Engineer Turned Humanitarian: Behind A $5 Million Gift for Iranian Studies At UC Berkeley

Bita Daryabari was sent as a teen from Iran to Missouri to live with her uncle. In Iran, she’d resisted laws requiring women to wear hijab, an infraction that can result in jail or even death. In the Midwest, Daryabari was called a terrorist by classmates.

While these tough moments are part of Daryabari's story, she eventually went to work in Silicon Valley. She's also has close ties with people in Iran and recalls the days she spent reading books written in Farsi and being immersed in the culture.

Daryabari, now in her late 40s, has founded two nonprofits. The PARS Equality Center promotes the social, cultural, and economic integration of Iranians and Persian speakers in the United States. The outfit was founded after 9-11. PARS is headquartered in Menlo Park and has several other California locations. Another Menlo Park-based nonprofit, Unique Zan Foundation, provides health and literacy programs to women in the Middle East. With the help of Laurene Powell Jobs, Daryabari met human rights activist Sakeena Yacoobi and partnered to build a girls’ school in Kabul.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the U.S. Census doesn't track the number of Iranians in the United States, but a U.S. Office of Homeland Security report put the number of Iranian refugees entering the U.S. from 2003 to 2012 at some 30,000, most living in California and Texas. The Bay Area community is centered in the South Bay. It makes sense that Daryabari would be interested in strengthening and supporting this community.

A recent $5 million gift by Daryabari to UC Berkeley establishes the Bita Daryabari Presidential Chair in Iranian Studies. The money supports teaching and research by a faculty member in the Department of Near Eastern Studies whose work is focused on ancient Iran. This is a gift to help students with Iranian backgrounds learn about their heritage, but from which others can benefit, as well.

Daryabari's gift to bolster Iranian Studies at UC Berkeley is among a series of gifts in recent years with this focus. In 2008, she endowed a $2.5 million Persian Studies chair at Stanford University. UC Davis, Pembroke College in Cambridge, England, and her alma mater Golden Gate University, are among other institutions to receive support. A gift to Golden Gate University created the the Bita Daryabari Scholarship Program for Women of Middle East in Business and Law. A gift to Pembroke College, meanwhile, supported continuing research on the Shanama, or the Book of Kings, Iran’s national epic poem.