When Dr. Amir Rezvani, associate research professor of biological psychiatry, went back to his home country of Iran in December 2003, he thought it would be just like any other visit: a time to revisit his past and the many family members who still live there. He was even invited to give a seminar on biomedical aspects of addiction--one of his areas of research at Duke--in a Tehran psychiatric hospital. Yet he never expected what he ended up experiencing.
While driving to the Iranian capital of Tehran on Dec. 26, Rezvani heard about an earthquake in the historic southeastern town of Bam, about 620 miles away. It was an event that devastated the country--over 40,000 people died--and left a mark on his heart.
Since the government would not let any outsiders into the area, Rezvani could not see the physical damage for himself. Instead, he decided to take a walk on the streets of Tehran to see how the people were affected. What he saw was a heartwarming sight: people everywhere, trying to help.
"Almost in every major intersection in Tehran... people, the government and students had set up tents and stands to collect donations, and people were standing in line to give donations, to give blood. I saw women carrying clothing and children carrying their toys... to give away to the victims," he said.
Seven hours later, Rezvani was still walking. "I didn't realize how long I had walked because I was so busy observing, seeing and interacting with people. The feeling was like after September 11th here [in the United States]," he added.
When he returned, Rezvani decided he had to do something more to help. As the faculty advisor for Duke's Persian Student Association and a member of other Iranian organizations in the area, Rezvani is currently helping to organize the influx of donations to eventually build a school and hospital clinic near the earthquake area.
"We cannot comprehend [the destruction] here. All of the schools, all of the hospitals are destroyed. More than 500 villages have been destroyed," he said, adding that with so much loss, there will be a "long term need" for help. Rezvani attributed the idea of building a school and clinic to the collection of organizations who are participating in the cause.
These organizations--from Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and even Charlotte--have already raised half of their $100,000 goal, and Rezvani noted that much of the money has come from generous individuals who never before had paid attention to the Persian organizations.
Here at Duke, the PSA is now working harder than ever to raise awareness of the Persian culture and the effect of the December earthquake. This Friday at George's Club, for example, the group is hosting "Persian Night," where international music and an upstairs lounge with hookahs and a Middle-Eastern setting will allow students to learn about and appreciate the Persian culture.
"The earthquake in Bam served as a powerful catalyst to unite the PSA behind a common cause of promoting awareness of our culture, which consequently, manifested itself in the idea of hosting a Persian Night," wrote sophomore Nazaneen Homaifar, current PSA president, in an e-mail.
Duke students have also teamed up with the other organizations in the area to help raise funds for the future school and clinic. "I think a lot of Persian families and the culture emphasize the importance of education. [Building a school] is one of the best ways to give back and reach out to the communities there," Homaifar added.
Rezvani and other members of the participating organizations will be visiting Iran over the next several months to oversee plans for the school and clinic.
"[Bam] was a historic town, more than 3,000 years old. It's a shame to see that it's gone--really heartbreaking. There is a long-term need for that area, for years to come," Rezvani said, adding that the organizations will keep on raising money until there is enough for the school and clinic. "We have to [keep going]. And I think we can."
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