Dr. Behrooz Behbudi leads the Global Unity Partnership, an organization whose mission is "to arrange dialogue and build a bridge of mutual understanding, peace, respect and reconciliation throughout the world; to promote appreciation of Middle Eastern and North American cultures, religions, and ethical and educational values."
Behbudi is in a unique position to bring this about: born a Shiite Muslim, he became a protégé of the last Shah of Iran; as a convert to Roman Catholicism, he was given a rosary by Pope John Paul II.
For three generations, the Behbudi family occupied senior positions in the Iranian imperial court. "My father's uncle," says Behbudi, "helped the Pahlevi dynasty come to power." (In 1921, General Reza Khan overturned the Qajar rulers, and, as Reza Shah Pahlevi, established the Pahlevi dynasty. Behrooz Behbudi's grandfather and his brother Solieman, his father, uncle and father's cousin Nasser all served in the royal palace. When Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlevi succeeded his father in 1941, Behbudi's father was put in charge of the Shah's not inconsiderable assets.
For decades, the Behbudis enjoyed a life of riches and privileges. Young Behrooz Behbudi (Bay-rooz Bay-boo-dee) was sent to Cranbrook, a private school in Australia.
He remembers it as "very British-uniforms, canings, chapel every morning; a great school, with great friends and magnificent beaches."
His uncle and education guide, mathematics professor Karim Rokhnejad, suggested that Behrooz complete his secondary education in Canada. He did, at Sir Winston Churchill School in Vancouver. He went on to Vancouver Community College, Langara, and degrees in arts and sciences at the University of British Columbia. Then he enrolled at the United States International University in San Diego, where he earned a doctorate in Human Behavior and Leadership.
During holidays, he met often with the Shah, as the representative of Iranians studying abroad. "He was always kind and generous to me," remembers Behbudi. "He was pro-west, pro American. He felt the need to bring Iranian culture to European standards." In 1978, Behbudi was visiting the Shah at the monarch's summer palace, when Pahlevi "told me to pack my bags and go to Canberra as his ambassador. It was the beginning of direct diplomatic relations with Australia."
But it was also the beginning of the end for Pahlevi. In 1979, followers of Ayatollah Khoemini overthrew the monarchy. The Shah was forced to flee the country and so were the Behbudis. "We were blamed as a source of evil," says Behbudi. "Our properties were confiscated, our homes ransacked. We were stripped
of privileges. Revolutionary guards were ordered to seize every one of us, which would have meant the firing squad.
"But we got out-my parents, my two sisters and I-and the United States gave us asylum.
"I went to see the Shah, in hospital in New York. He couldn't understand what had happened, why the Iranians hated him so much." Reza Pahlevi spent his last, sad days in Egypt, with Queen Farah. He died in 1980.
"The bad news kept coming from Iran-terrible persecutions, friends executed, war with Iraq. I had horrifying dreams, couldn't concentrate, went through depression. I was disgusted with my culture and country"
And so, Behbudi traveled. "I had friends who invited me to different parts of the world. I met men of wealth and power, but for reasons still unclear to me, I was unable to be motivated to take any position they offered." It would be almost twenty years before Behbudi found his true vocation. When he did, it would come in the aftershock of an earthquake.
In the meantime, Behbudi returned to the United States International University as an adjunct assistant professor in the School of Business and Management, and served through the early 1980s as executive secretary to the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the World Congress of University Presidents. He began acting as consultant to various companies in medical and technological fields, and also to philanthropic organizations.
And then, his personal life took two dramatic turns. In Greece, he met Susan Williams, a designer based in London, where she worked with David Hicks, interior decorator of the residences of Queen Elizabeth II. Three months later, Behrooz and Susan were married. They now have two children, Elizabeth Olivia and Noah Thomas, and make their home in West Vancouver.
Next, Behbudi had a religious conversion, and became a Christian. He had been born into a state religion-the country's full name is the Islamic Republic of Iran-but he had spent much of his life in Christian surroundings. "I remember in Australia being very impressed by the Church of England clergy, and by the social differences. Women at worship who weren't required to wear burkas." Then, in Canada and the United States, he met a number of Christians, including Reverend William Bright, Reverend Harald Bredeson, Reverend Billy Graham, and Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who influenced his thinking.
Behbudi was baptized as a Christian in a Roman Catholic Church in La Jolla. Later, as a member of the Prince of Peace Delegation, he traveled to Rome and was received at the Vatican. "The Pope blessed me and my family," he says, "and gave me a beautiful rosary."
In August 1997, an earthquake devastated Khorassan, a province in northeast Iran. Hard hit was the principal city, Mashad. More than 65,000 families were left homeless; more than 5,400 people were killed. Behbudi felt compelled to do something.
"My friends helped me gather $1.5 million US for food, clothing, medical supplies. I had come to know some wonderful, powerful, American Christians, and their response was very fast. Within days, I was on a plane to Ottawa, to coordinate delivery with the Iranian ambassador. After the airlift, we filled three trucks with relief supplies."
Behbudi was back in his country of birth, and he stayed a month, feeling his long-held hatred and bitterness dissolve. "I hoped that by loving and forgiving my old enemies, I would be following the teachings of Jesus. There was kindness, respect. Everywhere I went, I met friends." He was asked to open an orphanage, and established alliances with Teheran's Razi Institute and the Society to Support Children Suffering from Cancer.
"When I- came back to Canada," he says, "I decided to devote my life to helping those affected by war or natural disaster."
With Brewster Kopp, former assistant US Secretary of the Army, then head of the Stewardship Foundation, Behbudi formed the Friends of Iranians North American Partnership. Later, the name was changed to the Behbudi Foundation. Then came September 11, 2001.
"Of course, it was a very difficult time," says Behbudi. "The Muslim world was viewed as the enemy." But Behbudi, Kopp and associates moved forward-"We're in the business of helping those who are suffering"-and changed the name of the foundation to Global Unity Partnership.
Among those suffering in 2002 were the people of Afghanistan. Behbudi traveled to Kabul, and, working with Friends for Afghan Redevelopment, took part in a number of projects: establishment of a women's medical center, a school for girls, a computer training facility, and a women-led small business development center.
Global Unity's interests today are diverse and widely spread, ranging from worldwide Special Olympics events to the development of charities in Swaziland.
As the US-led war with Iraq was ending, Behbudi was planning to leave for Iraq, to see what assistance his organization could provide, but also to find his sister Nazzy Al-Jaff, who is married to a Kurdish leader.
He says, "I have a very good feeling. Both the US and Canadian governments are interested in peace between the two cultures. And both Bush and Blair believe in helping the development of the Middle East. Some say western standards cannot be introduced to Muslim nations. I disagree. The Muslim world is far behind the west, in technology, in education. The example of Japan [i.e., Japan's peace and material success after World War Two] should be brought to the people of the Middle East."
Islam and Christianity, with Judaism, share a common ancestor: Abraham, who came out of Ur, in what was Mesopotamia and is now Iraq, perhaps 4,000 years ago. All three religions are monotheistic, and Islam means "submission to or having peace with God." There seems a reason for Christians, Muslims and Jews to coexist in peace, and, perhaps, in a bond stronger than that.
"I'm very optimistic," says Behbudi, "about the future of both worlds. I hope to work for the betterment of relations between North America, which I love dearly, and the Islamic world, which I also love dearly.
"If your intention is to serve people and God," he says, "doors are opened to you. While you are helping others, you are looked after. In serving others, you are served."
Perhaps, through Global Unity Partnership, Behrooz Behbudi will help fulfill the dreams of both the Shah and the Pope.