Jeff Gammage The Philadelphia Investigator
What wells up in him when he watches riot police crack down on protesters in Iran, Ali Houshmand said, is anger.
Outrage and disgust at the regime that controls his homeland, where security forces violently crush demonstrations that broke out after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
She died on September 16 after being arrested by vice squads for violating the law requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab, or headscarf.
Now her face and fate are the driving force behind women-led protests in cities around the world and for the growing emotional support and concern that reaches as far away as Glassboro, where Houshmand, who immigrated to the United States as a young man, is President of Rowan University.
Perhaps his position offers a small platform, he said in an interview. And yes, perhaps his talking could result in his nine siblings getting hurt or harassed in Iran.
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“But what is the alternative? For me to be quiet? Is this really a choice? This isn’t about me or my family, it’s a much bigger issue,” he said. “The majority of people in Iran are absolutely sick and disgusted with a regime that projects a very dark and rigid and restrictive lifestyle for everyone. Women are treated horribly.”
He sent one university-wide message to the Rowan community on Friday, urging them to support the Iranian people as they stand up to an aggressor.
Houshmand, 67, grew up in an Iran ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a pro-Western dictator who imprisoned and tortured dissidents and opponents by the thousands.
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It was a cosmopolitan society where reforms brought millions more children to school, doubled adult literacy rates, and women secured the right to vote and stand as a candidate in general elections Brookings Institution study found.
Houshmand’s family lived in poverty in the capital, Tehran. Neither of his parents could read. Neither he nor his nine brothers and sisters had enough food or clothing.
His father supported the family by collecting water in jars and selling it to those who did not have sanitation. He later ran a small grocery store and as a boy Houshmand worked with him before and after school.
His chance for a different life came at 20, after conscription, when the army offered him to go abroad to finish high school and attend college. His brothers gave him $70 and a one-way ticket to London.
The following week, Houshmand worked at a KFC earning 50p an hour.
That was in 1975, four years before the Islamic Revolution would turn Iran upside down. Houshmand earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in statistics from the University of Essex in England, and then received his master’s and doctoral degrees in industrial and operational engineering from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
In 1997 he became a US citizen.
He was a faculty member at the University of Cincinnati, later transferred to Drexel University and became Provost at Rowan in 2006. In 2012 he was appointed President of the university, which has developed from a pedagogical preparatory college into a nationally recognized comprehensive university. It teaches nearly 23,000 students in classes delivered online and on campuses in Glassboro, Camden and Stratford.
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As a younger man, Houshmand watched from abroad as the Shah was overthrown, and he and his friends hailed the dictator’s exile.
“We were all anti-Shah,” he said. “We wanted to be revolutionaries. We didn’t realize that our whole life was being taken from us.”
The revolution installed a Muslim theocracy riddled with violence and virulent anti-Americanism. Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 American diplomats hostageheld her for 444 days, a confrontation that helped make Jimmy Carter a president for one term.
Today, the two countries remain bitter enemies, even as more and more Iranians move to the United States.
About 385,000 immigrated, many during the revolution or the subsequent Iran-Iraq war. About another 200,000 people in the United States report having Iranian ancestry.
A third of all Iranian immigrants live in the greater Los Angeles area. About 4,200 people who immigrated or have ancestors live in the Philadelphia area.
Today in Iran, a movement that began as a few demonstrations over the death of one person has grown into large anti-government rallies in at least 40 cities. As a sign of resistance and solidarity, women burn their hijabs in bonfires and cut their hair.
The state-controlled media reports that at least 35 people have been killed in clashes.
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Iranian authorities said Amini died after falling into a coma while waiting alongside others who were arrested by morality police, which enforces strict rules requiring women to cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothing in public.
“This regime cannot be reformed. It’s not in his nature,” Houshmand said. “The alternative is regime change. And I don’t mean sending guns. I mean the decision of the Iranian community. Truly declare to the world that the world community supports the Iranian people.”
A big difference between 1979 and today is the potential to garner international support, fueled by social media and a global community ready to stand up for human rights and freedom.
“Honestly,” he said, “if you look at the country of 85 million people, the overwhelming majority have nothing to do with it [leadership]. And nothing to do with this system. They want a dignified life. They want education for their children. You love the countries of the world. And they suffer.”