Refugee Voices: Scholar of Judaism Finds Academic Freedom in the United States
By Madeleine Bair
Before she left Iran, Parvaneh Vahidmanesh was known to authorities as a defender of human rights and as the former wife of an imprisoned activist. But despite these distinctions, it was her work on a personal project that caused her to flee her country.
Descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Islam in the nineteenth century, she wrot e a book on the lives of Jews in contemporary Iran. Government officials, who must approve all written work before publication, decided that the book was propaganda for Israel—a crime punishable by death—and began a campaign of harassment and intimidation.
Government harassment was not new to Parvaneh, who had been interrogated before for reporting on the death in custody of a human rights activist, but the frequency and intensity of the interrogations made her fear for her life. Fortunately, she was able to leave Iran to lecture at a U.S. university. She was terrified that the authorities would prevent her departure, but she arrived safely in the United States.
Shortly after this, protests broke out in Iran in response to the 2009 elections, and the Iranian government reacted with violence. From Washington, D.C., Parvaneh again protested with her pen. Her op-ed in the Wall Street Journal added to the voices of the thousands of Iranians who took to the streets and who broadcast their discontent to the world through cell phones, cameras, and tweets.
Although being in the United States offered her protection from the government’s mass arrests and executions, Parvaneh’s protest did mean one thing: it was too dangerous for her to return home. Later that year, she applied for asylum in the United States.
With the help of Human Rights First’s pro bono asylum legal representation program and the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, Parvaneh received asylum in 2009. “Suddenly I understand that my life changed,” she says, “and I had a new life.” A year after receiving asylum, she was able to apply for a green card and today, she is a lawful permanent resident of the United States. She’s still fighting for human rights, as a program officer for Freedom House in Washington DC.
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