Escaping persecution

Della Vreeland writes about her family’s struggle to leave Iran for a new life in Australia.

GROWING up in Iran, Aladdin Jamali remembers being actively bullied daily. “Every day without a break, I was bullied and beaten by the teachers and students simply for my beliefs,” he recalls. “There wasn’t a day that went by I wasn’t hurt. There were many nights I remember our neighbours throwing stones at our windows and hurling abuse, and as a child it was very scary.”

Aladdin is a Baha’i – a member of Iran’s largest non-Muslim religion whose adherents have been persecuted since the Faith’s inception in 1844. Baha’is are the followers of Baha’u’llah who they believe brought a divine message to guide humanity towards its spiritual and material maturity and to create a united world society of peace and justice.

Aladdin also happens to be my father. He and his family fled Iran before the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but spent years facing severe persecution at the hands of the government’s regime simply for their beliefs. And while his family withstood much suffering and torment throughout their life, it still wasn’t easy having to flee the country they called home. “I was 19 when I left and saying goodbye to my parents was very hard,” my father recalls.

There was only one way for Baha’is to get out, and that was to get admitted to a foreign university. My father and his siblings were accepted to Dhaka University in Bangladesh and were all able to leave Iran within the span of several weeks.

My mother’s story follows a similar trajectory. For much of her life, her family was discriminated for believing in Baha’u’llah. She was 16 when she left Iran, along with her younger sister, baby brother and her parents. Her family made its way to Spain where they resided for three years before managing to secure visas to Australia.

“I experienced a mixture of feelings when I found out I had to leave,” she recalls. “Uncertainty, anxiety, sadness, fear and excitement, but also a feeling of being unjustly treated, betrayed and abandoned by a place you loved and will always love.” “As a teenager, it was particularly hard to leave friends and the place where I spent my childhood years. It was also hard to leave the society and culture that I was used to and learn new ways of living and new languages to communicate with.”

My parents arrived in Australia in the early 1980s. They met in Melbourne, married, had three children, then moved to Ballarat in 1994 where they have been ever since. Theirs was a union based on the founding principles of the Faith where service towards the betterment of the world was the pivot around which their life revolved.

The story of leaving their homelands is of course a bittersweet one. On the one hand, they know not when they’ll return again. The risk is too high, and Baha’is continue to be persecuted in Iran. Despite the peaceful resilience of the Baha’is in Iran, they are prohibited from practising their Faith freely, they cannot access higher education, their cemeteries are desecrated, they are denied basic human rights, and their businesses are forced to close on a regular basis.

On the other hand, upon arriving in Australia, my parents were free to put the tenets of their Faith into immediate action, learning and working together with like-minded individuals to effect change under the banner of a common humanity.

The Baha’i Faith itself found its way to Australian shores in 1920, when two American Baha’is by the names of Clara and Hyde Dunn brought the teachings of the Faith to the country. Australia’s first Baha’i woman, Effie Baker, was even born in the Central Goldfields and grew up in Ballarat.

This year, when and as conditions allow under the current climate, the Australian Baha’i Community will celebrate its centenary with festivities focusing on building community amongst people of all races, cultures and beliefs. While celebrations will take on a more creative approach due to the COVID-19 crisis, they will still be underpinned by the all-embracing mandate that emanates the spirit of the Faith.

Yet in Iran, the situation for the Baha’i community has not improved since my family fled more than 40 years ago. If anything, it continues to worsen.

“I do hope that in the near future I am able to go and visit places of my childhood memories without having to risk my freedom and peace, which I have been experiencing here in Australia, and where I have called home for nearly 40 years,” my mother affirms with heartfelt appreciation.