Bahá'í woman recounts the terror of persecution
By BERTA DELGADO / The Dallas Morning News
Back when she was imprisoned with the other 10 women, when she knew that they could all be killed in that Iranian prison because they wouldn't deny their Bahá'í faith, Olya Roohizadegan knew she would always keep the promise.
If any of us make it out alive, we will tell our story to the whole world, the 10 women had promised one another. Only Mrs. Roohizadegan would live. The other women were hanged. And, for the past 17 years, she has been telling anyone who would listen about those women.
"I have to tell the world," said Mrs. Roohizadegan, now a resident of Sydney, Australia, who recently spoke at the Dallas Bahá'í Center. "I didn't want what happened to me and others to happen to someone else."
So she travels the world with the help of Bahá'í communities, going wherever they will invite her. On this cool January evening, she did what she always does – keeps the memories of her friends fresh as she tells their stories and shares their photographs.
In a country in which nearly the entire population is Muslim, members of the Bahá'í faith are not recognized by the Shiite Muslim government of Iran.
Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, more than 200 Bahá'ís have been killed and many others have been persecuted, according to reports. The Bahá'í faith is Iran's largest minority with a community of about 350,000 people, according to Bahá'í reports.
Many Bahá'ís have lost their jobs and pensions, and have been deprived of educational opportunities. Bahá'í holy places and cemeteries have been vandalized and destroyed. Outcry around the world halted much of the violent persecution within the past 10 years.
That is why Mrs. Roohizadegan continues her crusade speaking and through her recently re-released book, Olya's Story: A Survivor's Dramatic Account of the Persecution of Bahá'ís in Revolutionary Iran (Oneworld Publications, $16.95)
She also doesn't want to forget it herself.
"The memory comes closer and closer to me when I speak of it," she said. "I'm proud of them. The retelling of how much they sacrificed – it's a bitter and sweet memory."
Mrs. Roohizadegan said guards came to the door of her family's home in Shíráz on Nov. 29, 1982, asked her if it was the Roohizadegan residence, asked if she was Mrs. Roohizadegan and asked if she was Bahá'í. She answered "yes" to all three. They took many of the family's possessions, and they took her to prison.
"They put a gun to my head and, as my 3-year-old son cried, 'I want my mommy,' they took me away," she recalled.
They put her in a cell in which she recognized the faces of other Bahá'í women. For months, they would endure taunts and vulgarities and torture. They would repeatedly be pressured psychologically and physically to give up names of other Bahá'ís.
"They would give us one bowl of soup for four of us to eat but with no spoon," Mrs. Roohizadegan said. " 'This is not your home. Eat with your fingers,' they would say."
As she became weak physically, she grew stronger spiritually, she said. "I saw the light in darkness," she said.
Time after time, she and the others refused to deny their faith. Finally, after a trial five months later, she was released, she said, so that authorities could follow her whereabouts and find Bahá'í leaders. Guards taunted her, saying her freedom would not be permanent.
Just more than a week later, a Muslim neighbor called their home and warned them that guards were headed there. The Roohizadegans took their young son (their older sons were away at school in London), and they fled to Pakistan. From there, they made their way to London.
But one night, while in Pakistan, she dreamed about her friends. One of them, Nusrat Yaldá'í, said to her, "Dear Olya. Don't be sad, and don't worry about us. Look at me. I am free like you now, and I've come to see you."
The next day, June 19, 1983, she heard on the radio that 10 Bahá'í women had been executed a day earlier in Shíráz.
On this January evening, Mrs. Roohizadegan speaks to a crowd of some 60 people. They are young, like 18-year-old Amelia Villagomez and 14-year-old Roxana Daneshjou, and older, like Esfandiar Akhtarkhavari and Tahereh Anvari. And it is a crowd with a heart for her, a crowd for whom the story hits close to home because they are of the Bahá'í faith, and because their brothers or sisters or daughters or sons or uncles were persecuted in Iran.
"I was very saddened by her story. Yet I felt I have an obligation now to go out and tell people the principles of unity so their deaths won't be in vain," Roxana said.
Ms. Villagomez feels the same way. Only she has felt that for as long as she can remember.
"My great uncle was martyred around the time I was born, and it's kind of like the spirit has to live on," she said. "My Persian roots have given me a deeper commitment and responsibility to speak for those who were persecuted."
To hear the stories of women – some of whom were her age – makes her realize that so much is taken for granted in America, in the world, she said.
"It just reminds me to really examine, 'What is my calling?'" Ms. Villagomez said.
Mr. Akhtarkhavari and his wife both lost a brother. They wiped at tears as they heard Mrs. Roohizadegan speak. Mrs. Anvari lost her husband, a pharmacist who made it a ministry of working with the poor.
"We went to the prison to meet with him 30 minutes before he was persecuted," said her son, Nayer Anvari, as he recounted his father's last words. "'I'm going to the presence of God tonight. You should be happy and greet each other at the cemetery and don't cry,' he said."
Mr. Anvari said he is glad Mrs. Roohizadegan is still bringing this story to the forefront.
"It is something which belongs to everybody," he said.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FAITH
Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, the Bahá'í faith is not officially recognized by the Iranian government.
The Bahá'í faith started in 1844, when a Persian merchant known as the Bab (which means "gate" in Arabic) proclaimed that his purpose was to prepare humanity for a new messenger. The Bab was executed by Muslim leaders, an event that Bahá'ís observe annually on July 9.
One of the Bab's followers was Mirza Husayn-Ali, who was imprisoned and exiled for his belief that he was the new messenger. He renamed himself Baha'u'llah, which means "glory of God."
Baha'u'llah promoted the equality of the sexes and counseled humankind to make an effort to do away with prejudice. Bahá'ís believe that prejudice is a spiritual disease: It requires a spiritual solution that can come only from God.
In the United States, the Bahá'í faith was spread by a Chicago insurance salesman in 1893 who had learned of the faith in England. Bahá'ís have been in Dallas since the late 1950s.
©Copyright 2002, The Dallas Morning News