The Elusive, Universal Search for Freedom and Human Rights

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For as long as small boats could sail beyond a horizon, human beings have journeyed past the confines of their native land in search of something new and something better. While material factors such as money and resources have surely been at play, at the most fundamental level, there is a common longing and universal search for dignity, for freedom and for human rights. Migrants and refugees have assumed great risks and made great sacrifices to act on the innate human hope and thirst for tranquility and peace, for safe shelter and economic opportunities, and for the progress of future generations who would – it is hoped – be free of daily oppression. For Baha’is, including myself, a primary reason for leaving Iran over the past fifty years has been this search for freedom from religious persecution. This longing for freedom has been coupled with a core belief in the oneness of humanity and the corollary that one could make a home anywhere on the planet. As a Baha’i child and adolescent growing up in a dusty corner of a small village of Iran, my family was reviled by religious leaders and the citizens who followed their lead. I was an outsider. A desire for a better life and for a good education brought me to America, but here too I was told that while I had a few more privileges than I had in my native land, I had no inherent and safeguarded rights as an immigrant. Like so many others arriving on these shores, I sacrificed and persevered, was tested and became resilient. Within months of my arrival in New York City, it became clear that it was not only immigrants and refugees like myself who were denied tangible opportunities for an equal playing field. It became painfully clear to me even as an outsider new to this country that African Americans were not afforded anywhere near the same opportunities as their white counterparts. My experiences both in Iran and as an immigrant struggling hard to survive the hot and crowded kitchens in New York City gave me a consciousness that was open to appreciate the painful struggle of African Americans against racism and the Jim Crow state. Unlike my capacity to respond to oppression in Iran, here in the US, I met the right people and also had the maturity to channel my frustration into efforts to address the needs of African American youth. With the support and allyship of several good friends, I started to work at Harlem Preparatory School, a college preparatory school in Harlem, New York, that was created in order to help African American youth finish high school and find a path to college. These efforts were tremendously fulfilling for me and allowed me to channel my experiences, many of which had been very painful, into service to others.