NOWRUZ ON THE GREEN — Stetson University students, professors and other members of the community talk and learn about Nowruz, the Iranian or Persian New Year, on the Stetson Green in DeLand March 21. The event was organized by a group of Dr. Asal Johnson’s global health students. Johnson, who grew up in Iran, had a great time teaching her students and the rest of the community about the holiday.

On March 21, a group of Stetson University students, along with people all over the world, celebrated Nowruz, the Iranian or Persian New Year. On top of celebrating the holiday, the students and Iranian professor Dr. Asal Johnson used Nowruz as an opportunity to educate the community about the holiday and the ongoing protests in Iran.

As part of a community project for Johnson’s Global Health course, nine students organized a public Nowruz event on Stetson’s Green at its DeLand campus. 

Nowruz, typically celebrated on March 21, marks the start of the new year in Iran and among Iranian and Persian diaspora communities. The holiday is celebrated with displays of culturally significant items like holy books and apples as well as with celebrations, food and activities like Chaharshanbe Suri, jumping over fire to signify purification.

Several of the students said the project was how they discovered the Persian New Year and learned about it.

Stetson University student Madison Long said she liked that the holy book included in Nowruz spreads could be any holy book, not just books typical in Islam.

NOWRUZ SPREAD — Stetson University students Madison Long, left, and Jenna Hassebrock run a table with a traditional Nowruz spread like one would see in an Iranian or Persian household. Many of the items displayed start with the “s” sound in Farsi, the language widely spoken in Iran and Persian communities. The table also includes a holy book — which can be switched out for any holy book — a mirror to signify reflection and photos of loved ones as memorials.

“I loved how inclusive it was,” she said. “It’s interesting you can have a cultural holiday that’s so religiously inclusive.”

Long and her classmate Jenna Hassebrock helped set up the event and operate a table with a Nowruz spread that included many of the items you would typically see at a Persian New Year celebration: senjed, dates; seeb, apples, to signify beauty; sumac to signify the sunrise; samanu, a sweet pudding, to signify fertility; serkeh, vinegar, to signify patience; sonbol, a hyacinth flower, to represent spring; sekeh, coins, to represent prosperity; sabzeh, a sprouted plant, to represent rebirth; and other items like painted eggs to represent fertility, photos of loved ones, a mirror and a holy book, like the Quran, the Talmud or a Bible.

In addition to the Nowruz spread on the Stetson Green, the students set up other stations, too, including one where a student educated visitors about the hijab, or the head covering that has been the focus of recent protests in Iran, and another where students could learn about the history of the holiday and how it relates to recent protests against the country’s government. 

LEARNING AND TEACHING — Stetson University student Celine Jose, pictured here, had never heard of Nowruz before she learned about it from her professor Dr. Asal Johnson, who was born in Iran. Jose learned a lot about the holiday, she told The Beacon, and found connections to modern Iran and even her own culture. Jose showed visitors to the Nowruz event at Stetson University a PowerPoint about the significance of the holiday as well as the ongoing protests in Iran.

In response to the arrest of five girls who were arrested for dancing in public earlier this month, the students also organized a flash mob to perform the same dance.

Stetson student Celine Jose first learned about the holiday through Johnson’s class, and she recognized the connections between the holiday and the ongoing protests for freedom in Iran. 

“Nowruz is really cool. The symbols of spring and ‘new’ are very relevant in our time,” Jose said. “It’s really heartbreaking. You feel for families who are supposed to be celebrating with their children.”

The students also set up photos along the green of protesters whose recent deaths are connected to the protests, like Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian girl who was arrested for refusing to wear a hijab. Amini was beaten and died in the custody of the country’s morality police, and her death last September sparked anti-government protests continuing to this day.

REMEMBERING — As part of the Nowruz community event at Stetson University March 21, students set up signs memorializing protesters who have been killed in connection with protests in Iran over women’s rights and religious freedom. The protests were sparked last September when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was beaten and died in government custody for “improperly” wearing a hijab, or head covering, in public. The protests Amini’s killing sparked continue in various forms six months after they began.

Johnson said seeing her students participate in the festivities was inspiring.

“Here at Stetson, global citizenship is one of our missions. This class project allowed our students to lend their voice to the women of Iran,” she said. “I loved seeing how they came together as a collective and made this happen with creativity and teamwork.”

At the beginning of the semester, Johnson said, students read an excerpt from the book Pathologies of Power detailing the killing of a Haitian man who criticized the condition of a road.

“We noted that the stories of the victims in Iran were very similar to the Haitian young man. With active participation of students in protesting the killings of women, children and young men in Iran that is happening now, they became part of this movement,” she said. “With participation in Persian New Year, they got culturally closer to those they were trying to advocate for.”

As part of the Nowruz celebration at Stetson University, Florida legislator Anna Eskamani — the first Iranian American to serve in the Florida Legislature — was invited to speak at Stetson University, but she sent a video message instead. You can watch the video below.


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