As part of an effort to raise awareness about the oppression and the unfair treatment of students of the Bahá’i faith in Iran, the University’s Bahá’i Club is hoping to educate campus about the struggle of certain Iranian youth in obtaining a quality education.
Rackham student Basir Van de Fliert, the club’s secretary and treasurer, said the group’s goal is to promote awareness about Bahá’i students in Iran who are persecuted for their faith and are prohibited from attending universities in the country. He said Bahá’i followers have had to develop other ways for students to obtain an education — such as creating the Bahá’i Institute for Higher Education in Iran — but these methods have not always been successful.
“Some days the government would come and raid the facilities where they had some equipment or books or things like that … more recently they’ve really cracked down on it and shut it down,” Van de Fliert said.
He added that the University could support the Bahá’i students by accepting their transfer credits from the BIHE toward a University degree.
“I know the Harvard Graduate School of Education actually said that they would … accept (BIHE credit) …. to complete degrees for Harvard Graduate School of Education,” he said. “So I don’t know if that’s going to happen here, but clearly that could be an outcome of such a thing.”
The president of the club, a Rackham student who requested anonymity due to concerns of persecution upon return to Iran, said aside from raising awareness, the club would like to serve as a catalyst for further action. She noted that at the University, James Wooliscroft, Medical School dean, has helped the effort by teaming with other deans around the country to draft a letter to the United Nations and Iranian government against the unfair treatment to Bahá’I students.
“We are hoping that maybe we can approach different deans of the University as well and ask them to do a similar thing,” she said.
Van de Fliert emphasized that the club does not intend to put down or criticize the Iranian government.
“The Bahá’i faith teaches that we are well wishers of all people and all governments,” he said. “Basically what we are trying to do is just to bring to attention the situation of the Bahá’i students in Iran and then hope that this will come to the attention of the officials in the Iranian government to have them open a way for students … to enter university in Iran without fear of oppression.”
An LSA junior who also requested anonymity due to safety concerns said she came to the United States in 2009 to escape persecution in Iran. She was studying pharmaceutical science at the BIHE, but had to leave after her professors were arrested and the school buildings were shut down.
The LSA junior said professors transformed their homes into labs to help the students learn chemistry and other physical sciences after the government shut down its facilities BIHE’s 2008.
“They didn’t want you to know where the lab was actually located and nobody had the address,” she said. “(My professor) said ‘I will pick you up from this street, the others from another street, and I will take you all to the lab.’ We were just going to a general chemistry lab — nothing illegal — but it felt so illegal.”
Though the Bahá’i students and faculty have been dealing with government opposition since opening the BIHE, they continue to try to find ways to study and learn.
The LSA junior said the BIHE still operates by allowing students to take classes online and meet once per semester in Tehran. She added that many of the students travel to other countries such as the United States, England and Canada to earn their degrees, and then return to Iran to teach other students of their faith.
“It’s been around five months (since) they arrested the main professors of the university … including the president and the deans also,” she said. “Some of them are even graduates of MIT and Stanford … that were back there teaching their fellow citizens, but they were arrested just because they are teaching in that school.”
The LSA junior said the Iranian government does allow a few students from the faith to matriculate into the country’s universities in order to create the impression that the Bahá’i students are welcomed.
“There are definitely less than 50 Bahá’i students who are actually enrolled in university,” she said. “After a few years, the government will ask them to leave.”
LSA freshman Arya Ahmady said Americans are lucky for their vast freedoms and liberties.
“You know sometimes we dread or complain about classes and stuff here when in reality people halfway across the world only wish to have the opportunities that we have,” he said.
The club plans to hold an event on March 27 to raise awareness about the issue, which will feature a documentary screening and a panel and interactive discussion about the Bahá’i faith and the discriminatory treatment its followers receive in Iran.
This article has been updated to provide anonymity to sources.