Victims of prejudice settle in Md. Bahai believers seek new life

Because of her faith, Soraya Jamshidi was exiled from th country of her birth and shunned in the country of her ancestry.

Throughout her life as a Bahai, she has suffered persecution for a faith that advocates the oneness of humanity and the abolition of all forms of prejudice.


"I wish in the New Year that everyone could clean prejudice from their hearts and souls," she said. "We must all believe that we are all branches of one tree and the whole world is one country."

Now a U.S. citizen, she lives in Pleasant Valley with her two sisters and a brother.


"Americans don't always realize how many people are persecuted for their religion," she said.

Ms. Jamshidi, 55, was the first member of her family to arrive in 1979 from Iran. After she found a home and a job, as a seamstress for the English American Tailoring Co. in Westminster, she worked tirelessly to get the rest of her family here.

Their arduous journey from Iran to Westminster took six months on camels, buses and planes. With the arrival of her siblings, her dream of freedom from oppression came true. The family recently celebrated its ninth anniversary of togetherness and freedom in this country.

For the Jamshidi family, peace and freedom were hard won.

They have been Bahais for several generations. Because of their faith, their grandparents were forced to leave Iran and settle in Turkmenistan in the former Soviet Union early in this century.

Just before World War II, when Ms. Jamshidi was a child, the family was again uprooted. Her father was jailed in a Soviet prison and tortured. Her mother wrote to Josef V. Stalin pleading for her husband's release and for permission to remain in the country.

"Stalin wrote back to my mother and told us to stay, and that all would be fine," said Ms. Jamshidi, who said the family kept that letter for years.

A few days after the letter, Ms. Jamshidi's mother and the four children were exiled to Iran, a country where none of them had ever lived. Their father was sent to Siberia and they didn't see him for seven years.


In Islamic Iran, Bahais were ostracized. The children grew up in an era when education and jobs were withheld from anyone whose beliefs conflicted with those of the majority of the population, Ms. Jamshidi said.

"Children wouldn't play with us," she said. "People often threw stones at us."

Ms. Jamshidi and her two older sisters attended the American Missionary School. Afandi and Jahan Jamshidi became nurses, while their younger sister trained to be a midwife. They all found ++ hospital positions eventually, but keeping their jobs was difficult. Afandi Jamshidi was twice fired because of her religion. During the Iranian revolution, the government took over the Bahai-run hospital and dismissed the entire staff.

"The Bahais helped each other," she said. "The rent and food was so high, though. Most of us sold household goods to survive."

As the revolution progressed, the persecution of the Bahais increased.

"My boss was killed right in his office," said Afandi Jamshidi.


"When our parents died, we couldn't even mark their graves," said Soraya Jamshidi. About 240 Bahais were martyred and "the persecution continues to this day," she said.

Soraya Jamshidi left Iran in the 1970s to further her medical training in Germany, and she never returned. She came to

Baltimore in

1979 on a tourist visa and applied for religious asylum.

In 1980, at the height of the embassy hostage situation, anti-Iranian sentiment ran high in the United States, she said. Her hopes of finding employment and bringing the rest of her family to this country were placed on hold. It took two years for her to obtain a permanent visa and find a job.

In the United States, she also encountered prejudice: "I was called 'dumb foreigner' and told to go home.


"Bahais are not dumb or different people. We just grew up under another culture."

In the United States, she could not practice midwifery without a nursing degree. "The American Bahais all helped me. A friend [Brenda Rickell] finally helped me find a job in Westminster."

Now, as she sat comfortably at her kitchen table and looked out over the garden, she said she has put all that stress behind her. Her favorite pastime is travel, and she recently attended the World Congress of the Bahai Faith in New York.

"There was so much unity and love at that congress, we felt we were in heaven or, at least, where we want the world to be," said her Bahai friend, Ms. Rickell of Westminster.

Ms. Jamshidi would even like to return to Turkmenistan and Iran one day.

"I would like to see the Russian house where I was born," she said. "I would like to take Brenda to see the holy places in Iran, if there are any left."