Dear President Ambar, Engage With Families of Iran’s Victims

My name is Azadeh Pourzand, OC ’07. When I started at Oberlin College as a first-year in 2003, I was a new immigrant to the United States, having essentially fled my beloved birthplace, Iran. Given that both my parents were human rights defenders in Iran, they both experienced persecution, intimidation, imprisonment, and, in the case of my father, unimaginable torture. When I joined Oberlin, my mother, who had brought me to the U.S., was exiled from Iran while my father was imprisoned under excruciating conditions. I arrived at Oberlin homesick, with broken English, and intimidated by everything around me that felt so foreign and distant from where I belonged.

At Oberlin I found a new home. Even though sometimes I would feel at odds with everything around me, the campus grew to be a safe home far away from home. The Oberlin community became my family. In fact, I am still in touch with many of my friends from my time at Oberlin. Even during the isolation period of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of my Obie friends and I checked on each other from different parts of the world. During my time at Oberlin, many professors knew my pain well. They had seen me cry about my father numerous times, and some had emerged to be my support system.

So, please hear me out as a member of the Oberlin family and with all the love, pride, and the need to seek truth and fight for justice that comes with being an Obie. I am currently a human rights researcher and advocate working to hold the Islamic Republic accountable and help justice to prevail in Iran. Naturally, I have come to know about Amnesty International’s findings regarding the past of Oberlin College Professor Mohammad Jafar Mahallati and the campaign led by some of the families of the victims. While not a member of this campaign, I am writing to ask you to please allow Oberlin to shine as it always does throughout history when it comes to the commitment to truth seeking, equality, and justice.

While at Oberlin, I learned about how repressive powers eliminate the “subaltern voice” from mainstream history; I learned about the importance of the narratives of the repressed. When at Oberlin, I did my study abroad in Argentina, learning about the details of truth and reconciliation committees, hoping that I could contribute to the formation of one in Iran where I could present the case of my father. All the while, I did not know enough details about the recent history of my own country, mostly due to the fact the Islamic Republic had not only eliminated many precious lives but also eradicated their trace from history books altogether.

But now that we know about these allegations, we have to, at the very least, seek the truth in an inclusive and transparent manner, while staying true to our own principles. My principle is that human rights belong to everyone in every nation and not only to some in some nations. If we, together, as a diverse community of Oberlin College, struggle against important causes, we should also, together, struggle against grave violations of human rights in faraway countries like Iran. I also believe that knowledge is impactful when liberalized and applied for the benefit of humanity. I learned much of this at Oberlin. Even though I have been away from the campus for 14 years, I am certain that Oberlin continues to stay true to its values that center around learning, service, equality, and activism for a better world for all.

Imagine this: some of the victims of the mass executions in discussion were as young or even younger than Oberlin students. Many of them had similar youthful and idealistic aspirations to change the world, to voice their grievances, feeling an urge to play a role in the future of their country. They were a generation caught in the midst of a bloody revolution followed by bloodier years under the repressive rule of the Islamic Republic.

As an alumna of Oberlin College who has cried in every single building of our campus while hearing and imagining the specific torture methods done to my father, I would like to ask you to please treat the protestors with empathy. I received love and felt heard and appreciated while at Oberlin. When approached by the organizers in recent days, I spoke with them at great length, hearing their point of view. During this interaction, I also told the organizers of this protest about my incredible life experiences at Oberlin, assuring them that the College is a jewel of a place when it comes to truth seeking in history and struggling for justice to prevail.

President Ambar, I acknowledge and appreciate that your position is more complex than mine in this matter, but I hope you can meet with the campaigners with an open heart. Please explain to them with transparency the investigation mentioned in The Oberlin Review and conducted by the College, which found no evidence of Mr. Mahallati’s involvement in this mass execution. Please allow them to engage in an open dialogue with you — directly with you — and hear them out. They question the thoroughness and inclusivity of this investigation, given that none of them, as family members of the victims, nor any human rights expert in the Iranian community, were consulted during the re-vetting process. I would like to ask the College to not only transparently explain this process but also consider the possibility of reopening this evaluation and engaging the families of the victims, Iranian human rights experts, and lawyers for a thorough, inclusive, and transparent process.

Like me, the protesters have lost fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, daughters, and husbands in Iran. Stating in passing that Oberlin College empathizes with the family members of the victims is not enough. The College should engage in a rigorous, substantive, and constructive dialogue with the campaigners in order to better understand their point of view. We do not have to agree on everything to engage in a constructive dialogue; Oberlin has taught me this very important life lesson.

At the moment, Oberlin College is, sadly, a difficult name to mention in Iran’s human rights community. Please welcome the family members of the victims and their allies and help them in their struggle to seek truth — the whole truth  — accountability, and justice. Please be transparent about the re-vetting process, and please don’t let them leave feeling unwelcome and unheard.

Should you be interested to further engage in this conversation with me on this topic, I am at your disposal. At this juncture, your leadership is critical for Oberlin’s continued legacy in its commitment to human rights, equality, dignity, and justice for all.