Bita Daryabari & Banafsheh Akhlaghi: When Minds Meet Hearts Take Courage

By Mahasti Afshar

Bita Daryabari, an honoree at PAAIA’s upcoming Gala in Northern California on October 9th is well known for her philanthropy. Beginning with the founding of the Unique Zan Foundation in 2006, she has focused her attention on women’s welfare, dedicating substantial time and resources to improving health, education, and the human condition, especially in the Middle East. The world is surely a better place because of her.

Bita has now paired with another remarkable woman, Banafsheh Akhlaghi, and founded the Pars Equality Center, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco dedicated to protecting the civil and legal rights of Iranian Americans. Founder and President of the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement (2004) who captivated the audience at PAAIA’s Passing the Torch of Success in Orange County in January 2010, Banafsheh has tirelessly championed the rights of Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (MEMSA) peoples.

To welcome and celebrate the founding of the Pars Equality Center, we asked Ms. Daryabari and Ms. Akhlaghi to elaborate on their joint mission.

Is yours a meeting of minds? Did you come together by design or by accident?
Our coming together to create this organization was by design. But the genesis of the organization took a few years. Since 2001 Banafsheh’s first organization, NLSCA, served all the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian communities experiencing unfair treatment and surveillance in the US. Approximately 68% of NLSCA’s clients were Iranians in the US, and they faced government scrutiny simply because they were of Iranian descent. For example, Iran was among 24 countries whose nationals were singled out by the US government after 9/11 for a program called Special Registration.

Bita was a supporter and donor of NLSCA, and it became clear to both of us over time that no organization existed for the sole purpose of safeguarding the Iranian American community’s civil rights. This realization led us to collaborate on the creation of Pars Equality Center.

Why create the Pars Equality Center now?
During high school and college in the US, other students called Bita a terrorist. She has always wanted to find a solution to the de-humanization of Iranians in the United States. Our community does not have an organization engaged in this type of work like the Anti-Defamation League or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

After 9/11, like many other community members, Bita and her family have faced extensive questioning at Customs in airports. Recently, her 85-year old father was detained for questioning for two-and-a-half hours at San Francisco airport. She began discussions with Banafsheh about how to address these overreaching actions in May of this year. To address the unmet need for civil rights protection it is now time to create a civil rights organization for our community, and so Pars Equality Center was formed.

What services and specialties do you expect will be most in demand by Iranian Americans?

Civil rights legal services are very much in demand from the Iranian American community. As mentioned earlier, Iran was on the Special Registration list, which led to a great need for community education and for civil rights legal services. Many of those affected by new and evolving legal procedures may not know their rights or may not be able to afford civil rights representation. The areas of law impacting our community are evolving and most private attorneys may not have this kind of expertise. Pars Equality Center will respond to the great demand with a sliding scale payment structure for civil rights legal services so that we can serve a broad cross section of our community, and identify patterns where these cases do not meet basic US Constitutional standards. Pars will also provide training and development to the legal community as well as the community at large.

Pars will also work with other Iranian American community organizations to address the demand from the mainstream community and policy makers for accurate information about the Iranian American community. Our contribution will be to provide real world examples that emerge from our cases of how policies and inaccurate stereotypes of Iranian Americans continue to adversely impact our community.

What do you feel are your greatest challenges and what are your greatest assets in overcoming them?

In the face of the challenges we’ve discussed, never before have we had the kinds of minds and talent coming together to serve our community. The time is now to channel these exceptional talents and skills into creating a community organization similar to other American ethnic community organizations (like ADL and NAACP Legal Defense Fund). We are walking the same path as other ethnic communities – not only for those needing civil rights representation today, but by creating a lasting organization that will be there to respond to the changing needs of future generations of Iranian Americans.

How do you balance your professional career with the rest of your life?

As is the case in our cultural upbringing, family comes first, and then career. However, this isn’t work for us. This is our life’s passion.

Do you expect to collaborate with other organizations in the legal domain?

Absolutely! We plan to collaborate with other Iranian American organizations and with other American civil and human rights organizations. Partnership and cooperation are at the heart of our approach.

Thank you, ladies, and best of luck with this truly worthy endeavor.

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