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Editor’s note: The names of the people in this story have been changed for their protection.

For 70 years, Kamal has practiced a religion that has put him in the shadows of Iranian society.

The practicing Bahai converted when he was just 12 years old. While his siblings were Muslims, his grandfather was a Bahai who ultimately became a martyr for his beliefs.

As he got older, Kamal’s brothers and sisters offered him money to convert back to Islam. Ultimately, his family took his 11-year-old son from Kamal and his wife, Setareh, because of their shared Bahai beliefs.

“He is alive and has a family,” Kamal said through a translator. “I did not see him for 15 years since he was taken. I only saw him at the time of his brother’s funeral.”

Despite the great losses and prejudice against Kamal and Setareh, they resisted converting to another religion. Instead, they left Iran about eight years ago for Charlottesville, where they are free to practice and discuss their religion with a Bahai community of about 35 people.

Baha’u’llah founded the Bahai religion in the 1860s in Iran. More than 5 million Bahai practitioners around the world believe in a singular God, the oneness of humanity and the formation of a global society. Bahais meditate and pray every day. Followers reference the Kitab-i-Aqdas, a book of laws written by Baha’u’llah.

The relationship between Bahais and other religions in Iran is strained. Islam is the official religion of the country, which has a handful of Bahais, Hindus, Jews, Christians and other religious minorities. However, the Bahai religion is recognized as a political movement rather than a religion by the government, and its practitioners have faced persecution in their home country.

The 1979 Iranian revolution changed some perceptions of Bahais, but problems remained, said Iradj, a 47-year-old Charlottesville resident who left Iran in 2006.

“Before the revolution, people didn’t want to give us jobs,” Iradj said through a translator. “After the revolution, it was the government, not the people.”

Iradj was unable to get a job training drivers because his religion was not recognized. His two older children had finished high school, but they could not attend university because they were Bahais.

Some of the persecution took a physical form. Kamal said one of his childhood memories is of people throwing rocks into the homes and schools of the Bahais.

“In some cases, they would put gasoline on the entrance of a Bahai home and put it on fire,” Kamal said.

Although they were heavily discriminated against outside of their religious communities, the Bahais who are now in Charlottesville could not have imagined switching religions.

“I view the Bahai faith as a medication that tries to cure the diseases,” Iradj said. “It is like a protective haven.”

When asked if she would ever convert, Setareh answers with a solitary “no.” Kamal explained that he knew what persecution lay ahead as a Bahai when he converted.

“I have accepted all of the tests and difficulties that these principles would be accepted universally,” Kamal said.

Moving to America

Eventually, Iradj and his wife, Nahied, decided they wanted to leave Iran as refugees bound for the United States. Iradj said his family wanted to come to America because it would allow them freedom in all parts of their lives.

“We believe this is a place with a very bright future,” Iradj said. “The United States of America is first and foremost a country ready for achieving peace in the world.”

A phone call sealed Kamal and Setareh’s decision to leave Iran. Kamal said they got a call that said if they tried to contact the son who had been taken from them, he would be killed. The couple got passports and packed a couple of suitcases, and arrived in Turkey.

Kamal and Setareh didn’t know that the International Rescue Committee would place them in the United States, but ties to Charlottesville through one of their daughters tipped the decision in favor of America. Iradj, Nahied and their children stayed in Turkey for 11 months before being placed in Charlottesville, where they had no ties.

Since they have arrived, both families have found their niche in Charlottesville. Kamal and Setareh are retired, and enjoy visits from friends in the local Bahai community.

‘Joy and happiness’

“Our joy and happiness is to see our Bahai friends here,” Kamal said. “There is a sense of family here.”

Although Iradj and Nahied initially had a tough time in America, they have since opened an alterations shop. The couple and their teenage daughter have green cards, and they are planning to apply for citizenship in five years.

Both families talk of going back to Iran, but the trip would not be easy. Iradj said the Iranian government has ways of keeping tabs on them in the United States, which is one reason why he did not want his family’s real names used in this story. Kamal and Setareh have been keeping in touch with their son secretly despite the warnings of Kamal’s family.

The tense relationship between Iran and the United States worries Iradj, who, true to his beliefs, just wants peace.

“The relationship will affect living conditions at both places,” Iradj said. “All citizens of Iran want a peaceful relationship.”