year old girl, both which are being raised by their grandmother in Tehran.
Qamran was in Arizona weeks before his arrest and Hessam had tried to convince him not to go back to Tehran. Qamran said that he had to go back because his life’s purpose was to teach. He writes letters to his extended family as well as to his daughter every once in awhile to let them know that he has no regrets of his decision to return to Iran and to keep strong to the faith and message of the Baha’i.
Meet Badie, a music student at University of Georgia. He enrolled in BIHE and remembers all of the hardships studying while trying to avoid the government. He, like most students, decided to become a volunteer teacher in the university and held classes in his house. He remembers getting some mysterious phone calls from unknown numbers telling him that he would have to stop having classes in his home or else. He also remembers once talking on the phone in his house and hearing his voice in the other room. He began to check where the noise was coming from and he discovered that the government had planted a microphone in one of the vents in his living room to spy on him.
Meet Fares – he’s in his late twenties. He arrived in the US just under a year ago from Iran to start a masters program in Houston, Texas.
He graduated BIHE in 2010. Other than seeing his friends and faculty arrested and having to move classes to different locations to avoid the government, he led a pretty normal life and nothing personally happened to him.
Everything was normal until 2 years ago when one day his father did not return home. He and his mother searched frantically for him. The Iranian authorities and co-workers said they did not know where he was. It was a classic kafka esque faceless bureaucracy. This official said to go to speak to “A” who told them to speak to “B” who told them to speak to “A.” Soon they were to discover that he had been arrested and that he was sentenced to a 5 year term in prison with no trial or bail for being a Bahai activist.
Now Fares was caught in a dilemma. His family had been pushing him to go to the US to further his education since there were no jobs or educational opportunities for Baha’i in Iran. But now he needed to help his family. His mother was on a list to be arrested as well and he had a disabled, immobile brother. After much deliberation and what he described a period of hell, he decided that the best way he could serve his family and his father was to go to the US and further his education.
These personal stories of persecution really exemplify why we’re making our documentary about the oppression of minorities. Stay tuned.