Despite persecution, Bahai keeps the faith
By CANDY HATCHER SEATTLE
SAMMAMISH -- It's hard to understand, in this country founded on religious freedom, what it means to be persecuted because of religious beliefs.
It's hard to imagine, in this place where Christians and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus worship without criticism, that a woman could lose her house, her business, her identity with a country for simply standing up for her faith.
I'm not referring to Germany, Russia or Afghanistan, where we are agonizingly familiar with the stories of persecution and death.
Shidmehr Amirkia is a Bahai from Iran. That she is here now -- talking freely about her faith, holding her grandchild, smiling and cooing at him in a language I don't understand -- is a wondrous blessing and lesson for all of us.
More than 20 years have passed since Shidmehr, known as Sherri, fled Iran. She had a good life there before the turmoil, before the government began persecuting those who weren't Muslims.
She was a jewelry maker and floral designer, a wife, a mother of three daughters. Most important, at least to the government, she was a member of the Bahai community, which believes in working toward universal peace, elimination of prejudice, harmony between religion and science, equality of the sexes.
The government didn't approve of the religion. In 1979, Iranian authorities came to her house to see if her family was "doing business with satanic America," Sherri said. She was home with her husband, a mining engineer; her father; and her three girls, ages 17, 16 and 11.
The girls were told to sit in a corner. A teenager pointed a machine gun at them.
The search lasted seven hours. The guards looked in the fireplace, opened the piano and knocked on all the walls. They said they were looking for drugs, alcohol, gold, cash and guns. The family said they had none of that there. "We are Bahais; we don't drink or possess weapons."
They determined Sherri's husband had "done business with Satan America" by importing and exporting, and that they would come for him the next day.
He fled Iran that night with one suitcase. The daughters flew back to school in Italy.
Sherri stayed behind, with her father and sister, to help other Bahais who were being persecuted.
She was sharing food and medicine rations, doing her husband's job, taking care of the house and her businesses. And then the borders closed, and she was locked in.
She watched Iranian soldiers stand people against a wall and shoot them, then throw the bodies in a truck and hose blood off the pavement.
She was forced to wear a veil.
The only way out? If she promised to bring her youngest daughter back to serve in the Iranian army.
When she left, in January, it was bitter cold. She carried a suitcase and wore her warmest coat, a fur.
"You are not allowed to take worthwhile things out of the country," she said she was told.
"I left the coat and took the plane."
Her sister never got out. Shidroukh, a pianist and floral designer, was hosting a Bahai assembly meeting when authorities burst into her house in October 1981. Shidroukh and the others were arrested, taken to prison, tortured for several months and ordered to renounce their faith.
In January 1982, after Shidroukh refused to give up her beliefs, she was killed.
Sherri learned this later, after she had flown to Rome to be reunited with her family.
They moved to Vancouver, B.C., where they lived for 18 years. "I had no job; I couldn't speak English," Sherri said. She recalled being depressed for a long time -- until she realized: "If I stop everything and cry, they win."
She started a new life there with a catering and flower-arrangement business. She opened a rug store. She worked every day of the week, and began learning English.
And now she is a Washingtonian, here because her youngest daughter, Mona, married and settled here. She arranges flowers and, with Mona, sells Persian rugs and carpet.
She keeps a book with a drawing of her sister and 214 other Bahais who were killed between 1979 and 1992.
"They killed more than 200 of my friends."
The lesson, she said, isn't vengeance or war. It's about the need for peace.
"People should appreciate life and strive for peace and unity," she said. "Try to know everybody and love each other. Life is short."
And if Sherri can say that, after losing her sister and her livelihood, who are we to disagree?
©Copyright 2003, Seattle Post Intelligencer (WA, USA)