Students of Bahá’í religion banned from pursuing higher education in Iran still find ways to learn

Students of Bahá’í religion banned from pursuing higher education in Iran still find ways to learn
From left, Raham Khodadadadeh, Larry Peifer and Mona Mahmoudi at a recent screening of the documentary “To Light a Candle,” at the Vista Library. The documentary tells of the religious persecution and blocking access to higher education of people of the Bahá’í religion in Iran. Photo by Tony Cagala

VISTA — Just six months ago Raham Khodadadadeh arrived in the U.S., leaving Iran, the country he was born and raised in. Some two months ago, he was enrolled at MiraCosta College — all in the name of pursuing his higher education.

In Iran, Khodadadadeh, 34, was banned from receiving any access to higher education. That’s because he’s of the Bahá’í faith, a religious minority in Iran, which has been subject to religious persecution, including not being able to study in any of Iran’s colleges and universities.

“It’s impossible,” he said of receiving higher education as a member of the Bahá’í religion in Iran.

Though Khodadadadeh is not without higher education under his belt.

Where the Iranian government was blocking access to college, people of the Bahá’í faith were finding their own way to achieve access to higher learning.

Khodadadadeh is one student of many that have “graduated” from the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), of which his father was one of the founders.

BIHE began as a sort of underground university founded entirely by volunteers more than 20 years ago, to provide Bahá’ís a chance to pursue their higher education.

From makeshift classrooms in people’s homes when it began in 1987, BIHE has now shifted more to the Internet with online courses taught at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels from volunteering professors around the world.

Though it’s not an accredited university, the students that do complete the coursework, which is recognized by more than 100 universities and colleges, receive a certificate.

Larry Peifer has been a faculty member of BIHE since 2009.

Despite being suppressed, Peifer said the students in Iran are so jovial and motivated.

“I’ve taught at universities here, the difference is like night and day,” Peifer said. “The motivation to learn is very high.”

Students in Iran don’t pay for the courses, but they do have to qualify, Peifer said. They have to take an entrance exam and an English proficiency exam because all of the courses are taught in English.

He said Iran’s government is aware of the online university and that sometimes things get blocked, but overall, he’s found that the students will find a way to get access.

The persecution of the Bahá’ís is the subject of a new documentary, “To Light a Candle,” from journalist Maziar Bahari. Bahari, who was also imprisoned in Iran in 2009 without any charges filed against him, was the subject of the feature film “Rosewater.”

Mona Mahmoudi also grew up in Iran. She came to the U.S. in 1970 where she would earn her bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in mathematics. She had the plan of going back to Iran to really be a “shaker and mover” of things, she said.

But things had changed significantly in Iran with the 1979 revolution. Both of her parents had been executed for being associated with the Bahá’í faith.

Mahmoudi, who now lives in Carlsbad, was featured in the documentary. She said the number of Bahá’ís in Iran is unknown, because while a lot have left the country, there are people that are converting to the faith, but don’t say anything for their safety.

“In Iran you can never be sure. There is risk possible,” Khodadadadeh said. He continues to teach Sociology online with BIHE while undertaking his own courses here.

He described his experiences teaching students still in Iran as difficult, but also meaningful, powerful, and illuminating. “Because there are people who are very eager to learn and they have no other opportunities.”

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