Around the world and back

Willmar couple have lived adventurous life

Rahim Milani of Willmar, who has been a U.S. citizen for the last 35 years, was born in Iran to a Baha’i family. His grandparents on both sides grew up in very strong Muslim families, but later accepted the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and raised their children as Baha’is. Milani’s parents always stressed the importance of education for all of their children, which motivated them to send his three sisters and himself to Europe for higher education. Milani was in his 20s when he went to Germany to study architecture. Another reason his parents sent them overseas for studies was for them to gain an appreciation of other cultures. “One of the teachings of the Baha’i Faith is that ‘The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens’, Milani said. “So our parents wanted our minds to be open to the whole world, not just our own country.” Milani added that his parents also wanted them to be free from the religious persecution which the Baha’is had faced in Iran since the beginning of the Faith in 1844. Even today the Baha’is in Iran are faced with severe persecution and imprisonment because of their beliefs. While studying in Germany Milani met his wife, Marsha, who is from St. Paul. She was traveling in Europe with her father, Leonard Harkness, who was Minnesota’s State 4-H Director at that time. Marsha first heard of the Baha’i Faith on that trip and continued to learn more about it when she returned to St. Paul. She recalled that her family had hosted many international guests and she was always curious about all the different cultures and religious beliefs in the world. She was surprised to learn that Baha’i communities were first established in the United States in the early 1900’s, even in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Baha’is now live in every country of the world. At her first meeting with Baha’is in St Paul in the 1960’s she was impressed that the hosts were an interracial couple. “The Baha’is didn’t just talk about their belief in the unity of mankind and the need to eliminate all kinds of prejudice, especially racial prejudice. They truly tried to live the Baha’i teachings and that impressed me.” A few years later Marsha returned to Germany to study Linguistics at the University of Munich. She met Baha’is there too. After further investigation Marsha formally became a Baha’i in Germany in 1970. She described her feelings at that time. “When I first heard about the Baha’i Faith I felt many of its teachings weren’t new – I had believed in most of them all my life. Teachings like the equality of men and women, that everyone should have an education, that we’re all one human family. But the teachings about the unity of all religions and the progressive revelation of God’s religion were new for me.” She continued, saying, the founder of the Faith, Baha’u’llah, said that religion is progressive. Just like anything organic, that is alive, it has to grow and change. “For this reason God has sent Divine Messengers from time to time to guide people on their spiritual journey in this life. The spiritual teachings are always the same – belief in God, belief in life after death, belief in the power of prayer to help us develop our spiritual nature.” She said the Messengers also bring social teachings which differ from time to time, depending on the needs of the people. “This concept is called progressive revelation. For example, Christ told his followers to love their neighbor and Baha’u’llah says ‘Let not a man glory in this that he loves his country, let him rather glory in this that he loves mankind.’” Of course one concept reinforces the other, she said. You have to start with a neighborhood and then expand your world. Rahim and Marsha married in Germany and moved to Minnesota soon afterwards. Milani worked in architectural firms in the Twin Cities for a few years in the early ‘70s before joining an architectural firm in Willmar when their first child was an infant. What a surprise that years later this first child would marry the son of one of his fellow architects in the Willmar firm and eventually lead the Milanis to come full circle back to Willmar after retirement. After further work in architecture and completing a Masters in Architecture at the University of Minnesota, Milani decided to move to a developing country and offer his expertise in architecture. He joined the Department of Architecture and Building at the Papua New Guinea University of Technology in the South Pacific, just north of Australia. Over the next 28 years at that university, where Milani was later appointed as Professor and Head of the Department, he was instrumental in achieving international accreditation for its architecture course. He also carried out research on the traditional architecture of Papua New Guinea and helped to establish the Architectural Heritage Centre to continue the documentation of this fast-disappearing heritage. Marsha also taught English at this university and was involved in establishing a correspondence high school for students who were not able to continue at government schools. She observed that “the breakdown of traditional values in Papua New Guinea has caused a lot of stress on the social fabric. Only about 5 percent of the students make it to university level – it was such a privilege to work with such intelligent and creative students.” The Milanis agree that their time in Papua New Guinea was a high point of their lives. With their four children, two of whom were born in Papua New Guinea, they traveled extensively throughout this tropical island country. They visited many villages and learned first-hand about the challenges of village life. They recalled the patience of the rural people, their friendliness, and generous hospitality. In some places they slept in grass huts with slatted bamboo floors and pigs running free under the houses. In other places they traveled in huge dugout canoes, a hollowed tree that carried 40 people and cargo with an outboard motor at the back. They observed that “some parts of the country are a little like northern Minnesota, with endless fresh water swamps and tall grasses where masses of birds thrive – but also crocodiles.” After traveling the world and living in such different places – Iran, Germany, Papua New Guinea and the United States – the Milanis are now happy to call Willmar home. “We are all world citizens, we are all one family, so we feel at home wherever we live. Each one of us, in our own way, can contribute to an ever-advancing civilization, no matter where we live.”

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