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Fardin Sanai: From Iran to Albany

By: Adriana Carreno

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“My job is to be an educator, I want to open up the eyes of students whose eyes haven’t been open to refugees.”

Fardin Sanai, a six foot one man, walked in with authoritative energy.

With freshly polished black leather dress shoes and a tailored navy suit, he sat silently for a minute and fumbled around uncomfortably with his silk red tie, preparing to take himself back to where his journey began.

He sat up tall, with a soft smile, “I know I’ll keep saying it, but I come from the most beautiful place on Earth.”

Born into a middle class family in a small town in Iran near the Caspian Sea, Sanai would spend his days by the ocean. His house sat a few hundred yards from the beach and around it stood tropical fruit plants. He lived where everyone would vacation.

His father, just like Sanai, was a self-made man and loved by many in the town. Growing up, he knew his future was set for him.

He would go attend a college in Europe, just as his two older siblings did, and then take over his father’s business.

But that future changed in 1978, when the revolution began in Iran.

This is the year his life turned upside down and the day he went from a being boy to a man.

The first people who suffered were the religious minorities.

Sanai’s father was taken to prison and tortured.

People of the Bahai faith were looted and their homes were burnt to the ground, there were even family members going missing.

The Bahai teachings are almost in direct contrast of the fanatic regime in Iran.

The religion allows you to decide if you want to continue its practice, woman don’t have to wear hijabs, and women are seen as equals.

“We believe women and men serve society as two wings to a bird, both have to be fully and equally devout before this bird can fly in harmony.”

Sanai felt like a prisoner in his own home, so he fled from Iran to avoid capture and execution.

With his aunt and uncle, he would journey on foot and in vans, across the desert and over the Atlantic Ocean.

To put it in perspective, the distance between Earth and space is 62 miles. A journey taken from Iran to the U.S. by 18-year-old Sanai took 7,239 miles. At that rate Sanai could have traveled to space 116 times.

“We were to meet somewhere in the dead of night in the middle of the desert.”

He began to tear up, breaking his calm demeanor.

He reached into his shirt and carefully pulled out the golden medallion given to him by his mother. It was engraved with a Bahai symbol. Putting the medallion around his neck, she told him:

“Until now I tried to keep you safe – You’re in Gods hands now.”

At one point in his travels he was face to face with machine guns and came across a village that had just been attacked by chemical weapons. The smugglers told him to cover his mouth and run. He ran passed the women and children who were scattered along the ground shaking, some bleeding, some dead.

They stayed briefly in the city of Quetta in northern Pakistan, then finally made base in another city called Karachi. There they could try and find a flight to Australia or somewhere in the west. At the time, Spain and Portugal were the only countries that allowed Iranians to enter without a visa.

“We bought tickets to go to Portugal, connecting through Denmark. Our plan was to wait for the planes to leave and ask for asylum. And that’s what we did.”

When Sanai was going through customs, the border control knew after looking at their papers that they were forged. They handed the agent another passport, instead.

“It had $300 in it. So, he took the $300 and let us go… Revolution makes a lot of people poor and a lot of other people very rich.”

For four months Sanai lived in Denmark, until he was allowed into the U.S. as a refugee.

“You would think this four months of travel would be the challenging part, but I didn’t realize I was going to face what was going to be the greatest part of my journey.”

When Sanai arrived to the U.S. in 1982, he immediately started to attend community college, along with working a few manual labor jobs.  

But guilt started to eat at him.

He felt like he abandoned his family and friends. What bothered him most was the people who had no idea where Iran was or what was going on in the country. It turned him into a very angry man.

His voice rose, “There are people dying over there, the Bahais are standing up for the equality of mankind and giving our life for it! And no one knows we exist.”

Sanai worked at Marist College where he earned his bachelor’s degree. Eventually, he made his way to Albany where he worked his way up to the Vice President position for University Advancement.

But still, a big part of his life was hidden.

It wasn’t until he met his best friend, who is now his wife, that he felt strong enough to tell his story. His wife made him understand that people have to accept who he is and if they can’t, that’s their problem.

To Sanai, his wife was the cool water over his steaming anger.  

Memories of his journey come back in increments, some stories have come back to him in the later parts of his life, especially after the birth of his daughter. Who for the first time this past Christmas, traveled to Iran to see her father’s town.

“I told her, before we leave I want you to write a paragraph about what you think you’re going to see and when we return, I want you to write me another paragraph about what you saw.”

His daughter only heard the bad side of Iran, but wanted her to see his home, the place Sanai believes to be the most beautiful place on Earth.

What he wanted most from his daughter, was for her to be proud to identify herself as Iranian and part of the Bahai faith.

Breaking one more time with happy tears, Sanai said, “And thank God she loved it!”

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