Students risk torture, jail to pursue education
UNM student Flora Kiyan earned a degree in Iran by taking classes in living rooms and basements. She and the other students learning out of these makeshift classrooms knew that if the Iranian government discovered they were pursuing education, they would face torture and imprisonment.
“There was always worry and caution. It was always with us, we had to be careful,” Kiyan said.
When Kiyan came to UNM to pursue a master’s degree, she discovered the degree she earned in Iran, which came from Báha’í Institute of Higher Education, wasn’t going to be recognized by the University.
When Kiyan applied to UNM for a degree in elementary education, UNM accepted only 80 of her 150 BIHE credits. In 2010, however, UNM changed its policy and now no longer accepts any BIHE credits from incoming transfer students.
Gastroenterology Professor Henry Lin said the change came following a decision not to accept credits from a number of national and international universities, based on their academic rigor, and that the change was not directed specifically at BIHE.
Kiyan is a member of the Báha’í faith, a world religion that began in Persia (present-day Iran) more than 160 years ago, and whose teachings include the unity of mankind, the equality of men and women and the need for universal education. Because they face constant persecution from the Iranian government, which excludes Báha’ís from the public education system and prohibits them from pursuing degrees at Iranian universities, Báha’ís in Iran have been forced to earn college degrees in secret.
UNM’s chapter of the Education Under Fire Movement hosts on-campus events promoting the rights of Báha’ís to education and freedom from discrimination.
Lecturers who spoke at the Education Under Fire movement event Monday said since the religion’s founding in the 1800s, Báha’ís have been forced to leave their jobs, give up professional licenses, and have even lost the right to own property.
Several years ago, the Iranian government began to tap all Báha’ís’ phones, check their mail and monitor emails.
In 1987, the Báha’í community took matters into its own hands and established the Báha’í Institute for Higher Education. This informal undergraduate program gives persecuted Báha’í youth a chance to pursue higher education.
Kiyan was denied access to Iran’s universities because of her faith, a fate shared by the 300,000 Báha’ís living in Iran. “Attending BIHE was the only option I had to get an education,” Kiyan said.
Kiyan enrolled in 1998, an infamous year in BIHE history in which the Iranian government organized a raid of the BIHE facility and confiscated computers, copiers, student files and books.
Kiyan said BIHE students and professors had to be cautious for fear of getting caught, which would mean they would be tortured and thrown in jail. When classes were over, the professors asked students to leave in groups of two and to leave every five minutes so as not to attract the neighbors’ attention.
During the lecture Monday, Kiyan discussed the underground educations program.
“People would volunteer their time to be the carriers,” she said. “We would give our homework assignments to the volunteers who would drive them, despite great personal risk, to the professors in Tehran to be graded. Then the carriers drove them back to the students.”
Depending on how far away the students were from the BIHE headquarters in Tehran, Kiyan said it could take up to two months for an assignment to be graded and returned.
“Something that is very precious to me was the resilience, the spirit of service and helpfulness,” Kiyan said. “The professors were doing a service for the students. They were not paid, and they faced the constant threat of arrest and torture at the hands of the government.”
After five and a half years of study, Kiyan graduated with an undergraduate degree in American literature, and spent two years giving back as a BIHE literature teacher.
Five years ago Kiyan and her family were forced to leave Iran after the government prohibited her husband from continuing his business, and Kiyan from studying in graduate school.
Education Under Fire is a movement, sponsored by Amnesty International and the Báha’í Faith, to fight human rights violations in Iran and to encourage U.S. universities to accept BIHE students into their graduate programs. An active member in this movement, Kiyan encourages everyone to sign the EUF petition (found at EducationUnderFire.com) that will be sent to the Iranian government protesting the persecution of the Báha’í people.
“It’s not about me, personally,” Kiyan said. “The efforts put into Education Under Fire come from my passion in helping my fellow Báha’ís, my friends who are in jail in Iran, and the professors who dedicated their time and are now imprisoned.”