Roya Hejabian prepares for commencement

Roya Hejabian sat down with The Free Press in front of Payson Smith Hall in Portland to discuss her experiences in Iran, Maine and at USM.
Alex Greenlee | The Free Press
Roya Hejabian sat down with The Free Press in front of Payson Smith Hall in Portland to discuss her experiences in Iran, Maine and at USM.

Posted on April 29, 2013 in News
By Nathan Mooney

Roya Hejabian will be celebrating the completion of her third degree, a master’s in social work, when she speaks at USM’s afternoon commencement session this year.

Hejabian was the first of her family to escape Iran as a religious refugee. After gaining U.S. citizenship years later, Hejabian’s mother and father were allowed to leave Iran and join her in Maine. The Hejabians will have a lot to be proud of at this year’s USM commencement.

“I am Iranian. I consider myself a Persian, but before that, I am Baha’i,” said Hejabian.

She was forced to complete her first degree in Iran in secret because she identifies as a member of the Baha’i faith, a religion that the intolerant Islamic regime works constantly to eliminate. The Baha’i follower believes in what Hejabian calls progressive revelation, which means prophecy from God does not come from just one prophet, but many, with the most recent being the founder of Baha’i in the 19th century.  In Iran, no one of the Baha’i faith is allowed any more education than a high school diploma, so the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education in Iran, where Hejabian got her first degree, conducts its classes in secret.

“We hold classes in our living rooms, basically, and all of the professors are from the Baha’i community.”

Hejabian has had a long and difficult road to graduating with a master’s in social work. Hejabian fled Iran to Turkey after finishing her education at the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education and lived there for a year before coming to the U.S. While there, Hejabian volunteered for the U.N. to work with other incoming refugees.

“When refugees arrived in Turkey, they usually came illegally and had to immediately register with the U.N. Otherwise, they would be in trouble, and the police in Turkey would deport them back.”

While in Turkey, Hejabian also worked with an interpreter to help the other refugees, mostly women and children, gain access to health care and other services.

The U.N. sent Hejabian to Maine after her year in Turkey, where she tried to reconcile her notions of America with the realities of life in quiet New England.

“My first impression was, ‘Is this really America?’ because my previous thought was America has big buildings — huge, you know — like, loud music, jazz everywhere, in the middle of the night. Lights and everything.”

Hejabian said her goal upon arriving in the U.S. was to find a way to give back after benefitting from so many of the systems that help refugees.

Hejabian found her calling in USM’s master in social work program. She got a lot of support from her fellow students and the faculty.

“They wanted [me] to succeed. The more I learned, the more I was commited to learn because I knew this was the right field for me.”

Hejabian wants to continue in the social work field and is currently applying to doctoral programs. Harvard University is her top choice, but she is applying to USM’s Muskie School of Public Service as well. She said that she will have a lot of people in the audience at commencement due to the very supportive Iranian community in the area. Her parents, now U.S. citizens, will be among her loudest supporters, she said.

“They are in Portland. They like it. It’s a safer place to live, to practice their religion. The older you get, your priorities change.”