Symposium on Iranian Baha'i Refugee Movement to Canada, 1981-89

Mina Sanaee telling her families courageous story as refugees in the 1980's

In a heartwarming show of solidarity, academics, government officials, and members of the Baha'i community gathered at Carleton University to commemorate, consult, and study Canada’s Iranian Baha'i Refugee Program (1981-89).

The Beginnings of the Baha'i Faith

The 19th-century saw the emergence of a new religion in Persia. Baha'u'llah, the founder, claimed to be the latest in a line of divinely inspired Manifestations of God who, through Revelation, are responsible for the spiritual the education and enlightenment of humanity. The Baha’i Faith espouses principles of oneness (of God, religion, and humanity), the equality of women and men, the harmony of science and religion, and a hopeful vision for the material and spiritual future of humanity.

Baha’is have been persecuted in Iran by the clerical class since the inception of their religion. Baha'u'llah Himself was imprisoned and exiled for most of His life until finally settling in the prison city of Akka, in present day Israel. This persecution continued with the imprisonment and execution of thousands of early believers on the theological grounds that Islam is God’s last and final Revelation. This condemnation was particularly harmful to Baha'is because of the influence the clergy had at the time on both the government and people of Iran.

Modern Day Persecution and the Revolution

Even before the 1979 Islamic Revolution—under the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi—Iranian Baha'is were victims of ongoing propaganda campaigns. Their properties and cemeteries were desecrated, they were expelled from schools and denied business permits, and many were abducted and/or murdered. Of particular note are the violent events incited by Sheikh Falsafi in 1955. As some government officials tried to stop the persecution on the grounds that it was a danger to the order of society at large, fundamentalist groups like Hojjatiyeh would receive support from SAVAK (secret police) to gather information on Baha'is and attack them. In the 1970's the Shah's regime was increasingly criticized for being pro-western, and the Baha'is were scapegoated for economic problems and for supporting Israel and its allies.[1]

Following the 1979 revolution, over 200 Baha'is disappeared (suspected to have been tortured and killed) or were executed, and the Baha'i leadership in Iran was specifically targeted. Virtually all citizenship rights were removed for Baha'is, including the right to pursue higher education. Indeed, the Baha'is of Iran have been faced with the threat of imminent genocide.

Canada's Role of Support

In June of 1980, the Canadian House of Commons was the first legislature in the world to unanimously pass a resolution calling attention to the situation of the Baha'is in Iran. The government subsequently brought a resolution to the United Nations resulting in an intervention by the UN Commission on Human Rights. This remarkable stance on human rights by the government of Canada continued with the Iranian Baha'i Refugee Program.[2]

The Iranian Baha'i Refugee Program

From Notes on the September 21st Symposium

Following opening remarks, we were introduced by Mina Sanaee to the story of her family’s journey from Iran to Canada. She also gave us an intimate look at the response of the Iranian Baha'is to the persecution they suffered.

Howard Adleman described the social and religious context of the past fifty or so years by outlining the contrasting beliefs of liberty, freedom, and the separation of church and state that (in his view) are represented in the Baha'i Faith, as well as the prevalent religious culture in the Middle East. Also discussed were the "great changes" in civic society where citizens started to serve their communities unassociated with a political party or group, which lead to the rise of human rights movements and the NGO sector. In Canada, NGOs and human rights/community building groups somewhat spontaneously formed through networking built on a system of trust.

Mike Molloy, Former Director-General for Refugee Affairs and Settlement in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration and President of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society, provided an overview of Canada's experience with mass refugee acceptance pre-1981:

  • 163,000 refugees immediately after WWII

  • 137,000 refugees from Hungarian revolution

  • Canadians stood in solidarity with Hungarians against Russia

  • 11,000 refugees from the Prague spring

In 1962, Prime Minister Defenbaker successfully introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights signaling an evolution of national values. The regulation that previously existed that limited the acceptance of refugees to those of European decent was set aside. Soon after, a universal systematization of Canada's immigration policy began, which saw the introduction of a point system that determined someone’s eligibility to be accepted into Canada as a refugee. This process could be overridden in unique situations. For the first time, a "tiny" committee was formed to handle asylum seekers showing up at Canada's border. The new regulations in the Bill of Rights allowed for large amounts of refugees from non-european countries:

  • Refugees accepted from Uganda, Chile, and Argentina

  • 9,000 Vietnamese and Cambodians accepted, 1975-78 following fall of Saigon

Under Trudeau, the new immigration act of 1976 introduced, for the first time, an official definition for the term "refugee." Refugees would be accepted so long as their country was recognized and no other country was ready or willing to receive them, and not on the grounds that they could prove they were “legitimate” refugees. The act also included the possibility for private sponsorship. Between 1976 and 1981 the act allowed

  • critical experience to be gained;

  • 50-60,000 refugees to be accepted under new immigration act;

  • and infrastructure for private sponsorship of large numbers of refugees to be developed

When two Baha'is approached Mr. Malloy at an External Affairs meeting, an entire system of support for private sponsorship was in place; however, there was no mention of Central Asia or the Baha'is in the new immigration plan for 1981, which had opened 16,000 spots. At a lunch with the two Baha'is, Mr. Malloy asked a series of questions that were designed to gauge if a refugee plan could be implemented for the Baha'is in Iran: (1) is the situation characterized by persecution, (2) can the persecuted population be reached, (3) do we know how many, is it a reasonable amount, (4) can the Minister be approached with the plan, (5) did advocacy groups in Canada know about the situation, (5) were the resettlement needs of the refugees known. He was able to tick of every point on the checklist and thought the proposal was justified, so he talked to his boss. When reflecting on the meeting he noted that

"...unlike every single other group who approached me up to that point, the Baha'is had a plan for resettlement and integration"

Mike Molloy

Douglas Martin, Secretary General of the Baha’i Community of Canada between 1965 and 1985, spoke next with Dr. Gerry Van Kessel, the Former Director-General of Operations of the Refugee Branch of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. They spoke about how the Baha'i Refugee Program developed, which resettled around 2,300 refugees in about 220 communities across Canada, and how Canada’s program was used as a model to open doors to resettlement for some 6,000 more Baha’i refugees in 25 countries around the world.

Soon after the revolution, the Universal House of Justice (international governing body of the Baha'i Faith) decided that Canada would play a key role, not only in helping large numbers of Baha'i refugees, but also for bringing the situation of the Baha'is in Iran to the UNCHR. Once the plan was launched, immigration officers in the field were told by Ottawa to consider as sympathetically as possible the Baha'i refugee applicants. Dr. Kessel stated that the Canadian Baha'i community was essential to the process by providing private sponsorship, a community of support, and a structured pattern of community re-integration facilitated by their Canadian coreligionists. He also commented on the uniqueness of Baha'i belief in easing the integration process and the remarkable virtue of the Baha’I community. This was evidenced by the Canadian Baha’is not requesting any public relations media releases, both because of safety concerns and because they wished to avoid self-promotion. Dr. Kessel said, in regards to the relationship between the Baha’is and the government, that

"it was a real partnership between the Baha`ì Community

and the Government of Canada, one based on trust"

Dr. Kessel

At this time, certain Muslim members of the Iranian community loyal to the Shah in Toronto had sent a delegate to the Canadian government to try and turn them against the Baha’is. It was astounding, as Mr. Martin recalled, that as much as they hated the new regime in Iran, they happened to hate the Baha’is more.

Douglas Martin (center) and Dr. Kessel (right) share anecdotes of their experience with the refugee program

Afsoon Houshidari, a former child refugee and current refugee lawyer, brought the audience to tears with the story of her family’s journey from Iran to Pakistan and then to Canada. Their final years in Iran saw her father, an engineer, and mother, a teacher, expelled from their jobs, and her uncle arrested and subsequently executed for being a Baha`i. They decided to leave Iran, but did not know what was in store for them because it was not possible to hear back from those who had already left. There journey was difficult to say the least. With no fresh water and little shelter, and only two bags of luggage for the whole family, they finally made it to Pakistan and made their way to Lahore on the northern border. There they lived with the bare essentials, sleeping on straw beds and having to remain inconspicuous in public. They weren’t able to bring any money with them, and weren`t able to engage in their professions. Upon closing her story with a happy ending, she turned to the immigration officer who had signed her family’s acceptance forms and, for the first time, was able to thank him.

That immigration officer was Dennis Scown who, along with Mark Davidson, were really the only people in Pakistan who could accept and sign refugee forms for the Iranaian Baha’is. The story of Dennis and Mona Mojgani, the Former Director of the International Baha’i Refugee Office who travelled to Pakistan to help facilitate the implementation of the program, can be found in an article by Geoffrey Cameron (2013) in the Literary Review of Canada entitled “A Quiet Exodus.”[1] A notable part of that story, which Dennis shared at the panel, included more praise for the Baha`i community. He stated it was not only a matter of having good people, but also of good institutions. Institutions that were not only responsible, but who were trusted by the government. It was because of the character of these institutions, coupled with the Baha'i principle of universality, that when Dennis informed Mona that they wanted to double the number of accepted Baha'i refugees from the first to the second year of the program she said no, that Canada had done enough and the Baha'is should start being resettled in other countries.

"It was a pleasure interviewing Baha'is, and I didn't really know anything about them, but their honesty and trustworthiness was enough."

Dennis Scown

Roozbeh Rahimpour sharing his drumming talents during an intermission

Next, Dr. Neda Faregh, Prof. Deborah K van den Hoonaard, and Fariborz Birjandian explained the successes and shortcomings of resettling and integrating Iranian Baha’i refugees in Canada:

  • Canada has an overall successful story when it comes to accepting refugees. It is one of only twenty two countries worldwide that are committed to accepting refugees through the UNHRC

  • Baha`i refugees were hopeful and looking towards the future. They were thankful to the host countries and, as a result, did not retreat into their own small familiar cultural/religious groups once in Canada

  • The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Canada sent out a message to all Local Spiritual Assemblies that if anyone qualified (given a list of criteria) to host a refugee family, to send a request to the NSA

  • The NSA spread out the refugees to more than 120 cities and towns across Canada, which avoided creating a concentration of Baha'i refugees in Toronto or other large cities (this was not only a very unique move, but one that greatly pleased and impressed the government)

  • The host community was there to help the refugees and treat them as valuable people and not the objects of charity

  • Certain small towns could not quite accommodate the number of Baha'is they accepted, while others provided an environment that allowed the refugees to strive and achieve success. This resulted in the Baha'is both leaving to larger cities for greater success and staying to start businesses and raise families in the small towns in which they had originally arrived

  • Because there is no concept of “otherness” in Baha’i teachings, the Baha'i community of Canada had been nurtured to resist tendencies to treat newcomers as outsiders. This along with their Faith and the beliefs they shared with the refugees offered an ideal situation for integrating newcomers

  • Small town LSAs utilized the personal skills (opening bank accounts, arranging housing, finding jobs) of local Baha'is in helping new refugees settle

Prof. van den Hoonaard (center) discusses the experience of Baha'i refugees in small town New Brunswick

Dr. Faregh's family story was unique in that they fled to Chad and then lost their citizenship in Iran. Once their visas expired, they were officially stateless. The Canadian Baha'i Refugee Program (and Mona specifically) found them and offered them salvation.

Dr. Anthony Michel, Prof. Dominique Marshall, and Geoffrey Cameron summarized the day and outlined some possible next steps for research projects that are going to stem from the symposium and recent collaboration. CABS’ own Sophie Crump will be researching the Baha'i refugee program as part of her master’s thesis at Carleton University.

Local Baha'i refugees were eager to ask questions and share their experience with the speakers

Several university students were in attendance, some of whom will be taking courses on Canada's refugee and immigration programs next year


We encourage everyone to read about the historic relationship between Canada and the Baha'i community, the article A Quiet Exodus on the story of Mona and Dennis, and explore to learn about the ongoing persecution of the Baha'is in Iran

The Baha'i Faith:


[1] Cameron, G. A Quiet Exodus. Literary Review of Canada. 2013, 21(6).

[2] Martin, D; Yazdani, M. Baha'i Faith. Historica Canada. 2013. Retreived online September 21, 2015.

Photo credit: Emad Talisman