PORTLAND – When Roya Hejabian receives her degree from the University of Southern Maine on Saturday, there will be no hiding.
She and her family will celebrate for all to see, without fear of persecution or discrimination. Her young daughter will hold a sign that says “Go, Mommy, Go,” her parents will cheer and Hejabian will think of the journey that has taken her from Tehran to Portland and into the world of higher education.
It’s a far cry from Hejabian’s first degree, which she earned by attending secret classes in Iran because, as a Baha’i in a country that is intolerant of that faith, she was not allowed to go to college.
“I feel like living in Iran, being Baha’i, all the doors and windows to opportunity in education were locked with chains and locks of ignorance, discrimination and injustice,” she said. “Now I feel I’m free and those doors and windows are unlocked to me. It’s a great feeling.”
Hejabian — who is earning her third degree, a master’s in social work — will speak at the university’s afternoon commencement ceremony. Her speech will detail her journey from Iran to Portland as a religious refugee and how her experiences led her to dedicate her life to social work and helping other refugee women gain independence.
Hejabian, 40, lives in Cape Elizabeth with her family, a far different lifestyle from the one she experienced growing up in Iran. She faced religious discrimination and, despite her parents’ desire for their daughters to be educated, was not allowed to pursue a college degree unless she converted to Islam.
“Being in America, people take education for granted because it’s available to them,” Hejabian said. “It never crosses their mind that depriving people of education is a human rights issue.”
Hejabian was always a good student and wanted education beyond her high school diploma. She attended The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, founded in 1987 in response to the Iranian government’s denial of access to higher education for Iranian Baha’is. Many of the professors were people who had lost their jobs because of their religion, but dedicated themselves to teaching others in classes often held in living rooms.
Even after earning a bachelor’s degree, Hejabian longed to further her education. In 1996, she became the first member of her family to flee Iran as a religious refugee. She traveled to Turkey, where she registered as a refugee with the United Nations. During her year there, Hejabian used her language skills to help translate for other refugees. She also advocated for women and children who needed access to medical care, a practice she has continued after arriving in Maine in 1997.
When she came to Maine, Hejabian was 24 and shocked by both the environment and culture. Growing up in Iran, America always seemed “like a huge country that looked like an amusement park,” with tall buildings, jazz music playing and people crowding the streets. She found Maine to be quiet and cold — especially when a massive ice storm hit the state months after she arrived.
Hejabian jumped right into education in Maine, first attending Portland Adult Education classes to improve her English, then signing up for classes at Southern Maine Community College. She earned an associate degree in early childhood education, then set her sights on a master’s in social work from USM. During those years, her family joined her in Maine and all became U.S. citizens.
For the past nine months, she was an intern at U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s Portland office, an experience Hejabian said challenged her and changed her path because she was able to work on policy issues. She has applied for doctoral programs that would allow her to study social justice and human rights issues.
During her internship, Hejabian often encountered immigrants and refugees with similar backgrounds to her own, said Skeek Frazee, the internship supervisor at Pingree’s office. Hejabian brought with her an important skill set: language skills and the understanding of immigration and the integration process into the community, Frazee said.
“She also brought this sense of complete welcoming warmth to everyone. She understands what it’s like when things get hard,” Frazee said. “She was unfailingly kind to anyone and everyone who came in. She comes from a real place of understanding.”
Hejabian said she is grateful for her experiences both in and out of the classroom because they have provided her more opportunities to help other refugees gain independence.
“I’ve always looked at education as a great tool to get to a destination,” Hejabian said. “Degrees are not important to me. What’s important is the knowledge and experience it has given me to better serve humanity.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: