Originally printed January 12. 2006 in the South Bend Tribune

No need to hide

Refugee family cherishes freedom to be Bahai

Tribune Staff Writer

Ali Akbar Sohrab and Nastaran Saramaghan are expecting company.

The married couple who fled Iran because of religious persecution will host a Nineteen Day Feast in their Mishawaka apartment.

Though they participated in this worshipful gathering of the Bahai Faith in their homeland, this time there's a difference. There is no need to hide. There is no need to fear being watched or harassed.

Sohrab, 38, and Saramaghan, 30, along with their sons Milad, 13, and Mohsen, 7, arrived from Shiraz, Iran -- via Turkey -- last May, as others in their extended family have done before.

With American-born Elizabeth Sohrab, a cousin by marriage, translating her Farsi into English, Saramaghan shares what her family endured as followers of the Bahai Faith in a Muslim country.

"They could only worship in homes, not openly in public," Elizabeth Sohrab translates. "They were not given permission to meet in groups, so they met in homes where it wasn't so obvious.

"They were just very careful and quiet."

Though Saramaghan heard stories of Bahai meetings in the past being broken up and participants taken to jail, recent meetings were left alone if they were held inconspicuously, she says.

Ali Akbar was arrested twice, Saramaghan says. Once he refused to take part in a ritual of self-flagellation. His second arrest occurred when he questioned why he was not being treated fairly at work.

It was difficult for Ali Akbar to find work in Iran, Saramaghan says. If an employer found out he was Bahai, he was fired. A job at a Bahai-owned store would end when that business closed due to lack of customers.

Trying to fix refrigerators out of his home, Sohrab found customers wouldn't hire him or would refuse to pay because of his religious beliefs, she says.

Elizabeth Sohrab says that such treatment is typical since the 1979 revolution in Iran. At that time, Islamic fundamentalists and their supporters overthrew the Shah of Iran.

Saramaghan went through only the eighth grade in school because of harassment there, Saramaghan says. Her hair was pulled; she wasn't allowed a drink of water.

Milad received poor grades because he would not say Muslim prayers in class.

Like his parents before him, he had no hope of obtaining higher education in Iran. Milad now dreams of going to college.

Saying they were leaving for vacation in Turkey in September 2004, the family took with them only what they could carry. They had some savings of their own, but family members also helped out financially. They stayed with other Bahais in Turkey until cleared to come to this country in May.

The boys attend public school. Though Milad, an eighth-grader, learned some English in Iran, this is kindergartner Mohsen's first exposure. Saramaghan attends English as a Second Language courses three times a week and hopes to find a job.

Sohrab tries to pick up English at the jobs he has found.

"She likes being able to feel secure in the fact that her husband will always be able to get a job and not have to worry about that," Elizabeth Sohrab translates, noting that hard work and effort, not his faith, will be the determining factor.

"She said she is really happy that she knows she can tell people she is Bahai and say things about the Bahai faith without worrying about it," Elizabeth Sohrab reports. "And she is happy that her children can do that."

Sohrab and Saramaghan may go back to Iran some day to visit family, but not to live, Saramaghan says.

Prominently displayed in their new home's living room is a picture of Bahai leader Abdu'l-Baha, the son of the faith's founder, Baha'u'llah.

Bahais believe that Baha'u'llah was the world's most recent divine messenger sent from God. Declaring himself as such in 1863, Baha'u'llah taught the oneness of mankind and that the world's religions represent one changeless faith.

The Persian nobleman was exiled from what is now Iran because of his beliefs.

Now, almost 150 years later, followers who left Iran for Mishawaka to worship in peace prepare to do so.