By Juliana Tafur, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – In the streets of Rio de Janeiro, he passes for a Carioca, but he is not. His name is Bahman and he’s a refugee from Iran. In the second of a series of three interviews with international refugees living in Rio de Janeiro, Bahman spoke to The Gringo Times about making the transition from Iranian Muslim to Brazilian Baptist.
Bahman’s story begins in the winter break of his last year at the State University of New York, where he was studying engineering. He traveled to Iran to visit his family and spend New Year’s in his hometown of Shiraz. The year was 1979 and his country was about to undergo dramatic political changes.
Protesters had taken to the streets demanding an end to Iran’s secular monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. An ideological revolution led by Muslim leader Ayatollah Ruhola Khomeini was underway. Guided by Shia Islamic teachings, his followers were fierce opponents of the Western world and its influence on the country.
“Iran closed off all of its borders after declaring an ideological war with the West. My passport from the Shah regime was no longer valid, so I couldn’t travel back to the US. There were people who escaped illegally, but I didn’t want to risk being caught,” says Bahman.
In September of 1980, Iraq invaded Iran and Bahman was caught in the middle of a ten-year border war. “I was in constant fear, wondering if the missiles were going to hit my house or the neighbor’s. Some of my friends and cousins were victims of the war. I also thought I was going to die,” he says.
Every time he heard the blasts, he prayed to God. In his prayers, he promised to become a man of faith if his life was spared. When the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1990, Bahman had a new passport, a plan of action and a visa. He told his family he would travel to Brazil, where he intended to start a new life.
“I left Iran in a state of shock, after having gone through a decade of seeing dead people and destruction around me. Once here, I approached the United Nations and obtained status as a refugee of war.”
In Brazil, he learned to be independent, as he construed a new identity. It took him some time to understand the Brazilian way of life, the country’s value system and its people. But the more he learned, the more he loved it.
“Here there’s a very different understanding of freedom of thought. In Iran when you make a decision you have an obligation to consult your parents and superiors, apart from the law that you must obey and the social pressures that you must follow,” says Bahman.
In Rio de Janeiro, he came in contact with a Baptist church, identified with the teachings of the Bible and converted to Christianity. It was in that context that he met his wife, an Angolan, and embarked on the spiritual life he promised God.
“I discovered something very special in the Bible. I had been in touch with the world’s biggest religions and I really liked the way Jesus talked about love and peace.”
Now, sixteen years after arriving in the country, Bahman says he enjoys the openness and warmth of Brazilians. He has two daughters, aged eight and eleven, and is happy to see them grow up in a liberal society.
“Here they can decide who they want to marry. In Iran their marriages would have most likely been arranged at an early age. I thank God that they live in a society which respects their human rights,” he says.