When Mina Sanaee’s three children were growing up in Toronto, they’d sometimes ask her where her wedding pictures were. At first, answering was simple: she and her husband had married in Iran, left the country in a hurry and didn’t get to bring much with them. Once her children grew older, though, she divulged the full, painful truth.
Their possessions weren’t left behind. They were confiscated by the Iranian government. Ms. Sanaee had been arrested and imprisoned because she was a follower of the Baha’i faith. She and her husband used a smuggler to get them into neighbouring Pakistan because their lives were in danger in Iran, and they came to Canada in 1983.
In the 1980s, thousands of Baha’is such as Ms. Sanaee fled Iran and began new lives in Canada – many brought over through the federal government’s Iranian Baha’i refugee program. These refugees have watched the protests in Iran of the last two months – the biggest since the revolution in 1979 – with a mix of familiarity and horror. But given that this movement, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, has gained broader appeal and international attention than any previous uprisings, many also see hope for lasting political and social change.
Still, the protests present a unique challenge for Baha’is, whose faith emphatically teaches non-violence and non-partisanship. While many feel inspired by the movement, they are also wary of supporting what could evolve into a bloody revolution.
So far, according to the UN, more than 300 protestors have been killed and 14,000 arrested in Iran since Sept. 16. Amid those grim figures, Ms. Sanaee said it’s been moving to see people in Iran – led by young women – fight for the same things Baha’is have been working toward around the world: freedom, unity and equality of genders.
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As far as world religions go, the Baha’i faith is a very young one, founded in 1844 in Iran, but has become the largest non-Muslim religion in the country. In the early days of the revolution, the persecution of minorities – including Baha’is – was violent and dramatic. Many Baha’i leaders were executed or disappeared. In the decade after the Iranian revolution, more than 200 Baha’is were killed.
The year that followed the revolution, as Baha’is in villages outside Tehran lost their jobs and homes, Ms. Sanaee and her husband tried to help them resettle. That put a target on their backs.
In 1982, Ms. Sanaee was arrested and imprisoned in a detention centre. For two weeks she heard imprisoned men crying out in agony as they were tortured. At one point, a guard walked her to an empty swimming pool stained with the blood of prisoners and warned her, “This will be your future if you don’t co-operate.”
She left the country soon after her release, certain she’d never return.
“That’s a terrible feeling that your country, your homeland doesn’t want you,” she recalled last week from her home in Toronto, where she settled in 1983.
In the years after the revolution, Iran’s authoritarian regime has persecuted Baha’is through passport seizures, destruction of Baha’i cemeteries and – most prominently – the denial of access to higher education.
Several demonstrations have happened in Canadian cities over the last two months in solidarity with protestors in Iran, but Ms. Sanaee has sat them out.
“As Baha’is, we don’t call for the overthrowing of the regime,” she said. “A couple of days participating in those movements is not enough. We are doing it as a life project.”
While it’s become clear that those who have taken to the streets in Iran are advancing the principles Baha’is have worked toward for generations, and many feel for the suffering of its citizens, there is an unease in the Baha’i community over how violent the uprising may get, says Geoffrey Cameron, who works for Canada’s Baha’i Office of Public Affairs.
The National Spiritual Assembly in Canada (the faith’s governing body) has advised Baha’is against participating in any initiatives that are explicitly anti-government.
The principle of non-violence has been front of mind for Payam Towfigh as he tunes in daily to news of what’s happening on the ground in Iran – and has been the case since he left the country as a teenager.
He was raised in a Baha’i family and at age 15, he – like all other children raised in the religion – was given the choice to declare his faith and officially register as a Baha’i. Doing so in Tehran in 1982 was risky, though. Friends and family members of Mr. Towfigh were arrested and killed – he even witnessed some shot in front of him.
At 17, he, his brother and sister-in-law escaped to Pakistan and settled as refugees in Winnipeg. Mr. Towfigh has always felt “a mysterious connection” to Iran, its history, its culture. Something about this movement has given him a newfound optimism that one day he might be able to take his Canadian-born children to Iran.
“We’re gonna stand up, and in a way very different than how they deal with us, which is with violence, and hatred,” he said, and show the regime “there is a better way for bringing about change in our communities and even our society.”
On her path to becoming a renowned neurosurgeon in Toronto, Mojgan Hodaie made her way through medical school and residency in Canada, always thinking about the young Baha’i women in Iran who may have had the same career dreams as her but were barred from attending university.
Her family was intact when they escaped Iran, but her parents’ friends lost their lives, and she knew of many who were arrested, whose properties were confiscated.
After they arrived in Canada, the trauma she and her family endured was compartmentalized, Ms. Hodaie says. But reading about the current protests in Iran – and the deadly response to them – has been like picking the scab off a wound.
“Part of watching the news now is revival of that trauma,” she said. So much of what she’s seeing feels familiar, but she’s hopeful that this, unlike other uprisings that have been suffocated by the regime, will be a turning point.
“In our minds, we asked for change for so long and then suddenly, something happens, and the forum becomes the right forum to have your voice heard,” she said.