As an African-American, David Brown, a third-year student in Husson University’s criminal justice program, knows what it’s like to experience discrimination. So when he learned in his Farsi class about the persecution of the Iranian Kurds by the government, he wanted to tell the imprisoned activists that he supported their struggle for justice.
“There are people in the world who support you,” he wrote in Farsi in a letter posted on YouTube. “I want to extend the hand of friendship. Although we are thousands of miles apart, it doesn’t matter. You still have a friend.”
Over the past two years, Shahram Firouzian’s course on Persian language and culture has introduced more than 20 students in the criminal justice and business administration programs at Husson not only to the Persian language but also to what it means to live as a minority in a Middle Eastern country, such as Iran, where government policies are not tolerant of any group — ethnic or religious — that does not fall within the confines of the mainstream culture.
Firouzian, a student in mathematics and science education in the master of science in teaching program offered through the Research in Stem Education Center, or RiSE, at the University of Maine, fled Iran in 1997 because of religious persecution. He developed the Farsi course because he believes that when students have the opportunity to learn about people from other cultures, their understanding of those cultures is deepened.
When interviewed, Firouzian said that he thinks this approach is especially important with respect to Iran, a country to which Maine students generally have little and often negative exposure. He hopes that Husson students will not only learn Farsi but also come to appreciate the richness of Persian civilization, whose beginnings can be traced back more than 6,000 years. He says he hopes they will gain some understanding of the struggles of contemporary Iranian people, in particular persecuted minorities such as the Baha’is and the Kurds.
Many of the students who graduate from Husson’s criminal justice program hope to find jobs in the police force or in government agencies. Their intention is to serve their country in regions such as the Middle East. When they entered the program, many of Firouzian’s students understood that a knowledge of languages such as Farsi and an understanding of Middle Eastern culture would be important to their future work, but they did not know how passionately they would come to feel about the challenges faced by the people of the region.
Two other students in the course were moved to send statements of support and encouragement to Iranian Baha’is who have been persecuted and imprisoned because of their faith. Chris Venoitte, for example, wrote in a letter posted on YouTube: “Higher education should be a right for all people; the government should not be able to determine who can attend university or not based on their faith. … Stand strong and do not stop fighting for what is rightfully yours.”
Matt Morrill wrote in his posting that the suffering Baha’is have not only his support but also that of many Americans who are aware of the discrimination against the Baha’is. “I want you to know,” he ended his posting, “that even though we are thousands of miles away, there are people here who support you.”
Regarding the current unrest in Muslim countries in response to the recent film depicting the life of Mohammed, Firouzian says that he thinks it is important for us, as Americans, to understand the sensitivity of people in the region to the way in which their beliefs and practices are portrayed by others.
Firouzian said he was surprised by the deep connection his students felt with persecuted minorities on the other side of the world, minorities whose experience was so different from their own. For him, their response signals hope that grassroots’ educational endeavors can be not only the means of extending the hand of friendship to persecuted minorities but also a way of eliminating cultural barriers that stand in the way to a more peaceful world.
Sandra Lynn Hutchison is the author of a book of poetry, “The Art of Nesting,” and a memoir about living in China during the Tiananmen uprising, “Chinese Brushstrokes.” She writes a column for InCulture Parent and teaches English and Maine studies at the University of Maine.