For the Love of Their Country: A Devoted Pediatrics Pioneer Working in Dangerous Times

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Source: iranwire.com

Kian Sabeti

 Dr Tahereh Berjis with professors and students of the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education. Faces have been blurred due to security issues.
Dr Tahereh Berjis with professors and students of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. Faces have been blurred due to security issues.

Health workers are on the front line of our defense against the coronavirus pandemic – including hundreds of Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurses. But they are not in Iran; instead, they live in countries around the world, treating their patients, where they are admired and praised by the people and governments of the countries where they live. The one country where they cannot do their work is Iran.

Many of these doctors and nurses – who studied and served in Iran – lost their jobs after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. They were expelled from the universities and their public sector jobs, barred from practicing medicine, jailed and tortured, and a considerable number of them perished on the gallows or in front of firing squads.

The crime of these Baha’i doctors, nurses and other health workers was their faith in a religion that the rulers of the Islamic Republic believe is a “deviant” faith.

In a new series of articles, called “For the Love of Their Country,” IranWire tells the stories of some of these Iranian Baha’i doctors and nurses. This article narrates the life of Tahereh Berjis, head of the Shahid Mostafa Khomeini Hospital, who chose to stay in Iran and brave discrimination after the Islamic Revolution.

If you know a Baha’i health worker and have a first-hand story of his or her life, let IranWire know.

 

“We lived in Iran 34 years after the Revolution. We did not regret staying because of the services we were able to provide during this time. Our lives were always in danger but we were both happy.”

These are the words of Ziaollah Misaghi, the husband of Tahereh Berjis, a Baha’i doctor who refused to leave Iran after the Revolution despite the execution of many of her Baha’i colleagues.

 

The Tragedy that Motivated a Choice of Profession

On February 3, 1950, Abbas Tavassoli and Ali Taghipour, two men affiliated with the Islamic Development Association of Kashan, asked a Baha’i doctor named Sulayman Berjis to attend to a patient at their home. When the doctor arrived at the house, the two men, and others, stabbed the doctor 81 times, killing him.

The murderers, who had the support of influential clerics, turned themselves in to the police. They said they had been motivated by their strong religious beliefs. A number of clerics, including Ayatollah Seyed Mohammad Behbahani, Ayatollah Seyed Abolghasem Kashani, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Falsafi, and Ayatollah Seyed Hossein Boroujerdi wrote a letter to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, and asked him to free Berjis’s murderers.

The trials of the murderers took place from August 27 to September 13, 1950, in Tehran. As a result of the efforts of the clerics and a group of their supporters, conservative businessmen with links to the city’s bazaar, the court pronounced the accused not guilty. They were all released.

There were many doctors in the Berjis family – and this horrific incident inspired even more within the family to become doctors. Many young people in the Berjis family enrolled in medical school. Tahereh Berjis, Sulayman Berjis’s niece, was one of them.

 

Tahereh Berjis: From Iran to Africa to the United States

Tahereh was born to Amir, a pharmacist, and Monireh Berjis, in Tehran in 1953. She was an outstanding student and was eligible to enrol in medical college. She married Ziaollah Misaghi, an agriculture engineer at Shiraz University, in 1970.

Before he married, Ziaollah Misaghi had planned to go to the United States to continue his education. He asked Tahereh to go with him and to take the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates exam so that she could study specialist medicine abroad. At the time, medical terminology in Iran was primarily in French, so Tahereh worked to improve her English and passed the American test.

Before going to the United States, the Baha’i couple spent six months in Kenya and Tanzania doing volunteer work.

Tahereh and Ziaollah arrived in the United States on July 1, 1973. Tahereh was 12 weeks pregnant at the time. They returned to Iran in the summer of 1976, after Tahereh finished her degree in pediatrics.

 

Practicing Medicine, 1976-1979

Following previous correspondence with the Academy of Gondishapur, the couple traveled to Ahvaz. Dr Tahereh Berjis was hired as an assistant professor at the medical college and Ziaollah Misaghi taught at the agriculture college. They converted a room in their home into an office, although Tahereh said she preferred to work at the hospital.

“I don’t like academics and I want to work in a clinic. I became a pediatrician because I love children. I want to work with children,” her husband recalls her saying three months into the job.

Tahereh, together with her two small children, left for Tehran in November 1976. At first, every hospital where she applied to work welcomed her, but when they realized she was a Baha’i, they became more reserved and told her they would contact her if they needed her. They never did.

After being unemployed for some time, Tahereh worked at Misaghieh Hospital, which was managed by the Baha’i community. The hospital, which is today named Shahid Mostafa Khomeini Hospital, was gifted to the Baha’i community in 1949 by a Baha’i named Abdolmisagh Misaghieh.

Professor Manouchehr Hakim was the head of the hospital at the time. He welcomed the young, talented Dr Tahereh Berjis to the staff.

Tahereh started working at Misaghieh Hospital in January 1977. Because of her skills and her enthusiasm, she was soon appointed head of the pediatrics ward.

She served as head of pediatrics at Misaghieh Hospital for two years. During that time, she applied new methods she had learned in US hospitals to her work, her treatments and in to her use of medical equipment. Through Tahereh Berjis’s efforts, the Misaghieh Hospital pediatrics ward became the most modern in the country.

 

The Revolution, Confiscations, and Restrictions

After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Mostazafan Foundation – in English, the Foundation for the Oppressed – confiscated properties belonging to members of the Baha’i community. Misaghieh Hospital was among these properties. After its confiscation, the hospital’s name was changed to Shahid Mostafa Khomeini Hospital.

A person introducing himself as Dr. Sadeghi showed up at the hospital in August 1979. He dismissed Professor Hakim and appointed himself as head of the hospital without providing any documentation to show that this was his mandate. It was later discovered that this “Dr” Sadeghi was a medical student and not even a qualified doctor.

Professor Hakim was murdered the next year, in December 1980, shot and killed by “unknown elements” while he was in his office. The murderers were never identified, and three days later, a revolutionary court confiscated Professor Hakim’s assets.

One of Sadeghi’s first actions was to summon Dr. Tahereh Berjis to his office. Ziaollah Misaghi joined his wife for the meeting and described for IranWire what happened.

“Dr. Sadeghi insulted Tahereh from the beginning of the meeting. He told her she did not have a role in the hospital, starting the next day. Tahereh replied that she had a contract with the hospital and she wanted a letter [informing her of her dismissal]. Sadeghi asked why she wanted a letter. My wife said she wanted to take it to government officials to complain. She said the country had a shortage of doctors and they were expelling her because she was a Baha’i at a hospital that used to belong to Baha’is. Sadeghi refused to give her a letter … The conversation got louder.” He said in the end that Tahereh told Sadeghi: “Everyone’s turn is no more than five days,” meaning no one stays in power for long. “She left the room in anger,” her husband said.

In September 1979, about two weeks after she was dismissed, Dr. Berjis sent an official complaint to Mehdi Bazargan, the prime minister at the time, Hossein Banisadr, the Minister of State, Dr. Kazem Sami, the Minister for Health, and Dr. Mohammad Ali Hafizi, the head of the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic.

She stated that she had been expelled from the hospital verbally, said her religious beliefs had been insulted and cited an infringement on people’s right to medical care. She demanded an investigation.

Dr. Sami, the Minister for Health, was the only official to respond to the letter. He wrote two letters, to Mehdi Bazargan and Dr. Behzadi, the supervisors for the Mostazafan Foundation’s hospitals. He received no reply.

In the letter to Mehid Bazargan, Sami wrote: “If non-Muslim doctors are not able to work, there will be a shortage of doctors … considering that this will cost more human [lives], please advise the ministry on the subject.”

In the letter to Dr. Behzadi, Dr. Sami wrote: “Please explain how this happened and what criteria was used when choosing your colleagues at Misaghieh Hospital.”

 

Dr. Berjis’s Salary Wired to a “War Account”

Sometime later, Sadeghi was replaced by Dr. Houshang Fazel. Ziaollah Misaghi met with Dr. Fazel to ask that his wife Dr. Berjis’s salary be paid. Dr. Fazel told him that everything owed to her had been wired to a “war account.”  Mr. Misaghi told him: “Islam says that people should have control of their assets. Why have you spent my wife’s money without her consent?”

After being expelled from the hospital, Tahereh Berjis continued to see patients in her office. Her income was low and the number of patients decreased every year.

Doctors wanting to work in private hospitals needed to buy a share in it and Baha’is were banned from doing so. Dr. Berjis was therefore barred from working in any private hospital anywhere in Tehran.

 

Teaching for the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Baha’is were excluded from universities. In response to the ban on their pursuit of further education, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) was founded in 1987. Baha’i academics expelled from Iran’s universities taught university courses to Baha’i students at the BIHE, an informal or “underground” university, where classes were held in private homes, and Tahereh Berjis joined them.

“Whenever a group of people is put under pressure,” Dr. Berjis said in the film To Light a Candle, directed by IranWire founder and editor-in-chief Maziar Bahari, “whenever they are discriminated against, that group eventually rises up against the injustice they suffer.”

Tahereh Berjis’s and Ziaollah Misaghi’s children, Shahrzad and Nezamedin, graduated from high school in Iran. They went to the BIHE, and then to the United States to continue their education. Shahrzad became a pharmacist and Nezamedin specialized in anesthesiology.

Tahereh Berjis taught at the BIHE for 20 years. Although she and her husband had both also become American citizens, they chose and preferred to stay in Iran. They did not want to leave their homeland. “When we started the BIHE we knew that no one could stop us,” she said in To Light a Candle.

“Tahereh loved Iran,” Ziaollah Misaghi said. “It was important to us to help this country and this community. Despite all the restrictions that Baha’is faced, we never regretted staying in Iran.”

 

Tahereh’s Last Visit with her Children

Tahereh Berjis went to the United States to see her children in 2010. While there, she was hospitalized because of a heart disease and her doctor advised her not to fly. Ziaollah Misaghi joined his wife in the United States the next year.

Although Tahereh was far from her homeland, it was always on her mind. Now living in Arizona, she co-founded the Hamzaban Foundation, a non-profit organization to research and showcase Iranian culture, together with her husband and another friend. Today the foundation has branches in several cities in the United States.

Dr. Tahereh Berjis gave lectures and organized seminars as part of her work with the foundation. She was regularly interviewed for radio and television on a range of subjects, including women’s rights, the rights of children, and patient care.

She was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. Despite this, Misaghi said she was in high spirits, and she still wanted to contribute to the community in which she lived. She spoke publicly about caring for cancer patients and her speech that was well received. The foundation was approached and asked to provide a subtitled version for non-Persian speaking audiences.

Dr. Tahereh Berjis died on September 19, 2016, at the age of 72. She is buried in Arizona.

 

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