The Islamic Republic of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini denied all human rights to a young woman and to her Baha’i community. She was threatened with imprisonment and execution. Today, she is an outspoken cheerleader for her adopted country.
By Marlo Fieldstone | Featured image courtesy of Kristen| Updated April 21, 2020
Fariba (all names changed to protect family members still in Iran) is a charming, elegant 58-year-old Iranian Baha’i woman with an inviting girlish giggle. She is confidently sitting in her spacious and opulent dining room in an exclusive Toronto neighbourhood. Her makeup and hair are subtly arranged, her jewelry understated. It’s her eyes that sparkle with delight and verve.
She is talking about her terrifying escape 36 years ago from persecution and possible death in Iran. Fariba and her Baha’i community were pariahs in Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic and were threatened with unlawful imprisonment because of their Baha’i faith. That horrific period in her life was as far away from her peaceful and safe life in Toronto as the alien and ghostly mountains of the moon.
In April 1984, Fariba illegally fled without a passport from Iran to neighbouring Pakistan. Three outlawed smugglers, who towered above her tiny 5 ft. frame, helped her escape Iran for US$2,500.
She was a skinny, sheltered and frightened 21-year-old who left Tehran alone on a dangerous route at night in a speeding Toyota truck. Her younger brother had left Tehran earlier, and the rest of her family were smuggled out of Iran several months later. The beat-up vehicle sped through the vast empty Lut Desert in the southeastern part of Iran. The desert was one of the hottest and driest places on Earth with no water, no vegetation, and few living things.
On the second night, the smugglers and Fariba walked through the night with two other young Baha’i women refugees through the Makran Mountains, a landscape of treacherous mountain ridges, and a lethal pass to the Pakistani border. The pass was notorious for human trafficking, drug smuggling, and cross-border terrorism.
Why had she fled?
Soon after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Fariba’s father had lost his well-paying job at Iran’s National Radio and Television station. And, as a Baha’i, Fariba was forbidden to attend university or allowed to work. Nor could her family receive life-saving medical treatments.
Without her father’s job, her parents could not afford their grand spacious home. “We were forced to move to a bleak, distant suburb of Tehran,” she says. “Everything disappeared for us – poof.”
After the revolution, some members of Fariba’s Baha’i community “disappeared.” During the first decade of the revolution, more than 200 Baha’is were killed or executed, hundreds more were tortured or imprisoned, and tens of thousands lost jobs, access to education, and other rights – all solely because of their religious belief. An official letter ordered by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, said: “Our agenda is to kill and eliminate all Baha’is.”
The terror of police arrests and killings of Baha’i people created a silent “underground” exodus, which included Fariba (and later the rest of her large family) to Pakistan.
A day after she crossed the perilous border path into Pakistan, Fariba arrived at the United Nations refugee offices in Quetta, a large city near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. A Canadian immigration officer asked her in Farsi what she would do to be eligible to come to Canada.
“Anything,” she said.
“You are good,” the official said. “You can go to Canada.”
It took nine unsettling months for Fariba to finally receive a visa for Canada.
On February 25, 1985, she arrived in Toronto on British Airways as an asylum-seeking refugee sponsored by the Canadian government. She surprisingly found the drive from the airport to be “an empty land.” In Toronto, she says, “no people were walking on the streets, and the trees were bare.”
She had little education, few job skills, and did not speak English. She took ESL classes, and, later, an accounting course at Seneca College. Money was scarce. Fariba supplemented her meagre income by waitressing Saturdays and Sundays.
Three years later, Fariba got married to a fellow Iranian refugee and became a Canadian citizen. She and her husband built a successful luxury kitchen-cabinet business with nearly 100 employees. “Our company was like a family,” she says.
In 2008, however, she “thought the world was ending.”
Her doctors found a big lump on her right breast and told her it was cancer. “I got very sick,” she says. A few months later, her surgeon discovered malignant tumours in both her left and right breast. She has had a full mastectomy and seven surgeries in the past eleven years.
As she recalls those difficult times, Fariba stares at the gentle twilight coming through an imposing picture window in her home. “In Canada, I was able to get free medical care and operations that I couldn’t get back in Iran due to their huge costs,” she says. She feels that she was well looked after by all the doctors and hospital staff.
Enayat, a leading Iranian-Canadian in the Baha’i community, has been a friend of Fariba and her husband for over 15 years. “Fariba is an inspirational person,” he says. “She has had many challenges in her life, such as her illness; yet she shows strength, gratitude, and kindness to others rather than being miserable.”
Fariba is well now and is monitored annually with an MRI scan and a medical check-up. “Life could have been much worse,” she says. “I have (Baha’i) friends whose lives are in danger but can’t leave Iran.”
She has a radiant smile and speaks with the glee of a young schoolgirl: “It is the freedom in Toronto of being able to step out of my house, and not having to cover up my body, my hair, and not having to be fearful of who I meet.” She says that in Iran, “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard could stop me, question me, stick their nose in everybody’s business, and throw me in jail.”
The grim memory of the guards is quickly gone. She recalls that in the early 1990s, she was returning with her husband from her first vacation, a week in Mexico. She becomes joyfully animated when she says that “we were flying over Toronto, and I thought, this is home. I am so glad that I am finally home.”
Marlo Fieldstone, a Toronto freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org