Education Under Fire
November 2, 2012 | by Kim North Shine
When Katayoon “Katy” Sabet walks across the U-M campus, going from class to class, mixing with students and professors, immersing herself in the college experience, her thoughts often turn to Iran, her homeland, where school was nothing like here. Not this open, not this free, not this promising.
Sabet’s Iranian university had no campus to cross. Seldom were there students to sit with in a classroom. Only occasionally did she speak face to face with professors—and often only after taking clandestine carpools to unmarked buildings. For Sabet and other Iranians of the Baha’i faith, attending college was a secretive, even dangerous, undertaking.
Unorthodox as the education was, Sabet was grateful for it. She knew, though, that she had to leave Iran. The Islamic-controlled government, which views the Baha’i faith as heretical, has a long history of persecution, including policies denying Baha’is access to higher education and job advancement. For Sabet, this meant working as a pharmacy tech, even though her pharmacy degree qualified her for a more senior position. She also lost a volunteer position she felt was her calling: working with women and children with AIDS. Her boss apologetically said the agency’s mission might be jeopardized because of her Baha’i faith.
“It was a really hard decision to make, to leave. I wanted to stay with my parents. I wanted to stay in my own country,” says Sabet, an LSA junior concentrating in women’s studies and pre-med.
Inside an Underground University
College schooling would have been impossible for Sabet and most Baha’i students if not for the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). It’s a mostly underground university where living rooms and kitchen tables double as classrooms, and volunteer professors in Iran, England, Canada, the United States, and other countries share their knowledge of medicine, science, and more. They do it in person, via Skype, by email, and occasionally in nondescript buildings so they’re not caught.
Some of those teachers are currently serving prison sentences for their roles in BIHE. Many college-educated Baha’is have lost their jobs as intolerance by an Islamic-controlled government has grown in the years since the 1979 revolution.
“It felt like you were doing something illegal, and you just wanted to go to school,” Sabet recalls. “There are people who have devoted their lives to this, to keep the university running, even though they can get arrested.”
Sabet landed in Ann Arbor in 2009 after escaping Iran and waiting in Austria for six months for her refugee status and departure to Michigan to be approved. Her brother, Amir, a Ph.D. student at U-M, arrived in 2003. He had escaped service in the Iranian military, where his faith could have put his life at risk.
Stories of Baha’i students’ struggles to get an education, to be treated fairly, to move on after the executions of their parents, are told in the documentary Education Under Fire. The Baha’i Club at U-M brought the film to campus this past March. Katy Sabet was a presenter. She hopes the film, which also conveys the post-revolution educational efforts of Baha’is, shines a light on human rights abuses.
BIHE formed in 1987 and has weathered two major raids—in 1998 and 2011. In May 2011 several administrators and teachers were arrested. Some are still serving prison sentences, which has bolstered interest in the documentary and strengthened the push to stop what’s been called educational apartheid.
The arrests continue still.
An Equal Education
“I could not have an ID...I could not go to the library,” Sabet says. “Sometimes Muslim friends would take me to school with them and I would say, ‘This is amazing. This is what a college campus looks like,’” she says.
The same feeling comes back as she goes to classes freely in Ann Arbor.
“When I came here I was speechless,” she says. “I would think, ‘Oh my God, this campus! I cannot believe this campus!’”
As excited as she is, it was hard leaving friends and family behind. Sabet’s aunt, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Franklin, Michigan, who left Iran many years ago, has been in the same painful refugee position as Sabet and her brother. Sabet’s parents, however, have chosen to stay in Iran, which is holy land to Baha’is.
They stay even though her father’s cousin has been executed. Other relatives have lost homes. Part of growing up was worrying that her parents, who were supporters of BIHE, would be arrested. It could still happen.
For now, Sabet focuses on the future and discovering what life-changing work she’d like to do, without religion coming into play. And she thinks about the friends and other students who are still in Iran, struggling for an equal education, as she did. Some attend the national university and are among the few non-Muslims accepted, though odds are high that they’ll eventually be asked to leave. Others have opted for BIHE.
“If you were to travel to Iran you could never see what is going on. Some Baha’is may go to university and then they are denied their records, or told to leave, or they’re told their records are lost. For BIHE students, they do not know if they will work in the field they are studying. Professors’ computers are hacked. Some students are driving for hours or days to go to a science lab. Some are being arrested,” she says. “They do not know if they’ll get a job at all. Some of them are leaving. Others are staying and hoping this will all get better. I think it will get better.”