AUBURN — Parivash Rohani left Iran in 1979 after people who branded her family infidels burned down their house. Her parents thought it safest to send her away. The 19-year-old could study in India and come back in six months when things cooled down.
They never did.
“I had so many friends, when I left they were hung, they were put in prison,” said Rohani, wiping her eyes.
Eventually she married, moved to the states and built a life here. Now, with her mom sick, she’s feeling the pull.
After 35 years, it’s time to go back.
She leaves for Iran on Friday.
Her children worry. Friends of every faith have said they’re praying for her.
“I’m afraid if something happened, I wouldn’t be able to see (my mother), I would feel terrible,” said Rohani, 54. “Just taking a risk of going, at this point of my life, I think I’m more brave to take it.
“I just leave it in God’s hands, really,” she said.
Rohani grew up in northern Iran, in a climate not unlike Maine’s, with two brothers, her mother and a father in the Army. In 1979, during the Iranian revolution, tensions grew between the Muslim majority and members of the Baha’i faith, a religion that traces back to the 1800s with central tenets such as: “All humanity is one family,” and, “There is one God.”
An edict came down that Baha’is could no longer seek higher education.
“Since the inception of our faith, we have been persecuted,” Rohani said. “We are considered infidels and unclean.”
She and two cousins traveled to India with student visas, looking to find a college that would take them. When they found a local university in Kerala, Rohani chose to study economics only because she had to study something.
“I have gone through a lot in my life but nothing compared to when you can’t root anywhere,” she said. “After three years, ‘My god, why are we still here?’ The country wasn’t to the point we could go back.”
She met her husband, Nasser, a fellow Baha’i from Iran, in India. In 1986, they were given immigrant visas as refugees and a choice: the U.S. or Australia. She had an uncle in California, so America it was.
They were pointed toward Maine by friends and moved to Auburn 26 years ago.
“For me, it was like coming home, the best memories I have of my country,” Rohani said. “When I came to the U.S., I knew this is my new home. As long as I worked for my livelihood and didn’t do any harm, I was treated equally. I was born again in the U.S.”
While her life moved on, her parents stayed in Iran.
Back in 1979, they had to keep paying a mortgage on the home that burned down. An elderly grandfather lived with them. Her father’s Army pension was cut because he was Baha’i.
“My parents didn’t have the money for all of us to leave the country,” she said. “It froze them to plan anything.”
Rohani’s parents have visited the U.S. twice, but it’s been 10 years since the last trip. They’re both in their 80s and she’s heard through her brother that their mother isn’t well. Her mother won’t complain to her directly; she doesn’t want her only daughter to worry.
“If she’s in bed, I know she must be really bad,” Rohani said.
She and Nasser have four children, ages 29 to 17, the youngest a senior at Edward Little High School.
“They don’t want me to go; they are afraid,” she said. “I told them if something happened, you all become activists; go to politicians, write letters.”
Nasser has been very supportive, Rohani said. He wasn’t able to visit his own sick father, who lived in Canada at the time, before he died, so maybe he can relate or maybe he doesn’t tell her how worried he is.
“My worries are more emotional worries,” Rohani said.
Iran won’t be the same. Her older relatives have died. Her peers have scattered. Landmarks have come down.
“Culture in Iran has changed tremendously,” she said. “Unemployment, prostitution, all of these things I never remember.”
It took a few months to arrange the paperwork for her visit. She’s hoping to stay for a few months but is keeping her plans flexible.
Rohani, a nurse, has Googled the best ways to wear a veil and has been practicing with a hijab to cover her head, another change in the new-to-her Iran.
She believes the experience likely won’t sink in until she returns, but just the planning has reminded her that home is here now.
“It’s very touching, the whole community of people that know me, ‘Parivash, you’re going to Iran, do you want us to put you on our prayer list?'” she said. “Who would refuse that?”
Travel and Iran
* The U.S. Department of State issued a travel warning for Iran back in November for American citizens.
Due to tensions between the two countries — the U.S. and Iran only recently reached a temporary deal on nuclear arms production and lifting sanctions — the travel notice warns that U.S. citizens may be subject to detention or arrest and that Iranian-Americans have been held up from leaving the country “in some cases for several months.”
“U.S. citizens of Iranian origin should consider the risk of being targeted by authorities before planning travel to Iran,” the bulletin says.
It also warns against religious tolerance: “The Iranian government continues to repress some minority religious and ethnic groups, including Christians, Baha’i, Arabs, Kurds, Azeris and others.”
* According to Bahai.org, more than 200 Baha’i have been killed in Iran because of their faith since 1979 and “hundreds more have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands have been deprived of jobs, pensions, businesses and educational opportunities.”