A Victim of Mistaken Identity
The story is a page-turner, and it’s real: “Only twelve days ago, I was a respected university lecturer, head of a college with over twelve hundred students, and my own academic staff. …And now I dare not even show up in my office. Now I have to run for my life.”
So begins My Stolen Face: The Story of a Dramatic Mistake, Neda Soltani’s wrenching e-book account of her flight from her native Iran that ultimately ended at Montclair State University, where she was a protected visiting scholar for 13 months, from January 2012 until January 2013.
Soltani fled her homeland in 2009 after being mistakenly identified as Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot by Iranian forces during a post-election protest. In a rush to identify the victim, international media published Soltani’s Facebook photo. Hoping to capitalize on the error, the Iranian secret service pushed Soltani to pretend she was Agha-Soltan. When she refused, Soltani, an Islamic Azad University professor of English literature, became a marked woman subject to the death penalty.
“I got out of the country with only a backpack, my laptop and an overnight bag,” Soltani says. She traveled first to Turkey and Greece on a visa she had before living as a refugee in Germany. “Marina Cunningham, the executive director of international affairs at Montclair State’s Global Education Center, kindly arranged for the University to host me after I received an Institute of International Education (IIE) fellowship,” Soltani says.
“The IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund [SRF] contacted us because we have supported scholars in the past and Neda needed immediate placement,” Cunningham says. “We have another scholar from Iran, so they were asking for additional support. I contacted President Cole, who very much supported our taking Neda.” The IIE provides a partial grant and, as the host university, Montclair State matches at least 50 percent of the funding. “Of course, we also need to have an opening in a department of two classes to teach,” Cunningham adds.
Montclair State has supported refugee scholars from Rwanda and Iraq in the past and was recognized by the IIE for its consistent support of the Scholar Rescue Fund program. “SRF recently asked if we would be interested in taking scholars from Syria displaced by the civil war,” says Cunningham. “Dr. Cole came to the rescue and has agreed for us to take a scholar as well as two students on full scholarship.”
During the spring and fall semesters of 2012, Soltani taught World Literature and a Women’s and Gender Studies course on women’s rights in Iran that focused on life under the present regime.
Because Germany has granted Soltani asylum and permanent residence, she left Montclair State in early 2013 to live and study there. “Under German law, she must return to Germany in order to maintain that status,” explains Victoria Donoghue, the University’s director of International Services.
Soltani values her time at Montclair State: “It is difficult to live the life of a refugee, but I have been lucky to have met great people here and enjoyed some wonderful experiences.”
– Amy Wagner