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When Homework Is a Matter of Life and Death

My Parents Fled Iran Because They Were Forbidden From Getting an Education There. I’ve Spent Over One-Third of My Life on a University Campus.

By Roxana Daneshjou
March 6, 2015

The first hint of sunlight glows off the horizon as I rush toward Stanford Hospital from the parking garage, white coat in hand, stethoscope bouncing against my chest. Every few steps, the diaphragm of my stethoscope ricochets off the silver pendant my mother gave me—a nine-pointed star etched with a symbol of my Bahá’í faith. My mother escaped Iran at 17 as the country was on the cusp of revolution—a revolution that would create a society where, to this day, Bahá’ís like myself are barred from obtaining a university education. But here, in the United States, I’ve spent more than a third of my life on a university campus.

The Bahá’í faith was founded in 19th century Persia, and is now the largest non-Islamic minority religion in Iran. Persecution of our religion has helped it expand around the world—my own family’s escape to the United States in 1979 guaranteed that I would be born to the freedom and opportunities denied to Bahá’ís back home.

Back in Iran, the state bans Bahá’ís from studying at universities as just one of many different forms of persecution, which has included desecration of cemeteries, confiscation of property, and wrongful imprisonment. However, because education is such a fundamental principal of our faith, Bahá’í students there have to learn in secret—usually through the Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), whose volunteers quietly teach classes in homes or via online portals. The threat of arrest is constant; the government recently imprisoned both BIHE students and professors, some at the notorious Evin Prison, which has held many prisoners of conscience. I, on the other hand, had the freedom to receive a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from Rice University and am now in an M.D.-Ph.D. program at Stanford University, filling my brain with pathophysiology and methods of statistical analysis, which I hope to use to serve the community.

Sometimes I find the sheer volume of learning to be overwhelming, but then I take a deep breath and remind myself how fortunate I am to be able to acquire knowledge freely. Inside the hospital, it’s all bustle. I’m greeted by beeping pagers, an antiquity forgotten by the rest of the outside world, as I make my way to my morning clinic. As soon as I arrive, I glue myself to the computer and begin mentally dissecting patient charts. My first appointment of the day is a lovely woman with type 2 diabetes who is just beginning to get her blood sugar under control. Between patients, I pore over the medical literature, making sure I understand each patient’s problems.

In my afternoon clinic, one of the residents excitedly approaches me. “You speak Farsi, right?” I nod. “I have a patient who would be really happy to meet you.” She gives me the room number, and I walk gingerly toward the room, already feeling self-conscious about my accent. I walk in and greet Mrs. H. in Farsi; her face instantly glows with a smile. I ask about the course of her cancer, how she’s feeling, and if she has any questions. She tells me she’s doing well and that the therapy has put her in remission. Then, she asks me where my parents live (Dallas), whether I’m married (I have been for three years, to a fellow Bahá’í I met at Stanford), and if I cook Persian food (I wish). At the end, she tells me how proud she is to see a young Iranian woman becoming a physician.

That evening, as I enter my house, I’m surprised to hear voices coming from my living room. But then I remember that my husband, a volunteer BIHE professor of engineering, was scheduled to give a lecture. I peek into the living room where he is lecturing into his laptop on how circuits work. The information is over my head, but the students halfway around the world are excitedly asking questions. They are huddled on a beautiful scarlet-colored Persian carpet and are dressed like typical American college students—jeans and comfortable sweaters.

I quietly walk in, take off my stethoscope, and sit on the couch across from my husband. I close my eyes and touch the pendant around my neck, trying to imagine, just for a moment, what it would feel like to be on the other side. When I open my eyes, I feel an overwhelming mix of feelings. I’m incensed that rulers anywhere would deprive individuals eager to learn a chance to contribute to society, and deprive a society their contribution. And yet I can’t help but feel hope for a generation of Iranian Bahá’ís who are so motivated that not even the threat of arrest can extinguish their passion for knowledge.

And, with a feeling of gratefulness, I crack open my 500 page textbook on internal medicine and pour over medications for treating type 2 diabetes.

Roxana Daneshjou is an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate at the Stanford School of Medicine and a recipient of a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook.

Photo courtesy of Leo Ma.


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