“For years, we as Baha’is have been deprived of the right to education as part of our everyday lives. It is as if our foreheads were all branded at birth with a stamp of discrimination.

It has not been uncommon to hear swear words yelled at us in the classrooms, to be expelled from grade schools and universities and to have the word “incomplete”, mysteriously written on our transcripts – a word hundreds of us have heard as the excuse for our expulsion.

However, we did not get used to it. We did not surrender. We established our own university under the most challenging circumstances. We kindled a light in such dark days in Iran, by which hundreds of us young Bahais could slowly pursue our dreams. Even this, eventually, was not tolerated. The government officials attacked it over and over. They closed the university centers several times and interrogated our classmates, to put out this shining light.”

These are the words of Bashir Ehsani, a university student living in Tehran. He wrote them in a letter last year, as part of an awareness campaign on the plight of Baha’i students in Iran. In particular, the campaign, called Education Under Fire, focused its attention on the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education, an underground university serving Iran’s persecuted Baha’i community. Like many Baha’is in Iran, Ehsani was prevented from pursing his education in public universities because his faith is not recognized by the state — so he attended BIHE, not just out of necessity but out of resistance to an oppressive government. It was in this same spirit that he became a defender of education and children’s rights, and it was this work within his community that would eventually land him in prison.

On February 10th, 2011, Ehsani, his mother, and six other Baha’is were arrested by Iranian security officials without warning. They were being accused of inciting and pariticpating in the Ashura protests of 2009, in which Iranians all over the country staged massive demonstrations protesting the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government, fearing unrest and the possibility of insurrection, painted the protests as a Baha’i conspiracy. During the protests, Ehsani was briefly detained and released. But as the anniversary of the Ashura protests approached, Iranian security officials began a crackdown on Baha’i activists, in an attempt to discourage a repeat of the previous year’s uprising. Ehsani was among 26 who were arrested. He was charged with public disorder and possession of satellites, accused of threatening national security and conspiracy against the regime. His sentence was five years — two years in prison and three in suspension.

Even as he was being pursued by security agents, Ehsani’s message to the world beyond Iran and to his fellow Baha’i Iranians at home and abroad was imbued with a sense of solidarity, defiance and hope:

“Our pain is a shared pain. Our cry is a shared cry. So this pain cannot be cured by each one of us separately. We should be each other’s voice and work together. We should put an end to our separate efforts. The more they attack us, whether we are in prison or in exile, we are labeled as “incomplete documents” or “starred student.” Whether we are Kurd or Fars, our message is clear: we will not be silent. We have the hope of a life with equal opportunity and freedom in Iran, the hope of an education without discrimination, the hope which cannot be taken and gives meaning to our lives.”