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Dr. Houtan - Iranian-American Philanthropist

By Raha Rafii, NIAC

Washington DC, December 16, 2003 - "Knowledge makes a good person better," asserts Dr. Mina Houtan, founder of the Houtan Scholarship Foundation, which grants scholarships to graduate students pursuing academic study in Iranian language and culture. It is the aim of the Houtan Foundation to foster the continued scholarship of Persian history, culture, civilization, and language in order to help disprove negative perceptions of Iranians in the world.

The Foundation grants $2500 a semester to one student "who has demonstrated both an active interest in Iranian language and culture and has proven leadership potential." Scholarships are open to students of all backgrounds, Iranian as well as non-Iranian.

Houtan was born in Tehran, the ninth of twelve children, to a loving, close-knit family that held education in the highest priority. The members of the Houtan family were proud of their Persian heritage, and were committed to improving the lives of people they reached during their lifetime. "My parents wanted us to achieve the highest level of education, no matter what field we chose to study," she recounts. "Even our servants were to go to night school after work. If they showed an interest in a trade, my parents would finance their education."

Such emphasis on the importance of education, along with the influence of her mother and grandmother as language teachers in Iran, instilled in Houtan a lifelong desire to learn from and teach others. After obtaining a doctorate in the pharmaceutical sciences, she gained admission to New York University, where she obtained a PhD in chemistry. In 1979 she returned with her family to Iran and applied for a teaching position at the University of Tehran, but was turned down due to the revolutionary climate. Six months later, as the Iranian revolution broke out, she moved back to the United States.

The revolution and subsequent prejudice made finding a job in the US extremely difficult. Houtan found herself living in southern New Jersey with no teaching opportunities. The local colleges refused to hire her because of her Iranian background, and even the local high school refused, claiming she was "overqualified." She took a job in industry as a director of safety, but found it unsatisfying and left the company a few years later. She decided to use her managerial and organizational skills to found several successful organizations, but none which replaced her desire to be in an educational environment.

Then, recalling her parents' commitment to financing students' education, Houtan was inspired to establish a foundation in their memory to carry out their work. She began funding scholarships from her own lifetime savings. "To me, establishing a foundation for education was like being in college," says Houton. "I was extremely happy when I saw the students doing what I wanted to do. I felt so good."

The students that apply for the Houtan scholarship are all high achievers, most of them leaders of Persian societies at their universities. "Though we're happy that they are educating people about Iran's culture and heritage, we're looking for more than that-we're looking for people who make a difference in American society as a whole vis--vis Iran," says Houtan.

Lara Rabiee, the latest recipient of the Houtan Scholarship, made that difference. Rabiee's family left Iran during the hostage crisis when she was a child, and traveled between the US and England before settling in California. In 1986, at the age of fifteen, she visited Iran for the first time. According to Rabiee, having not been "very culturally Iranian," the trip instilled in her a great pride in her heritage and moved her to become more politically active.

With a Master's in Public Health Policy from Johns Hopkins University, Rabiee is currently working at the Community Service Society of New York and volunteering at the Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants, all the while attending the City University of New York Law School. Her work involves helping immigrants learn about their basic rights and gain access to social services such as health care. Rabiee first learned of the scholarship after doing a search on the internet, and was pleasantly surprised to find the Houtan Scholarship Foundation. "There's a sense of pride that there's a foundation that believes in your work, especially when it's other Iranians," Rabiee says.

The scholarship will help defray the cost of law school for Rabiee, while helping her to do the kind of work she finds important-assisting newly arrived communities claim their basic rights and build a life for themselves in their new home. After law school, Rabiee hopes to work with international organizations working on migrant rights, as well as those working on human rights in the Middle East. She is also considering moving to Iran and getting involved in the movement for social justice and increased freedoms.

Rabiee's work has particular relevance in the post-September 11 world. She stood out among the scholarship applicants because she was making a real difference in the number of detained Iranian asylum figures, according to Houtan. Though Rabiee happens to be of Iranian descent, the scholarship is meant for anybody who demonstrates activism on issues pertaining to Iranians and Iranian culture.

Houtan has given the scholarship to Italian and Russian students studying Iranian literature, and fondly remembers a German student studying Achaemenid Persian with the intent of going to Iran to teach students how to translate their heritage into their own language. Houtan could not underscore enough the importance of this student's work . "We are the children of Cyrus the Great, who was the first to write on human rights issues 2500 years ago," she explains. "After Persia's decline, other parts of the world started climbing the progressive pathway. Now, it is our duty to carry the torch of Cyrus the Great. It is time we have our history written by us, not others."

Houtan believes that the reputation of Iranians should not rest on their wealth and oil, but on their education, activism, and high ethical standards. "People who know me have a hard time understanding that I am 100 percent Iranian," says Houtan, "What they see on television is not me."

Houtan is currently looking to secure private and corporate sponsorship to establish two more scholarships, one open only to high school students from Iran, to enable them to compete in the International Olympiad, and another for undergraduate students. "There are lots of people who don't know the enjoyment of making someone smile," Houtan says. "Just picture that smile on a student. It gives me such pleasure."

Houtan believes that increased scholarships will increase the demand for teaching and learning, and lead to more exposure to ancient Persian culture and civilization. She encourages those who have grown up here not to forget where they come from and give back to their heritage, if not by studying it then by helping other to do so. "There are many ways that Iranians can help each other-if you loved a person, wouldn't you want to spend money on that person? What about when you love Iran-wouldn't you spend money and time on Iran? Success and wealth are only good if you share them."

In the meantime, Houtan advises students to work hard for their goals and not let obstacles discourage them. "I have gone through many obstacles in my life, but I never gave up. Finally, I was able to achieve my goal. Don't get bogged down in the details. It doesn't matter how you get there, just get there."

Houton also advises Iranian Americans to join NIAC. "Our ethics are being challenged by ignorant people. We should win this battle by educating them. NIAC has already started that challenge. We should join them. Alone we cannot win, but together we will."

NIAC's mission is to promote Iranian-American participation in civic life. Iranians-Americans deserve to make informed decisions on matters that affect them, and NIAC aims to facilitate this by bringing transparency to these debates. Our intent is to report on policy conferences and pieces of legislation as objectively as possible. NIAC, itself, as an organization, has no position on these debates. Our function is to provide Iranian-Americans with the necessary knowledge and tools to be able to participate in decision-making according to their own views.

The National Iranian American Council is a Washington, DC-based non-profit educational organization promoting Iranian-American participation in American civic and political life. For more information, please visit, email NIAC at or send a fax to 202-518-6187. NIAC is a 501 (c)3 non-profit organization. All donations to NIAC are tax-deductible.

... Payvand News - 12/16/03 ... --

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