BOUNTIFUL—The journey that brought Maziyar Shirzad to Utah has been long and difficult, full of danger and conflict.
You wouldn’t know it by watching him visit with clients who come to use Anytime Fitness in Bountiful, where he is an owner and operator. If you take the time to sit and hear his stories, you will hear how his life was in danger from a very early age, how he was whipped and tortured, how he escaped religious persecution and how he eventually came to America.
And you will hear him share his hope that those whose journeys have been less fraught, will learn to appreciate what they have been given.
Shirzad was born in Iran. His father was a prominent citizen there until the revolution of 1979, when his family was forced to run to avoid persecution because of their Baha’I faith.
Shirzad was 3 when that journey began.
“My father didn’t want to change his religion from Baha’i to Muslim,” said Shirzad. “So we had to run from city to city. He was struggling to survive and take care of his family.”
When he was 7 years old, Shirzad and his 12-year-old brother were whipped because they didn’t participate in Islamic prayer.
The family moved again.
Jobs were hard to come by for his dad, so his mother sold clothing door-to-door.
When his brother was old enough to be conscripted to the military, his father sold all he could to help his brother escape to Pakistan.
In Pakistan, his brother “went through hell for two years,” said Shirzad, before being given the chance to come to America as a refugee. He was settled in Texas, where he has worked as a chiropractor for 10 years.
Shirzad was still a student in Iran and after he finished school, he said, “life had almost ended. There was no hope. There was nothing for me.”
He worked part-time here and there, he said, then had to serve in the military, where again he felt persecuted for his religion. “They tried to kill me so many times,” he said. “It was terrible there.”
It was when he tried to improve his situation by taking online classes that he experienced the most brutality – torture that haunts him to this day.
He had learned that Indiana University was offering classes “so we don’t lose hope,” he said.
He attended a session to learn more about the cost of the courses, when all in attendance – teachers and students – were rounded up, blindfolded and driven to an unknown location.
It wasn’t a prison, he said. It wasn’t a jail. It was a torture chamber.
They wanted him to sign a confession that he had been working for the FBI or the CIA or Russian Intelligence, and when he refused, he was tortured.
It began with no food or drink for a week and a half. Then there was 48 hours in a tiny box another time. There was a broken toe and then two broken fingers from beatings.
“They eventually destroy you,” he said, “so when you are answering questions, you answer whatever they want.”
He still bears the scars from the six months he was there.
Half of his face is always numb and tingling, an eye hurts, his sleep is filled with nightmares reliving the torture. He has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those lingering effects have had an impact on his relationships, as well as his peace of mind.
Eventually, his father was led by a friend to discover where Shirzad was being held. The captors asked for $100,000 but would only give his family 48-hours from his release before they would report Shirzad missing and begin a search.
After selling everything he could and getting help from friends, his father raised the money and his mother drove him as near as she could to the border with Turkey and dropped him off.
Months of running and hiding and depending on the kindness of strangers got him through a snowy winter to the Turkish city of Van, where he sought asylum at a United Nations office.
It was another three and a half years of paper work and taking care not to do anything that might get him deported, before he was allowed to come to America as a refugee.
“It was an amazing moment, flying here,” he said, “knowing you are free.”
He came to Texas, near where his brother was established, and started studying English.
Shortly after his arrival, “9/11 happened,” he said, “and discrimination started against me.”
It took him five and half years to get his citizenship. While in Texas, he explored all religions he could, learning about as many as possible.
It was a sister missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who invited him to church after seeing he had made a sketch of Jesus Christ from an LDS pass-along card.
Another sister missionary he met at church answered his question about the lack of crucifixes in the chapel in a way that struck him as the truth.
She said that if a brother died, you wouldn’t keep something that reminded you of how he died, and emphasized that we don’t focus on how the Savior died because he is alive, said Shirzad. Her answer struck him as true and he joined the church. He said he knew his Heavenly Father was with him during his trek across Turkey.
“When I was in the snow,” he said, “I know Heavenly Father would push my back and say, ‘Mazi, you need to walk, if you sit down here you’re going to die.’”
Shirzad hopes today’s youth in America will realize what a gift it is to be free.
“They have a bridge,” he said. “They have good parents and they are making a bridge for you so you can get to your Heavenly Father. I did not have a bridge. I had a muddy road for along time.”
Living in America, where people are not persecuted for their religion, is a great gift, he said.
“In America, you do not have to be afraid every day that someone is going to kill you because of your political belief or gender,” he said. “A lot of American kids – especially in Utah – have a lot of opportunities in their hand.”
“You are free,” he said.