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Fighting for the right to learn

by Alyssa Tremblay January 24, 2012

Tuition might be rising, but Quebec university students should count themselves lucky.

At this moment in Iran, hundreds of young adults are meeting in secret, travelling long distances and crowding in living rooms or kitchens—all for the chance to get a university degree.

These are the students of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, a volunteer-based underground university running out of private residences and the subject of the documentary Education on Fire that had its first Canadian screening at Concordia last Friday evening.

The screening took place in the Hall building as part of a free two-day event organized by Concordia and McGill’s Associations of Bahá’í Students.

“One of the main principles of the Bahá’í  faith is the unification of mankind and the equality of all its peoples,” said Nasim Sharafi, one of Concordia’s Association of Bahá’í Students (CABS) executives. “When we see human rights abuse we really want to take action.”

Co-sponsored by Amnesty International and directed by Jeff Kaufman, the film addresses the persecution Bahá’ís face in Iran as a religious minority, including the denial of access to higher education. The Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education was created as a response to this in 1987.

In May 2011, the homes and facilities that housed the university were raided by Iranian police, destroying photocopiers and equipment and arresting its members. The violence spawned awareness campaigns around the world, including Education Under Fire.

“Even though I was part of the organizing team, I hadn’t seen [the film] myself. It was very powerful, very moving,” said Greg Newing of Concordia’s Association of Bahá’í Students. The documentary has already been screened in schools across the U.S., including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where many administrations have responded to the film by accrediting BIHE degrees at their universities. Newing hopes for the same to happen at Concordia.

“It’s really good when universities accept these degrees,” he said, explaining that it makes it easier for Bahá’ís to find work in other countries. Concordia’s Association of Bahá’í Students, representing Concordia’s small but active Bahá’í community, plans to start a petition asking the university to accept BIHE degrees here as well.

In addition to the documentary screening, a panel on the current human rights situation in Iran was held last Thursday. An audience of just over one hundred people gathered to hear lectures from three speakers: McGill professor and president of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre Payam Akhavan; Concordia history professor and director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies Frank Chalk and Nika Khanjani, a former languages teacher at BIHE.

“Imagine you finish high school and you want to go to university,” Khanjani told the audience, explaining the reality of what attending BIHE is like for Iranian Bahá’ís. “You go to university but there is no name for it, no one has heard of it. You have to keep it a secret from all of your friends.”

A letter from Nobel Peace Prize laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta and a petition asking Iranian officials to end discrimination in Iran were available for people to sign in support at the doors. Both the letter and the petition can be found online at educationunderfire.com.

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