Dreams come true
In the 1970s as more formal Zoroastrian associations sprung up in North America (NA), the notion of having centers of their own was highly improbable. Most of the immigrants were professionals who found their way to the West as students. They were beginning to buy homes, pay mortgages, raise money to see their children through college.
As Lovji Cama, who came to the USA in 1960 with the help of a Tata scholarship and completed a doctorate in chemistry from Columbia University, noted in an article in Parsiana (“Westward ho,” August-September 1974), “When I first came here there were perhaps 20 to 25 Parsis in the (New York) area, mostly students and on Pateti and Jamshedi Navroz someone would invite friends and have a party at home.” As the numbers grew to over 50 five years later, “a few of us decided to get together and rent a hall at the International House,” a residential center for graduate students. A Parsi meal was cooked and everyone in the vicinity was invited.
With the relaxation of the immigration laws, “the number of Parsis increased to about 180 adults in 1971 and the nature of our population changed from a mainly student population to families. The need for a Zoroastrian association was now felt and in 1973 the Zoroastrian Association of Greater New York (ZAGNY) was formed.”
Writing in the August-November 1975 issue of Parsiana (“West side story”) Ervad Pervez Patel of New York wrote, “The need for an agiary or a prayer hall is felt by most of our coreligionists here (but) real estate prices are too high.”
ZAGNY made a plea in June 1974 (“The gift of Guiv,” Parsiana, March-May 1976): “We feel that such a place is a necessity and without which it will be extremely difficult and perhaps impossible to maintain our identity in this country… In the tradition of Zoroastrian charity let us all contribute… The goal we have set for ourselves… seems at present like a dream.”
Cama, then secretary of ZAGNY, wrote in the same issue of Parsiana, “After a year we had $ 1,500 (Rs 91,500) in our special fund. That was just enough to buy one square foot of land in Manhattan.”
All that changed in 1975 when Iranian philanthropist Arbab Rustam Guiv committed US $ 100,000 (Rs 61,00,000) for the acquisition of a center. By 1977 the first North American Darbe Mehr was established. Guiv and his wife Morvarid went on to finance other centers in the continent and thereafter the Zartoshty brothers, Faridoon and Mehraban assisted, both in NA and London.
These farsighted Iranian philanthropists realized the Zoroastrians in NA were struggling to create an identity for themselves but lacked the financial wherewithal to create centers. They also knew that the Iranian Zoroastrians of yore owed a debt to the Parsis of India who had funded schools and orphanages in Iran, worked for the uplift of the community and convinced the Islamic rulers to abolish the dreaded jizya tax.
With the Islamic Revolution of 1979 many Iranian Zoroastrians sought refuge in the West. In earlier times they had turned to the East but living conditions in India could not compare with those in Europe and NA. The Iranians added to the diversity of the Zoroastrian diaspora in NA which till that time comprised largely Parsis from the Indian subcontinent.
The differences in the two cultures created impediments. The Iranian Zoroastrians parted ways from ZAGNY and formed their own association, the Iranian Zoroastrian Association. US based journalist Porus Cooper wrote on “The ZAGNY split” (Parsiana, June 1985) noting “cultural differences magnified by personal incompatibility appear to have been the true catalyst for the split.”
Over the years Parsi and Iranian Zoroastrians have learned to live together, share in each others’ festivities and work together for the betterment of all. The second and third generations raised in North America share a common cultural background. They have either moved away from Gujarati and Persian and adopted English and/or are bilingual. They have grown up in a democratic society where freedom of speech is ensured, where discrimination on the basis of gender or race is illegal and where people can openly practice their religion, convert to another faith or profess atheism.
The new comers have been told what counts is largely merit and effort. Your antecedents are secondary. The North American Zoroastrians have brought to bear modern management techniques to community issues, to raise funds, to hold congresses every two years, to form the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA), a truly representative pan North American federation. They have learned to work together.
The newest darbe mehr built by the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington Incorporated is a joint effort by Iranian and Parsi Zoroastrians. The Kamran Dar-e Mehr (see “Worship at Washington,” Zoroastrians Abroad, page 21) is added to the list of around a dozen already in existence in the span of 37 years. By any yardstick this is a remarkable achievement.
The FEZANA website features three PowerPoint presentations that demonstrate the speed and thoroughness with which three North American Zoroastrian associations have from scratch built or are building institutions in the 21st century. The Zoroastrian Association of North Texas was formed on March 14, 1989. A building fund was created on August 5, 1995. Total funds collected by 2009 were $ 1,250,000 (Rs 7,62,50,000) including $ 200,000 (Rs 1,22,00,000) pledged by the Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hong Kong, Canton and Macao. Land was purchased in February 2006. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in February 2009. Construction was completed in May 2011.
The Zoroastrian Association of California (ZAC) was formed in 1974. Eleven years later they opened The Arbab Guiv Center in Westminster. When a larger center was required, Purin Boman pledged $ 150,000 (Rs 91,50,000) in 2004. A year later a committee of around 10 people was appointed to raise funds and locate a plot. The Center was opened in June 2010. ZAC has now completed phase one of its Atash Kadeh(prayer hall), a half a million dollar project that will develop on a 1,972 square foot, stand alone building, “complete with a kebla, urvisgah(place for higher liturgical ceremonies), priest’s room, etc.”
For ZAGNY’s new, four-and-a-half million dollar (Rs 27,45,00,000) darbe mehr a committee was formed in 2010. The project was unveiled to the community in May 2011. Final site plan approvals were obtained in March 2014. A ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony was held in March 2014. The building is expected to be completed by late 2015. Three-and-a-half million dollars have been raised. One million dollars is left.
For the benefit of other aspirants ZAGNY has listed 10 tips or “rules of the game” for new darbe mehr projects. These are: a dream team, to lead by example, take a flying start, communicate, ask unabashedly, prioritize, just do it, map and measure, learn and improve, and finally be entrepreneurial.
In India even though the will and vision is there the same tempo cannot be maintained due to the bureaucratic red tape involved. Still Bardoli did reconstruct its agiary, Mahuva refurbished its hall, Maneck Baug was constructed in Poona’s Sir J. J. Agiary compound, the bhoomi poojan of the New Bombay agiary took place on Dussehra (October 3, 2014). There are several other success stories. But there are also failures. Existing assets are neglected, underutilized or encroached upon. If we cannot keep pace with the North American Zoroastrians, let us at least emulate the local anjumans that have served their members well.