POCATELLO, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Imagine a childhood where you are banned from school, thrown in jail and your father murdered.
For many, that's unthinkable. But for Mona Heern, that was exactly her childhood.
Mona Heern is a refugee from Iran. On Friday, she spoke to students at Hawthorne Middle School in Pocatello about her experiences from Iran to the United States.
It all began in 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution.
The Iranian government tolerated no religious freedom and began persecuting members of the Baha'i faith.
"They started arresting thousands of Baha'i across the country just because they have a different religion, putting hundreds and hundreds to death," Heern said.
Those put to death included Heern's own father, who was arrested, tortured and executed when Heern was young. Heern, her mother and sister were also Baha'i. They decided the country was not safe to stay in any longer.
"The decision to leave was extremely difficult," Heern described. "My mother decided for us, the only way that we could survive was to leave Iran."
Heern said it was dangerous for refugees to try to leave, and it was quite the journey for her family to escape.
"As Baha'is we could not get a passport," Heern recounted. "So the only thing we could do was basically flee through the mountains to reach Pakistan and it took us over a week. We didn't have food, we didn't have proper nutrition or water and we arrived completely dehydrated and malnourished in Pakistan. The Pakistani police arrested us and put us in prison because they considered us as illegal immigrants."
Eventually, the United Nations was able to buy Heern's family's freedom. After three years of waiting for a country to take them in, Germany finally said yes. Heern and her family lived in Germany for several years, and then Heern decided to come to the U.S. for college.
Heern said by speaking in public, like at Hawthorne, she's able to tell her story. She hopes she can inspire and educate both kids and adults about what refugees really face.
"I think there is a lot of misconceptions in our country about refugees," Heern said. "Sometimes, people they don't know because they haven't heard the stories of refugees and my hope is that by sharing my stories, that it really opens their hearts and opens their minds about the plight of refugees."
She said refugees are people too and coming to a new country and being accepted can make all the difference.
"The greatest gift you can give to any refugee is the gift of friendship," Heern said.
Heern added that the law from 1979 banning Baha'is from education is still in effect to this day. Heern said many of the Iran people currently in jail are teachers who started an underground school in people's basements to educate those of the Baha'i faith.
She hopes that getting her story out there will bring light not only to refugees in general, but to the on-going struggle in her former home of Iran.
Along with Heern's speech, Sunrise Dance Academy also peformed a dance number in honor of refugees' stories. The dancers did their own research on refugees to make it more emotional and meaningful to them.
The dance told of the Syrian airstrike, told from the perspective of a child who survived but lost his whole family. The dancers said putting the whole performance together was very impactful for them.