Thirty-six years ago, sisters Zhila and Parvaneh Mostaghimi, adherents to the Baha’i faith, walked across the Lut Desert to escape imprisonment and, possibly, death at the hands of the Iranian government.
“During the day, our path through the desert was very hot,” Zhila tells the INDY. NASA identifies the salt desert, a World Heritage Site, as the hottest place on Earth. “And at night, it would be very cold. The only thing we were allowed to keep was our clothes that we wore in layers.”
“We were thinking, ‘How were we going to survive?’” Parvaneh says.
The Mostaghimi sisters arrived in Durham in 1991. This year, they celebrate their 30th anniversary as intensive care unit nurses at Duke Hospital. Their parents, younger sister, and brothers all now live in the United States but back home in Iran, Baha’i worshippers are still persecuted.
Nearly 200 years before the Mostaghimis fled, the Baha’i faith—which teaches that humanity’s great religions all come from one common source—was born in Iran.
The faith traces its beginnings to 1844, when a merchant, Sayyed `Alí Muhammad Shírází, who became known as The Báb, preached that he was the bearer of a new revelation from God and taught that God would send humanity a messenger, known as Baha’u’llah.
Among the chief tenets of the faith is the belief that a loving God has been called different names throughout the ages. The Baha’i celebrate equality between men and women, condemn racism, and champion the elimination of extreme wealth and poverty.
Today, there are five million followers from every racial, ethnic, and religious background.
Parvaneh says that before the Iranian monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown in 1979, the ultra-conservative country’s three million Baha’i followers could gather for prayer and Sunday school.
“It was freer, it was okay,” Parvaneh says. “It was not very liberal, but it was all right.”
But the new Islamic Republic and its authoritarian leader, the Grand Ayatollah, targeted Baha’i members with systematic persecution, accusing them of practicing a “perverse sect” of Islam.
The Mostaghimis say that thousands of Baha’is were killed, their homes burned and looted, and the large Baha’i center in their hometown, Shiraz, was confiscated and turned into a government building. The persecution, Zhila says, was a reaction to the Baha’i belief that God will send another messenger. In Islam, Muhammad is the final prophet.
In January, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a statement condemning “the alarming escalation of government measures targeting Baha’is in Iran on the basis of their faith.” These measures include a court ruling in December that it is illegal for Baha’i members to own property in the town of Ivel. Another court banned eight Baha’is from participating in religious gatherings and forcing them to attend five sectarian counselling sessions at the Andisheh Sajjadieh Institute in Bandar Abbas.
In December, the U.S. House, for the 20th time since 1982, passed a bipartisan bill, House Resolution 823, condemning Iran’s state-sponsored persecution of Baha’i citizens, and the country’s continued violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Kathleen Heady is one of around 200 members of the Baha’i faith living in Durham.
She says that the community is mindful of the persecution Baha’i members in Iran are again enduring.
“When you compare [the Baha’i faith] to the major religions, we’re a small religion,” Heady tells the INDY. “So what happens to a few affects all of us.”
Heady says there’s not much the local Baha’i community can do to alleviate the state-sanctioned repression of their fellow worshippers in Iran.
“Anything we may do might put Baha’is there in more danger,” she says.
But some Baha’i members living in the Bull City volunteer to teach college classes to Baha’i students through an online university staffed by instructors from all over the world.
Zhila and Parvaneh were college students when the government forbade Baha’i members to attend school.
“They started coming to houses, knocking on doors and asking about identification,” Zhila recalls.
Baha’is soon realized the government used their identification to determine who was attending religious gatherings at their worship center. Once people were identified as participating in Baha’i services, the revolutionary security forces arrived at their homes and detained them, Zhila says. A pattern developed with the arrest and jailing of Baha’i worshippers.
“They would go to your house at night,” Zhila says. “During the day, they would pretend everything was normal.”
The Mostaghimi family found a temporary solution to help Zhila and Parvaneh avoid the authorities, sending them at night to the home of non-Baha’i relatives.
Each night, guards would arrive at homes and read the names from a list of Baha’i members they had identified.
“They didn’t know who you were, so they would read the list,” Zhila says. “At first, it was the youth[s] they were going after.”
Zhila says several friends told her, “Hey, they called your name in my house,” or, “They were calling your name.”
The sisters’ parents were worried. Their sons were already in America, and their youngest daughter, Fariva, a middle-schooler at the time, was too young for arrest. Zhila remembers when several Baha’i worshippers were arrested.
“They were in jail one year,” she says. “They executed them. The only reason is, you are Baha’i. You don’t have any rights. You are not allowed even to breathe in this country. The air that you breathe is not for you. It is for the Muslims.”
Several months passed and the two sisters continued staying in different relatives’ homes at night. It wasn’t easy for them to leave as the government had confiscated Baha’i members’ passports under the guise of renewing them.
“They took our passports and never gave [them] back to us,” Zhila says.
For nearly two years, the sisters made monthly visits to the passport office but were told their applications were not complete. A guard at the office told Zhila she was wasting her time, she says, because they were not going to return her passport. He told her not to come back.
The persecution continued. Baha’i students were barred from school. Baha’i teachers were fired. Businesses and professional licenses were confiscated. Government workers were dismissed. The sisters’ father lost his job as an accountant. Nurses were let go.
“They never stopped,’’ Zhila says. “[When] we left, there were 200 Baha’is in jail. They had hung 180 Baha’is. The government decided the only way you could get out of jail was to put your house up as collateral. Anything you do, they come and get your house and you go back to jail.”
The government also started pressuring the sisters’ Islamic family members, warning them not to help their Baha’i relatives.
“They start distancing themselves from you,” Zhila says.
Seven years passed.
Finally, the sisters’ father hired people to smuggle them out of Iran.
“You don’t know who they are, but you have to somehow trust them,” Zhila says of the smugglers who helped them flee.
There were no guarantees of safe passage. Baha’i families were sending their children out of the country but the revolutionary guard captured many. Others who left were never heard from again. Baha’i members’ phones were tapped. Those who chose to flee couldn’t tell anyone they were leaving.
“Even my grandmother,” Zhila says. “The day that I was leaving, I went to visit her to say goodbye. I told her I was taking a trip to the capital city.”
In March 1985, Zhila and Parvaneh started their trek north on a flight to Tehran. They then caught another flight south to Zahedan, about 41 miles from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. A truck driver met them at the airport and drove them to the hilly desert that they traversed on foot with hardly any food or water. They walked for almost 40 hours, Zhila recalls, before another truck driver picked them up and trailed two motorcyclists tasked with ensuring the route was clear.
The sisters arrived at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border near the city of Quetta. Before crossing the border, the driver instructed the sisters to pretend they were a family arriving in the country for a wedding.
“The driver told us to pretend we were asleep, and cover our faces with our chadors,” Zhila says. “He told us if the guards see ladies, then they would not interfere with us.”
The sisters were uneasy.
“We didn’t know what was in front of us,’’ Parvaneh says. “We didn’t know if it was going to be worse or better.”
The guard and driver exchanged words in Urdu.
“We got through. He let us pass,” Zhila says.
The sisters spent the night at a hotel. Once in the room, Zhila called her parents and spoke six words.
“Mom, I’m okay. Dad, I’m safe,” she told them.
“I felt a sense of freedom,” Parvaneh says. “But we didn’t know what to expect.”
It turns out, they weren’t completely safe.
Zhila heard “familiar voices” in the hotel lobby, someone speaking Farsi, their native language.
“You better leave this city,” a man, who was Baha’i, told them. “You need to get out of this city as soon as you can. If they catch you, they will send you back.”
The man told them to go to the United Nations office. There, they received identification and, two days later, the sisters flew to Islamabad. Their brothers, including one studying for a PhD at Virginia Tech University, agreed to sponsor them.
Nearly two more years would pass before the sisters arrived in Blacksburg, Virginia.
“The Lutheran Church introduced us to U.S. culture,” Zhila says, including registering them for classes in English, math, and science.
The sisters both earned nursing degrees. Parvaneh interned at Duke Hospital, where she appreciated the research opportunities and thought she could advance. She decided to stay in Durham, and asked Zhila, who was working at a community hospital in Virginia, to join her.
The sisters quickly found the local Baha’i community and attended worship services and activities at the Durham Baha’i Center on Revere Road, or at one another’s homes.
Over the years, Zhila and Parvarneh volunteered following high-profile disasters, across the United States and abroad, including after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 with a team from Duke Hospital at Port-au-Prince; Hurricane Katrina in 2005; Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and at local homeless shelters once a month.
The Mostaghimi sisters remain unmarried but, they say, not unfulfilled, as they are surrounded by family while freely following Baha’i principles.
“We have dedicated our life to work and service,” Parvaneh says.
Service to the community is just another tenet of the Baha’i faith.
Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.