ANACORTES, Wash. — Like many, Diba Samdami has a childhood keepsake dear to her heart.
Rather than a blanket or a stuffed animal, the 26-year-old Anacortes resident’s keepsake is the torn pillow that traveled with her as her mother smuggled her and her sister across the Iranian border into Pakistan.
Both Diba and her mother Fahimeh Alavi practice the Baha’i faith, a religion that originated in Iran, a predominantly Islamic country.
In 1979, the Islamic Revolution intensified persecution of Baha’is, resulting in imprisonment, murder and denial of access to education. Amnesty International reports 202 Baha’is have been killed in Iran since the Islamic Revolution.
A local group called the Baha’is of Skagit Valley has been working to bring awareness to the continued persecution of Baha’is.
In February, the group screened a documentary highlighting the thousands of young Baha’is who are barred from higher education in Iran because of their beliefs.
Such religious persecution served as the catalyst that prompted Fahimeh to flee Iran with her young daughters in 1995. For the past 21 years, Fahimeh has called Anacortes home.
LIFE IN IRAN
Growing up, Fahimeh said she led an average life — she went to school, attended the occasional gathering, came home and had dinner with her family every night.
“One time I complained to my mom that life was boring and she said ‘Sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for,'” Fahimeh said.
That boring life ended in 1979, the year of the revolution in Iran.
Within the first week of the revolution, Fahimeh said she heard of seven Baha’i leaders who had disappeared. Despite the widespread persecution of her faith, Fahimeh said she remained open about her beliefs.
Much of her confidence in the religion stemmed from a process called “independent investigation,” she said.
“You’re not allowed to be a Baha’i until you’ve investigated all the religions that you believe are true or could be true,” Fahimeh said. “It forces you to question everything.”
At 13, Fahimeh began her own independent investigation by attending religious services with her Jewish and Christian neighbors and asking her Muslim peers about their faith.
After two years, Fahimeh followed in her parents’ footsteps and adopted the Baha’i faith. She said she chose it because of its emphasis on equality, human rights and religious tolerance.
Fahimeh said she would watch her parents walking together, her father’s shoulder always just behind her mother’s. Her non-Baha’i friends’ parents were a different story — the husband often walked five steps ahead of the wife.
“These are the things I was watching daily,” Fahimeh said. “For the Baha’i, all the people are the same. No matter what color, what religion, what nationality. These are the main things that, for a 15-year-old, were good enough.”
At the time of the revolution, Fahimeh was teaching nursing at a university in Tehran.
A few months after the revolution began, she said she received a letter saying she was no longer allowed to work. Other members of the Baha’i faith working in public institutions received similar letters.
“The letter said I was an infidel and I was not allowed to touch a patient,” Fahimeh said.
In the middle of one night in June 1979, the Baha’is persecution reached Fahimeh’s doorstep. Soldiers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps burst into her home without warning, turning it upside down within minutes, Fahimeh recalls.
“They took the books, all our family picture albums, all the prayer books, technology, everything,” she said.
The soldiers were looking for “evidence” that the family was spying for the United States or Israel, Fahimeh said. It was a charge commonly used to justify the imprisonment of Baha’is.
“They couldn’t say that because you are a Baha’i I will take you to jail, because that is so obvious and so ugly,” Fahimeh said.
She said she was taken to prison, where she was confined to a closet-sized cell.
“For the first three or four days, they don’t open your cell,” Fahimeh said. “You have a plastic pitcher with a little bit of water.”
To keep herself occupied, Fahimeh exercised as much as she could in the cell, the width of which allowed her to put one arm out, and the length just barely fit her height.
After a few days, she said the guards began taking her out of her cell for interrogation.
“Interrogation is not easy questions like ‘What is your name?’ and ‘Why do you follow the Baha’i faith?'” Fahimeh said.
Fahimeh said the guards beat her with sharp sticks. Because she was blindfolded, she never knew when a blow was coming.
“The physical torture was not as bad,” Fahimeh said. “You forget after 25 years how bad it felt. But emotional torture, however, was harder, harsher.”
During interrogation sessions, Fahimeh said guards would tell her they had killed one of her friends.
“The day after, when they open the door to take you to get some air you see a blue shirt full of blood and the first thing that comes to mind is that is my friend’s blood, so maybe they really killed him,” Fahimeh said. “Or if you see a rope where somebody was hanged, maybe that was my friend too.”
After three months in prison, a guard opened her door and handed her a piece of paper.
“He said ‘Write that you are not Baha’i and you will go free tomorrow. You can teach at university and life will go back to normal. Or, you can write that you are Baha’i and you will be executed,'” Fahimeh said.
In two short sentences, Fahimeh made her choice.
“I am a Baha’i. Do whatever you want,” she said she told the guard.
For two days, Fahimeh said she wondered what would happen to her.
The next time her cell door opened, the guards told her they were transporting her to another prison. She was there for three months before a guard told her she could go home.
“I don’t know why,” Fahimeh said. “I was the same as my (Baha’i) friends who stayed in prison three years, five years.”
That was how the Iranian justice system was for Baha’is, Diba said. You were either killed or released.
Upon her release, Fahimeh said she felt as if she had been “let out of a small jail and put into a bigger jail.”
Baha’i gatherings were forbidden. Women were required to cover themselves, and soldiers kept watch constantly.
Resigned to making the best of her situation, Fahimeh started working in a private hospital. Soon after, she married and had her two daughters.
But little by little, she said her husband, who was not Baha’i, stopped tolerating her religious practices and eventually stopped letting her leave the house. That’s when she decided to ask for a divorce.
“Imagine a Baha’i woman with two daughters, not sons, which is a big deal, asking for a divorce,” Fahimeh said. “It was a really big no-no in an Islamic country.”
When the day arrived to appear in court for the divorce, Fahimeh’s husband didn’t show up.
“He didn’t want a divorce,” Fahimeh said. “He wanted to make me follow by his rules.”
Desperate, Fahimeh said she bribed a secretary at the court for advice. He said her best chance was to take her daughters — 6-year-old Saba and 3-year-old Diba — and get out of Iran.
“I was not thinking about leaving Iran at all,” Fahimeh said. “I love my country. I love community. I love my family.”
With her daughters’ futures in mind, Fahimeh said she hatched a plan to get them out of the country and join her siblings in the U.S.
JOURNEY TO A NEW LIFE
Fahimeh said her plan started with hiring a smuggler to sneak her and her daughters across the border into Pakistan.
When the family crossed the border into Pakistan, they had no money and few possessions. They carried only Diba’s pillow, Saba’s backpack, a bedsheet, a small doll and three toothbrushes.
Fahimeh and her daughters were taken in by another family, who shared their cramped concrete room until Fahimeh’s sisters were able to wire her money.
“We had a comfortable life in Iran with a big house,” Fahimeh said. “Refrigerator, bed, a normal life. We came to Pakistan in a cement room with a pillow, a backpack, a sheet. But I opened my eyes in the night and thought, ‘I feel reborn.'”
Fahimeh and her daughters spent the next five months applying for refugee status from the United Nations in an effort to join Fahimeh’s siblings in Washington.
Once they received refugee status, Fahimeh took her daughters to Vienna where they lived as they arranged to get to the U.S. To earn money, Fahimeh picked up a job ironing sheets at night, working until 5 a.m.
“My mom is the true definition of a hustler,” Diba said with a laugh.
After nine months, Fahimeh and her daughters left to join her sister and brother-in-law in Anacortes.
Twenty-one years later, Fahimeh still lives in Anacortes and works as a lab technician in Mount Vernon.
“People here are very kind and less prejudiced than anywhere else,” Fahimeh said.
She said the community took her and her daughters in.
“Everyone knew us and our story,” Diba said. “We were the foreigners of the bunch and it was kind of fun.”
Fahimeh’s two daughters went through elementary, middle and high school in Anacortes. Despite being the only Middle Eastern girl in school, Diba said she never felt ostracized.
“I went to elementary school with these people so they’ve known me since I was little,” Diba said. “You can’t just wake up one day and decide you don’t like me because I’m brown.”
After conducting her own independent investigation in high school, Diba joined her mother in practicing the Baha’i faith. When she went to Western Washington University, she said most people assumed she was Muslim.
“It doesn’t bother me when people think I’m Muslim,” She said. “If you want to think I’m Christian, great. If you want to think I’m Jewish, fine. If you want to think I’m Muslim, OK. As a Baha’i, I don’t think any of them are bad.”
Both Diba and Saba earned undergraduate degrees from Western, and are now pursuing postbaccalaureate degrees. In Iran, Baha’i aren’t permitted to go to college and can be imprisoned if caught pursuing higher education, Diba said.
As she raised her daughters in the U.S., Fahimeh said she made certain they stayed in touch with their roots, encouraging them to embrace the good culture of the West while not forgetting the good culture of the East.
“I want them to appreciate every single minute of living in the U.S.,” Fahimeh said. “The U.S. is not a paradise. It is not a heaven, but to compare with the rest of the world — to compare with my homeland that I love — here is paradise.”
Information from: Skagit Valley Herald, http://www.skagitvalleyherald.com