DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN – Dr. Reza Fakhari, 67, was born and raised in Iran. He immigrated to the United States when he was 18-years-old. He first went to Minnesota for his undergraduate studies and then moved to NYC. He has spent more time living in Brooklyn than in any other place in the world and he loves it dearly. His lifetime of work revolves around defending human rights globally and teaching students how they can become agents of change. Recently, he was elected the Chair of Amnesty International USA.
Fakhari developed his political consciousness during the 1970s. The years under the Shah were highly repressive in Iran, he explained. “It was impossible for you to read, to speak, to move, and you were constantly being watched.”
Fakhari loved reading, especially books on sociology. Through his research, he came across statements of political prisoners —many of them under the regime of the Shah— who were tortured and executed. It was during that time that Fakhari had finished making arrangements to travel to the U.S to attend school. But then, the secret police came to his home and arrested him at 18-years-old for keeping testimonies of political prisoners and possessing books that were banned. He was in prison for three days, which he explained were some of the most frightening days of his young life.
“It was a kingdom of fear. There was no freedom of speech in any sense of it,” Fakhari recalled. “I made a promise to myself that when I got out… that I would do anything for amnesty.”
And he kept his promise. He would spend his life defending human rights and would teach college students to do so as well. After receiving his Ph.D., he served as professor and dean at LaGuardia Community College; dean, associate provost, and vice president at Kingsborough Community College; and a host of other roles at various colleges throughout the world. Throughout it all, he was dedicating his time and efforts to Amnesty International USA, an organization that engages people in the U.S to fight injustices around the world.
“I don’t think any human being should be tortured, should go to prison for expressing their views or for their right to read whatever they want. Human rights, the fundamental human rights, those that are universal, are very important to me. It doesn’t matter if the people are Iranian or they are from Poland or from Myanmar,” Fakhari said. “We are in this globalized world where every human being should be treated with dignity and I will fight for it.”
In October of 2018, he started working at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights. Through his efforts, he established SFC International, a department that works on enrolling more foreign students, developing opportunities for students to study abroad, and enriching the academic curriculum to help students understand their roles as global citizens. And just last week, St. Francis College established its first Amnesty International student chapter.
Several months ago, Miguel Martinez-Saenz, the President of St. Francis College, urged Fakhari to run for Chair of Amnesty International USA because of the immense work Fakhari has done with the organization. In fact, Fakhari had been first elected to the Amnesty International Board in 2014 and served for three years as Vice-Chair of the Board and Chair of the Governance Committee. He chaired its Human Rights Working Group on Strategy and Impact from 2017 to 2018 and the Working Group on Governance Documents in 2020. And he has served on the Personnel, Audit, and Finance Committees. So, Fakhari ran for the position and was soon elected.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” Fakhari laughed when asked how he feels about his new position. “This political moment is so important. You have democracy erosion all over. You have human rights under attack and some political leaders are taking advantage of COVID-19 to do repressive measures. And then there’s the rise of Authoritarian Populism… Even COVID-19 is perceived as involving central human rights issues because we have seen the disproportionate impact of it and we want to make sure the response and recovery to COVID-19 are inclusive of all people who have been disproportionately impacted.”
As the Chair, he will work to develop St. Francis College, Amnesty International’s first-ever coordinated interdisciplinary Human Rights academic curriculum, which will start as a minor or certificate program and eventually offer bachelor’s and potentially master’s degrees once they have plenty of students. It’s something that Martinez-Saenz is excited about.
“I’m thrilled to see Dr. Fakhari take on this well-deserved leadership role at AIUSA,” Martinez-Saenz said. “His extraordinary track record of human rights activism brings invaluable perspective to our classrooms and to the College’s executive team. His work here ensures we are a global institution in every sense of the word. That is cornerstone to our Franciscan commitment to welcome and dignify all people.”
It’s something that Fakhari himself is excited about as well. After all, he loves working with college students, even though it was something he wasn’t expecting himself to get into.
Fakhari wanted to initially become a diplomat. In fact, that is his area of expertise— his Ph.D. is in International Politics and Diplomacy. Fakhari had planned on moving back to Iran and becoming a diplomat, ambassador, or a government official. But that dream disappeared when he realized that there was going to be no democratic system in Iran. So one day, when he was in graduate school, someone working at LaGuardia Community College told him about the school having a forum on the Middle East. They asked him if he’d like to speak. He accepted the opportunity and two years later, they offered him a position. He took it and never regretted it.
“I have always wanted to be in a profession where you have an impact, where you’re able to have a positive influence working with students to educate them, to empower them, to provide an agency for them, to advocate for them to be an agent of change,” he said. “It has worked wonderfully. A lot of students who have gone to successful careers keep in touch with me and it is satisfying to see that transformation.”
One of Fakhari’s goals is to one day make sure human rights education is implemented in middle school and high school because that education early on in a person’s life can really make a difference. Speaking of making differences, Fakhari explained that in order for a person to do so, education should come first.
“You have to be able to develop a framework that students can understand issues in an informed fashion. After you educate them effectively, then you empower them. After this class, what are you going to do to make a change in your community as a global citizen? How are you going to advocate for human rights?” he said. “It’s about educating the students first and then helping them feel empowered so they can believe that they can become leaders and become leaders of change.”