By Sandra Schickele
“I can’t tell you to stay or go,” Jamaloddin Khanjani told Parviz Sobhani. “But if you want to go, go. I bless you.”
Davis resident Sobhani, his wife Nahid and their two daughters, Negin and Sadaf, have lived in the United States since 1999. Khanjani has spent the past five years in prison, along with six others who had national leadership roles in the Baha’i Faith in Iran.
They have been convicted of, among other things, “espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic and the establishment of an illegal administration.“ They have been given 20-year terms. Their real crime is being Baha’is.
On Sunday, May 19, the Davis Baha’i community joined with Baha’is across the country and the world to remember the imprisoned seven and the five-year anniversary of their arrest. They gathered at Davis Community Church for prayers and to learn more about the experiences of the former leaders and the Baha’i community of Iran.
On May 14, the date of their arrests, Baha’is across the country called the Washington, D.C., offices of their congressional representatives to ask them to co-sponsor Senate Resolution 75 and House Resolution 109, which condemn the persecution of the Baha’is and “call on the president and secretary of state, in cooperation with responsible nations, to immediately condemn the government of Iran’s continued violation of human rights and demand the immediate release of prisoners held solely on account of their religion.”
A journey to the U.S.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Baha’is have been the focus of a systematic, government-sponsored persecution. This is why the Sobhanis are in Davis.
“When the revolution happened, I was in my third year at the Petroleum University of Technology,” Parviz said.
But Parviz was not allowed to finish his final year. He and other Baha’i students were forced to leave the university. His classmates became engineers and managers. Instead of a prestigious job, he started his own business, first as a carpenter and then as a television technician.
Nahid was in high school, preparing for the university entrance exam. But in the end, it didn’t matter. She was a Baha’i, and she would not be allowed in college. Parviz and Nahid married in 1983. They had two daughters and applied for passports to leave Iran.
“There was no future for our kids,” Nahid said. “They would not get an education. History would repeat itself again and again,” she added, referring to the fact that Baha’is have been subjected to waves of persecution in the country in which the faith was founded in the mid-1800s.
It would be 14 years before their passports were granted.
“One day I came home from school. I opened the door and my mom said ‘guess what happened. We got our passports,’ ” recalls Negin, the oldest daughter. “I didn’t really understand, but I knew this was something we had wanted for a long time.”
The Sobhanis left almost everything behind. They arrived in San Jose as refugees, sponsored by Parviz’s brothers, who came to the United States to study but who did not return after the Iranian revolution.
“That’s what people did,” Parviz said. “They would get a good education and they would come back and get good jobs.”
But Parviz had been admitted to the MIT of Iran. Many of the professors actually came from the Massachusetts university. Classes were taught in English, so Parviz thought he was prepared. Nahid had studied English in high school. Negin had taken private lessons to prepare for the move they had started to believe would never happen. Sadaf did not know any English.
“But I found out the English I knew was not the English people spoke,” Parviz said with a laugh.
Despite this, soon Parviz was working for General Electric. He was having the life he had dreamed about in Iran. But he was forced to experience a part of American life he had not expected.
“I was there for two years working on CT scanners,” he said. “But after 9/11, the stock market plummeted and orders were canceled.”
He was laid off. He had moved to Tracy and bought a house. He needed income, so he took a job doing what he had done in Iran, being a TV technician. Then he got a job with Circuit City, doubling his salary.
“We moved to Tracy when I was a sophomore. My transcript had A’s and B’s and one C. I remember thinking, ‘I have to get all A’s now,’ ” Negin said. “I wanted to go to a four-year college, and my teachers helped me. When I got the acceptance letter (at UC Davis), it was the happiest day of my life.”
On to Davis
But the family had never been to Davis. They visited, and because Parviz could take a new route with Circuit City, the whole family moved. Sadaf attended Davis High School, which she believes gave her important opportunities.
Circuit City went bankrupt and Parviz went back to the beginning. He started a business repairing televisions. He was now an entrepreneur, having a slightly different “American dream.” Negin graduated from UCD and is enrolled in medical school. Parviz never got his engineering degree, but Sadaf is on track to do so. She is a junior at Stanford, majoring in engineering. Nahid, who could not go to college in Iran, graduated from Sacramento State.
They credit their drive for education to their religion.
“Education is very important in the Baha’i Faith. We are told knowledge is important to the progress of the world,” Nahid said. “Without our faith and the purpose it gave us, we would not have gotten through any of this.”
Nahid’s mother, who also now lives in Davis, was married at 14 to a man she had never met. He became a Baha’i and that changed everything. At first she was not happy about it, but she came to believe in the power the Baha’i Faith has to change lives. She was a teenage bride and a teenage mother with no education, but her children have far different lives.
“When I look at my relatives who are not Baha’is, I know what our lives might have been,” Negin said. “We were always told that women have the same rights as men, that we must get a good education, but not just formal education. This is not true for other parts of our family. This is not true for others in Iran. Our religion is based on creating unity and equality for all people.”
They hope the Baha’is in Iran will know the freedom they enjoy. As this anniversary passes, the Iranian Baha’is are in the hearts and minds of Baha’is around the world, but especially those of people like the Sobhanis, who have a strong connection to their suffering.
More information can be found at http://iran.bahai.us. Since the May 14 campaign to seek additional co-sponsors for the House and Senate resolutions, nine additional congressmen and two additional senators have signed on, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
— Sandra Schickele is a Davis resident.