Bita Daryabari a tireless advocate for Iranians

  • February 27, 2011

By Carolyne Zinko
Chronicle Staff Writer

Outside high society and high-tech circles, few people have heard of Bita Daryabari. Even inside, she has often been defined more for whom she was once married to, Google executive Omid Kordestani.

But Daryabari, who moved to the United States as a teen in the 1980s to escape repression in her native Iran, is on the ascent as a philanthropist fighting for human rights.

In 2006, she founded the Unique Zan Foundation, which works to improve education, health and professional opportunities for women in the Middle East. In 2008, she endowed a $2.5 million Persian studies chair and annual Bita Prize at Stanford University to promote Iranian art, literature, history and culture.

In October, she launched the Pars Equality Center in San Francisco, the nation's first legal assistance center for Iranians. Her co-founder, Banafsheh Akhlaghi, a former Amnesty International director and legal expert, said that in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Iranian Americans have faced increased discrimination on the job and elsewhere, based on the misperception that Iranians were involved in the World Trade Center bombing.

(The key suspects in the bombings were al Qaeda operatives from Yemen, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, according to published reports.)

"This is for saving the dignity of Iranian Americans in the United States against any discrimination," Daryabari said at a fundraiser Feb. 11, which drew 400 guests to the Hotel Sofitel in Redwood Shores.

Daryabari knows how it feels to be considered an outsider. In 1985, when she was 16, her father, a dentist, and mother, a homemaker, sent her to live with an aunt and uncle in St. Joseph, Mo. She had refused to wear a hijab - a veil that covers the body, except for the face - as required by law, and resistors faced jailing, or even death.

In Missouri, her high school classmates taunted her, calling her a terrorist, Daryabari recalled. It was four years after the Iranian hostage crisis, in which 66 Americans had been held captive for 444 days at the American Embassy in Tehran by militants.

Vocal Advocate

Daryabari earned a degree in computer science from California State University Hayward and a master's degree in telecommunications management from Golden Gate University. She worked in the telecom industry for a number of years before leaving to focus on raising two children, a son, 11, and a daughter, 14.

Nazila Dorodian, an Atherton dentist who attended the fundraiser, met Daryabari at a party 15 years ago, and the two became friends. "She had a very sweet manner about her," Dorodian said, "but she was always bothered by what was going on in Iran. She is very vocal about what she thinks is right, whether it is world politics, foreign policy or education - there's no BS with Bita."

Years in Making

And when Daryabari heard that a mutual friend of Dorodian's, an Iranian immigrant, had been subjected to a sarcastic remark about her hijab by a government worker at a Social Security office, she became indignant. "She said, 'What? We need an apology for that!' " Dorodian recalled.

The Pars Equality Center was years in the making, but not because Daryabari wanted to wait. Akhlaghi had created the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement, serving clients from 24 Middle Eastern, north African and Asian nations.

After a stirring broadcast on Iranian TV about the plight of a deaf Iranian Jewish man whom the United States was trying to deport, Daryabari made an appointment to meet Akhlaghi. She wanted to help and asked for a separate support group for Iranians. Akhlaghi declined then, but by last year, with 68 percent of the National Legal Sanctuary's cases involving Iranian Americans, she agreed that the time for the Pars Equality Center had come.

Of Daryabari, she said, "There are a lot of people like Bita who have access to financial means, but there are very few people who use them as a means for social change and social good."

Moreover, noted Daryabari's aunt, Kaynoosh Partamian, who is a psychologist, "She has always rooted for the underdog."

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