The following article originally appeared in The Olympian.

Before turning 21, Pouya Mardmehdiabadi had crossed international borders, fled his home country and lived as a refugee.

Pouya, who was born in Iran, is taking classes at Olympic College as he prepares for a career in dentistry. He carries with him the kind of life experiences foreign to American students.

While Pouya describes growing up in Iran as normalcy, he lived as a minority in a country with little tolerance for those practicing any religion other than Islam. Iran’s religious tension eventually drove his family, like others before, to seek devotional refuge elsewhere.

As a member of the Bahai faith, which teaches the unity of mankind, Pouya is no stranger to persecution.

Regarded as a minority, Bahais have suffered at the hands of the Islamic community, primarily in Iran, its birthplace, for years. Violent attacks towards followers of Bahá’u'lláh, the prophet after which the religion originates, have continued to the present day.

A refocusing of animosity from primarily Shi’ite Muslims towards Bahais took place after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, under Ayatollah Ruhollah Kohmeini.

In the nearly 30 years since the unseating of the Shah of Iran, at least 200 Bahais have been killed, because of their beliefs according to human rights reports. Pouya’s family is no exception.
“My mom’s grandfather, I know that they burned the house, and they burned him because of his faith,” said Pouya, ” and they still do that to this day.”

Iranian law requires males to be conscripted into military service for a minimum of 18 months. Because of the army’s zero tolerance of non-Muslims, Pouya found himself faced with perhaps the most difficult decision he’s had to make.

Staying in Iran without enlisting for service meant living in hiding for fear of being sent to jail. Another country could allow Pouya to get back on track with his life, but getting there would be difficult. Traveling between countries in the Middle East typically requires documentation, the kind of evidence that would expose Pouya’s desire to escape religious persecution from the army.

While his family could legally travel into a neighboring country, the 19-year-old refugee was forced to find an alternative route.

“They hired a smuggler so he could smuggle me to Turkey,” said Pouya. “It takes usually about two hours by train, it took me three days and a half.”

After leaving the northwestern town of Tabriz, he emigrated to Van, Turkey, where he was reunited with his family.

He describes the journey as long and arduous, being incessantly afraid for his life.

The United Nations system in Turkey provides a source of comfort and relief for refugees, however, survival in a different country presents its own problems.

“You don’t know where you’re going, you don’t know how long you’re staying (and) you have to have some money,” said Pouya.

After nearly seven months in asylum living in apartments crowded with more families than rooms, and numerous visits to the American embassy, Pouya’s family was finally approved for travel to the United States.

“We just hoped for the best,” he said, “and we were approved on third visit, about a month before our visas arrived.”

Life in the States created a change in cultural scenery for Pouya and his family.

As he continues to adapt, he is taking classes towards his associate degree at OC before transferring to the University of Washington, where his sister Parisa is enrolled.

With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s prominence on the world stage battling for nuclear rights and struggling with Israel, Pouya says that although he is determined to return home, it won’t happen anytime soon.

“I would end up going to jail if I went back now,” he said. “I’m hoping for things to change. I want to go back.”

Pouya describes his home country as a hospitable and sociable nation, not the evil state American politicians conclude it to be.

“The people are good. The government does all this stuff and that’s what people think of,” said Pouya. “If you go there, I mean the people are nice and they like foreign people, to talk and take you into their homes.”