Reza Fakhari: Fighting for Basic Human Rights

Reza Fakhari, Kingsborough Community College

Reza Fakhari first became aware of Amnesty International when he was a teenager in Iran in the early 1970s. “Under the shah, a lot of young people were arrested, tortured, forced to make confessions,” he says. “Amnesty International was advocating on their behalf, and I promised myself that one day if I could do something to help Amnesty, I would.”

Fakhari became a dissident of sorts himself, arrested when he was 18 simply for possessing banned books. But a serendipitous connection sent him to the United States instead of prison. And years later, he kept his promise to himself. In 2000, Fakhari established a chapter of Amnesty International at LaGuardia Community College. And in 2014 he was elected vice chairman of Amnesty International USA.

Reza Fakhari

Fakhari is now assistant vice president for academic affairs and associate provost at Kingsborough Community College, a campus with many students of diverse national backgrounds whose childhoods were not unlike his. Fakhari grew up in a small Iranian city, the son of a rug maker with no formal education. He was determined to be the first in his family to go to college, and he had his eyes on the United States.

But that dream seemed to be dashed in one moment only a few months before he was to leave. “I read a lot of writings of political prisoners and books about sociology and religion,” Fakhari recalls. “The shah’s secret police, SAVAK, invaded my home and saw my books. They arrested me and they arrested my friends. But my father knew the head of SAVAK in my city —he was making a rug for him — and if not for this connection I would have gone to prison. Instead I was told to leave the country right away.”

Fakhari arrived in the United States in March 1973 and enrolled at a small college in Minnesota as a chemistry major with plans for medical school. But he switched from hard science to social science and eventually came to New York to earn his master’s and doctorate in international relations at the New School. “I always wanted to go back to Iran and serve my people,” he says. “But after the revolution in 1979, Iran became even more repressive than under the shah and I couldn’t go back. I wasn’t able to see my parents for 10 years.”

Fakhari began his teaching career at Fordham University and joined CUNY in 1987 as a professor of social sciences at LaGuardia. Over the next two decades, he became known for elevating world affairs as an academic area and bringing global human rights to the forefront of concerns for students. Fakhari built up an international studies program at LaGuardia, and the Amnesty International chapter he started there hosted a major human rights conference — “Teach Truth to Power” — whose keynote speaker was Caroline Kennedy.

Fakhari moved to Kingsborough in 2005, continuing his leadership on a campus whose students have 142 national heritages. As chairman of the board of Student World Assembly, a global organization that promotes democracy and human rights, Fakhari has organized numerous campaigns and causes at Kingsborough and beyond. The programs he has conceived and implemented have helped students become become better global citizens and more engaged in the struggle for human rights in all its forms — civil, economic, democratic and religious. The work eventually led to his election as an Amnesty USA board member and then its vice chairman.

“Our life’s purpose is to help others, and Amnesty International is at the forefront of fighting for basic and equal human rights globally,” said Kingsborough President Farley Herzek. “Dr. Fakhari’s election as board vice chair brings this work close to home for us at KCC, where many of our students come from places where human rights issues are of concern.”

Fakhari told Kingsborough’s student newspaper Scepter that students sometimes stop him on campus and thank him for being the kind of educator whose devotion to good transcends his role as associate provost. “These human rights are so important to them,” he said, “and they are very proud that the Kingsborough community is at that high level.”