close button
Switch to Iranwire Light?
It looks like you’re having trouble loading the content on this page. Switch to Iranwire Light instead.

A New Harlem Mural Exposes Education Apartheid in Iran

June 16, 2016
Sean Nevins
6 min read
A New Harlem Mural Exposes Education Apartheid in Iran
A New Harlem Mural Exposes Education Apartheid in Iran
A New Harlem Mural Exposes Education Apartheid in Iran

“Growing up as a Baha’i in Iran I always had that fear that anything can happen in a second,” says Nasim Biglari, a 29-year-old Baha’i from Tehran, Iran. “And that fear remained in me even when I was taking the entrance examination for universities.” Biglari describes how Baha’is were granted permission to take the test for university, but when the day came for them to get their results, official documents declared there was an “error,” making it impossible for them to actually enrol. “And this was the story of all the Baha’is that I knew,” Biglari, says.

A portrait of Biglari reading a book now adorns a massive brick wall at the Storefront Academy, a tuition-free private school in Harlem, New York. Every day, passengers traveling on the Metro North trains between the city and upstate New York can see the monochrome mural with its long drippings of gray paint from their windows. 

The mural was commissioned by the Education is Not A Crime street art campaign, an awareness-raising initiative to pressure Iran’s government to change its policies toward its Baha’i citizens, who are not allowed to attend university, and to encourage other countries to admit the students into their own universities. Iran’s government bars Baha’is from teaching and studying at university because of their beliefs – including the equality of men and women and the need for universal compulsory education.

The organization plans to paint 15 murals in Harlem, New York over the next three months in the run-up to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in September, when a delegation from the Iranian government and other world leaders will be in the city.

“I had no idea about the Baha’i religion and how they weren’t granted access to education like everyone else in Iran,” said Rone, the artist, who is from Melbourne, Australia. “I’m learning about it, but now I’m going to share it with people who follow my work,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the half-finished piece.

In collaboration with Education Is Not a Crime, the organization Street Art Anarchy chose Rone to work on the project, one of many international artists asked to get involved. “The issue with Baha’is in Iran is about respecting people who are different from you. It’s important to show that people from all over are supporting this message, [it’s] not just something that some artists in New York are doing,” said Andrew Laubie, Street Art Anarchy’s co-founder. Laubie started the organization to provide a non-commercial platform for street artists to display their work.

“Artists from around the world are meeting in New York to paint about equal rights and the fundamental right to education, just like the leaders of the world are meeting in New York for the General Assembly,” he said. 

The Storefront Academy was chosen for Rone’s mural in part because of its unique history of providing high-quality education to an under-served community. The school was founded in 1966 by Ned O’Gorman, a poet and author, who provided his students with meals upon arrival at school, nap space, as well as offering them Mandarin lessons in addition to teaching Shakespeare —all of this in a neighborhood where public schools rarely provided such opportunities. The school provides a private school education for free, as well as having a full arts program, counseling services, cooking classes, health education, and academic advisory to nurture young people from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade with a well-rounded learning experience.

“Our model focuses on academics as well as the social-emotional peace of the child, the whole child,” said Blair Brown, 28, a dance, yoga, and health teacher at Storefront. “Acknowledging what they’re going through emotionally or socially is just as important as building their academic intellect and knowledge.”

Brown thinks the mural plays an important role in exposing students to what’s going on in other parts of the world, which she hopes will help them appreciate the value of their own education. “I think what it does is that even though we are in an under-served community, compared to what’s going on in Iran, it’s not. These kids have the right to education, and I think [it’s important] to understand being at a school like this is very beneficial, amazing — and a great gift,” she said. 

After the mural was finished, Education Is Not A Crime visited the school to talk about the artwork, and about the issues facing Iran’s Baha’i community, addressing about 180 students, from kindergarten age to middle school.

“Nasim, the girl on the wall, is from a country named Iran in the Middle East,” said Ayana Hosten, the community outreach and education coordinator for the campaign. “Like you, she was a student and she wanted to go to school, and she worked very hard. ...and when it was time for her to go to university she took a test, and when she sent in her application and wanted to start, she was told by the government that her application was incomplete.” Hosten explained to the students that Baha’is are barred from attending university as matter of official government policy in Iran. 

She then urged the Storefront’s students to think about the subject matter of Rone’s mural. “I want you to imagine that you are in her place,” Hosten said. “Someone tells you that you can’t go to university because of who you are and what you believe. How would that make you feel?”   

The students, sitting cross-legged on the floor yelled out in unison, “Sad!” Many of them looked shocked to hear what Hosten had to say.

Then Hosten asked, “What would you want people in your country, and the rest of the world to do?”

Education Is Not A Crime, Hosten told the children, is a direct response to the education apartheid Iran currently imposes on its Baha’i citizens, one of many responses around the world. “We believe that everyone, no matter their gender, who they are, or what they believe, has the right to go to school,” she said.

Greig Roselli, 37, who teaches humanities to sixth graders at Storefront, told IranWire that students at the academy have some sense of how education can be affected by political and economic systems because of the inequality in education choices throughout New York.

“Our students can definitely understand how political systems are at play, and where you go to school can determine your future outcome, because some of our kids have been in schools where they didn’t feel as safe,” he said.

Roselli also compared the situation for Baha’is in Iran to the days of segregation in the United States. “If you just have the educated come from one class or one group of people, you’re really impoverishing your society. Take for example this idea that people of color should not be allowed to have education — ridiculous,” he said. “Segregation is ridiculous ... because then you create a society where you don’t integrate the power across the entire society.”


Society & Culture

Orlando Massacre Puts Shia Cleric on the Defensive

June 16, 2016
3 min read
Orlando Massacre Puts Shia Cleric on the Defensive