“I grew up in Iran and lived there for 27 years. My sister and I left in 2010. We went to Turkey and made an application to enter the United States. I am Baha’i and Iranians don’t recognize us or give us basic human rights. They arrest people us and don’t let us go to the university. I was persecuted all of my life. Some of my family members have moved as refugees or immigrants to the U.S., Canada, or Australia.
I grew up after the revolution and I was like a bird born in a cage. Being a woman and a minority religion, I was called bad names and treated like I was dirty. In school teachers and students treated me like that. I passed the test to get into the university four times, but I was never accepted. Baha’i believes in peace and love and that we should live in harmony, no matter your background and religion. Some of my family members are still in Iran because they believe someone has to stay and try to make it better. My aunt teaches secretly in a private school in her home. If they find out, they will arrest her and send her to jail. My aunt’s husband was arrested for no reason a few days ago. It always feels like someone is watching you. They tap your phone. People have private prayer gatherings at home and the police come in and arrest them and take things from the house. I fear for my family there. Most Americans don’t know what persecution is.
As a woman growing up in Iran, the traditional thinking is that you are no one until you get married and become the wife of someone. I was very independent and at 18 I moved to Tehran and started working. My sister joined me and we needed the approval of our father to do this. As a woman, you can’t leave the country without permission from a father or husband. Women are trying to raise their voice and show who they are, but men dominate the culture. If you wear boots or jackets, you are dressing provocatively to men and have to pay a fee. They can arrest you for wearing a white or colorful shirt. I was arrested for an outfit I wore, but I was just trying to be me. I love to dance and I teach Zumba here, but I couldn’t do that in Iran because it was provocative towards men. Men touch you on the street and it’s not safe. I was sexually abused in the workplace when I was an 18-year-old intern, but I couldn’t report it or do anything about it because they would say it was my fault. It is so hard to grow up in a world like that. Many are also struggling with financial problems. There is no hope or happiness for most of the people.
My sister and I didn’t have a sponsor, so they sent us to Mobile as refugees. The first two years here were hard, but I was used to hitting the wall and fighting for my rights every day. I only had my sister and we didn’t know the language, the culture, or what to do. Catholic services helped us when we arrived. I also had to learn lessons about trusting the wrong people. I went to school through ITT Technical College and used graduated with honors. I used Google translate to get me through.
For a few years here, I was also blocked as an artist because in Iran people told me I wasn’t good enough and I couldn’t have a voice, so I stopped. I started art professionally in Mobile two years ago. Art is an escape, I can go into the studio and do everything behind. Art started again when I brought my book of sketches to work one day and they asked me to do sketches for them. I wanted to become a respected artist and I have a loving husband who supports this. My first street art project is part of the Education Is Not a Crime Movement that started from a documentary about Bahia’s being denied or arrested for education in Iran. They want to change the world one wall at a time. It was my story and I asked the Mobile Arts Council to help me do this in Mobile. Everyone in this world deserves an education. As an artist, I want to do meaningful art. My first solo exhibition will be about international beauty and women from different cultures. It will be about the past, present and future and how we can be connected.
I like to work with the girls at the Strickland Youth Center and show them they have the strength inside. I know what it is like to start from zero and feel hopeless. I am not sad about my past. It is what makes me a fighter and survivor. No one can stop you. Your culture can’t stop you. Sometimes you have to move away to make a change. I was losing myself in Iran, but this is not just me finding myself, it is helping other people find themselves too. We have to show a better way to the next generation. My best voice is art and I want to make people think and open their eyes.”