By Mark Ellis —
She was a math whiz who defied female stereotypes in Iran by becoming a civil engineer. But after Iran’s 1979 revolution, this daughter of a Baha’i minister was forced to run for her life.
“As a child, I always thought there was something wrong with the world,” says Maheen Vardakostas. Even at five-years-old, she asked her parents “Who is God?”
When her mother tried to buy her nice clothes she protested, saying, “I want something that lasts, something eternal.”
She grew up within the strict confines of the Baha’i religion, with prayers three times a day in Arabic.
The Bahai faith teaches the spiritual unity of all mankind, with Jesus portrayed as one of a number of divine messengers who included Abraham, Buddha and Mohammad. Founded by Bahaullah in Persia, its adherents represent themselves as seekers of truth, but Maheen disagrees.
“Baha’is become Baha’is because they were born to Baha’i families, they don’t seek the truth,” she maintains.
Despite the strong spiritual influences of Maheen’s home, God’s love always seemed remote to her. “There was always a distance,” she says. “I wanted to know him, but there was no possibility of an intimate relationship.”
Maheen was unusually gifted with numbers, and became a national champion in a math competition. At 15, with few prospects for rigorous study in her small town, she talked her father into sending her to Tehran to pursue her academic interests.
“Dad raised me as a tomboy,” Maheen recalls. “In high school and college, I wore men’s clothing. I was tough, not very gentle.”
Maheen decided to become a civil engineer and entered a program with only two women enrolled among 300 men. After her graduation, she landed a high-paying job and seemed to have a bright future ahead of herself, until the onset of the Iranian revolution.
“While the Shah was alive, he protected the Baha’is, because his personal physician was a Baha’i,” Maheen notes. “After the revolution, the Muslims started burning the houses of Baha’is, and they killed some of our relatives.”
Beginning in the early 1900s, Baha’is faced continual persecution in Iran. After the revolution of 1979, Baha’is were banned from attending universities, holding government jobs, and many were sent to prison for their beliefs.
“They started looking for my dad to kill him,” Maheen recalls. “All my family ran for their lives.” In addition to the increase in persecution, the revolution also brought economic calamity.
“The Americans left; there was no money, no one left to run the economy,” she says. Food shortages were rampant, with long lines for basic commodities. “In the winter, I stood in line for seven days to get petrol (heating oil) to burn. I could see my breath in my apartment.”
A small cottage industry developed in Tehran – selling admission papers for U.S. colleges to Iranians desperate to leave. Maheen managed to obtain admission papers to study at a small private college in Los Angeles, but she had idea how she might get there.
The U.S. Embassy had been closed, but Maheen’s attention was riveted one day by a rumor that it might reopen. She joined a long line in the street outside the embassy that began to form. “I slept on the street for one week to apply for a visa,” she says.
Maheen considers it a miracle that she and her sister got visas to leave. “I told them we were persecuted as Baha’is and the Lord gave us favor,” she says. In her excitement and jubilation, she ran all the way from the embassy to her apartment after she got the good news.
In the summer of 1979, Maheen and her sister arrived in Los Angeles. “We were traumatized,” she recalls. “We lost everything and we didn’t know if we would see my parents again. If we returned, we didn’t know if they would kill us.”
To stay in the U.S., Maheen needed to fund her education. “Every month my dad was supposed to send us $1000, but he was running for his life.” As she tried to adjust to life in the U.S, the reality of her strange existence brought on a depression. “I didn’t know the Lord, and it seemed like a nightmare… I hoped a car would hit me.”
Unexpectedly, her desperation began to ease. A friend helped her win asylum, get a work permit, and eventually a green card. She found work at a restaurant in Dana Point, California. “The owner respected me because I was a hard worker,” she says. “Because of my math background, I added all the numbers in my mind.”
Customers and fellow-workers marveled at her numerical ability. Someone said, “There’s a girl there who has wires in her brain.”
Despite her success, Maheen planned to leave the restaurant and resume her career path and earn a PhD. One day she told the owner, Angelo Vardakostas, of her plans to leave.
“I’m going to have to leave in two months,” she told him.
Angelo studied her carefully, then told her, “You will never leave this place.”
Immediately, something touched Maheen in the depths of her soul. “There was a gentleness and a love in his voice that touched my spirit,” she recalls.
Maheen married Angelo and they had two sons together. She continued to attend a Baha’i church occasionally, but still felt empty in her soul. “The Baha’is were not satisfying me.” She began to study self-improvement and other philosophies.
One day, one of her friends asked her, “What’s wrong with you? You’re always thinking.”
“There is something wrong with this world,” Maheen retorted. “Something is missing. I’m looking for that…”
“All the philosophers have looked for that and you’re not going to find it,” her friend said.
Angelo and Maheen placed their first son in St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, an elite private school in San Juan Capistrano, California. When the school invited them to an academic award ceremony where their son would receive an award, Maheen was dismayed because the ceremony would take place in a chapel.
She stood outside nervously, thinking it would violate her Baha’i faith to go inside. Then she thought, ‘This is stupid,’ and stepped into the back of the building. Immediately she noticed the students kneeling and reciting a prayer, “I believe in God the Father who created the world. I believe in God the Son who loved me and died for me…”
When Maheen heard the prayer, she broke into tears. Their God seemed so intimate, she thought. “A God who loves me and died for me? – I never heard of this.”
As Maheen drove away from the school, she kept repeating one line of the prayer: “God the Son who loved me and died for me, God the Son who loved me and died for me…” Could this be the missing piece of life she had been searching for?
Angelo and Maheen enrolled their second son at Capistrano Valley Christian School – only a short distance away, because there was no room for him at St. Margarets.
Every day when she picked her son up at school she asked, “What did you do today?”
“We learned about the Bible,” he replied. Day after day, he repeated the same thing, until Maheen became exasperated.
“We’re paying $6000 a year and all they’re teaching you is the Bible?” she exclaimed.
Soon they moved their second son to Capistrano Valley Christian School, and one of the boys’ teachers, Mrs. Mulligan, invited Maheen to visit the Life Church in Mission Viejo, California.
When Maheen arrived at the church, she noticed many were praying with their eyes closed, so Maheen decided to do the same. When she opened her eyes she was shocked to see the guest speaker standing in front of her. He invited her to come up on the stage with him.
She felt compelled to go with him, but suddenly embarrassed as all eyes in the room fell on her.
“Where do you go to church?” he asked.
“I don’t go to church,” Maheen replied. In her discomfiture, she couldn’t help but ask, “What do you want me to do?”
The pastor looked intently into her eyes and said, “I want you to repeat after me,” and he began to lead Maheen in the Sinner’s Prayer.
“I said I was a sinner and I accepted Jesus as my Savior,” Maheen recalls. “But after I said this I felt like my body was a piece of paper.” She tried to control herself so she would not fall down, but she fell backward.
“I was so happy, so excited, I think I entered the Lord’s presence. I got up and he said another prayer and I fell down one more time.”
After the service, Maheen went to a prayer room where several women prayed for her. They showed her where to begin reading the New Testament.
When she got home, she picked up the Bible and began devouring the pages. She read until 4 a.m.In the next few days and weeks, Jesus entered her dreams at night. “At that time, my husband and I were very close,” she recalls. “We had a good relationship.”
“But my intimacy with Jesus Christ was much greater.” In one of her dreams, Jesus looked at all the books she collected in the Baha’i faith, then he compared those with the truth found in the Bible. “Make sure they give you the real Jesus,” he said to her.
“He was never condemning with me,” Maheen extols. “It was the compelling love of Jesus Christ that led me to repentance,” she says. “His humility knocked me down. I once was very tough, but now, I’m much more gentle.”
Maheen still works at the same restaurant, which she owns with her husband. She believes God has seen her perseverance and is training her for ministry. “I meditate on Him while I’m working on the grill,” she says.
“I took action and sought after the truth. I knocked on every door and found none completely fulfilling. Finally, when I was not seeking, the Lord found me.”
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