In 1955, Doris Head (now Doris Sadeghi) travelled to Iran to teach at the Nur Ayin Institute for the Blind, a continuation of work which had been founded many years before by cbm founder Pastor Ernst Christoffel. When she arrived, Pastor Christoffel was still working in Isfahan with blind boys and men, while the work with women and children was overseen by the Anglican Diocese and run by Gwen Gaster, a teacher from England. The following testimony was recorded at an interview at Mrs. Sadeghi’s home in South Wales.
From Essex to Iran
When I was a youngster, I became a Christian. During my teenage years I knew that I had to do some kind of Christian work and eventually I went into training with the Church Army. From the Church Army College, I was sent to London University to study Theology. While with the Church Army, I did quite a lot of home visiting and I kept meeting blind people. Because I loved art, colour, nature, and I had been a real country girl out in the Essex countryside, I felt deeply for those who could not see. I felt strongly that I should work amongst blind people.
After University, I went on a course with the Southern Regional Association of the Blind and passed the exams there as a teacher of blind students. Within two weeks, three different people got in touch and said there was a great need in Isfahan, Iran – at the Nur Ayin Institute. The men’s and boys’ section of the work had enough people working there but there was a lady called Gwen Gaster from the Church Missionary Society, working with the girls, women and younger boys. She was struggling on her own. They said that I was just right for this work as I had done all the training already. I met the Bishop of Iran’s wife, Mrs Meg Thompson. We had a cream tea in Fleet Street and talked. It all happened so quickly. I was ready so I just went! The wife of one of the English doctors working in Isfahan was also travelling with their two children to Iran. We were nine weeks on the journey in a freight steamer from Tilbury, Essex through the Mediterranean, down the Red Sea, out into the Indian Ocean and along the Persian Gulf. We arrived in the South of Iran and then Doctor Wild met us with his Land Rover and drove us over the mountains to Isfahan. Arriving on 31 March 1955, I felt completely at home in Iran. I just loved it all.
Nur Ayin Institute for the Blind
Nur Ayin was attached to the Anglican Diocese of Iran. Within the secure compound were the Bishop’s House, the Hospital, the Church, a big hall, some residences, the nurses’ quarters and also Nur Ayin.
Pastor Christoffel had gone out to Iran before the war and started the work there, teaching and training blind men and boys. However, because he was German he was interned during the War as Iran was helping the British. After the War, he re-established his work. The Anglican Diocese later appealed for someone to come and help the women and children – a little group of blind people with no care at all. Gwen Gaster took on that work on her own at first and later with help from Dorothy Shillaker, who had previously been working in Abadan, Iran.
The residents of Nur Ayin
Pastor Christoffel’s work was with the older boys, from the age of 11 or 12, and the men teaching them all sorts of practical skills, farming and, of course, how to read and write in Braille. In that first fortnight, I was taken to see the men’s and boys’ work so I did actually meet Pastor Christoffel.
I joined Gwen working with the women and children. I can’t tell you how many children there were. Some were very small children. Sometimes small blind children were found just lying in a gutter. Poor people would use them for begging because the more pitiful they looked, the more money they brought in as it touched people’s hearts. It was sometimes very difficult to persuade people to allow their child to come to the Institute and to let them be part of the education and the social care there. This was extremely difficult to come to terms with but you realised that this was a totally different culture there at that time. Blindness, deafness, physical disabilities of any kind were thought to be a punishment from God so the families were ashamed. Disabled children wouldn’t be sent to school or be seen very much outside the home.
Life at Nur Ayin
We had little ones, aged about a year and a half, right up to the older ladies who had been together in a small group for many years. They all helped in looking after each other – the older ones looked after the little ones and they worked very hard. It was such an interesting caring situation. There were some people with sight who were paid to help with cleaning and cooking meals. There was a lot of hustle and bustle. The buildings had a sort of overhang to keep out the sun and there was a long veranda in front of the windows and doors of the rooms. Sometimes we had to be very careful walking round because some of the boys, totally blind, would ride their bikes around the corners of these verandas. They had an amazing acoustic sense of where they were and when to turn the corners. I couldn’t get over their skill and courage.
Each day the older women, and some employed helpers, would get the children ready. We would be together for breakfast times and morning prayers and then get ready for lessons. Groups of the children of different ages would come for different things – braille, maths, music notation or weaving. We also had to keep an eye on the ones too young for school. They had a nursery group.
All the Nur Ayin family who were able, were learning reading and writing in Braille. All were getting used to both Farsi and English.
The students sang a lot and they danced a lot too. The children were very cheeky when I was learning Persian language (Farsi). They helped me to learn a lot because they would tell me and sometimes roared with laughter when I made mistakes, whereas others would not mention my mistakes! It was a delightful atmosphere to be in and to live in. There was an old piano there and some of them learnt to play by ear, and to others I was able to teach some Braille music notation as well.
As they progressed in their education, those of primary school age attended the Diocesan Mission Primary School (Rahmat School) part time. Gradually, over the years their educational level grew and some of them went on to university. One of them became a famous singer on television and another one eventually became a barrister. One of the girls actually went to the UK and became a social worker for the blind in Scotland. Some of them just stayed on. Nur Ayin was their home. Some were too old to study or to learn any kind of work, some others had disabilities or were not of a mental level to be able to do as much as well as having a lack of sight. One of the women, Mahboubeh, was totally blind and totally deaf but was fully accepted by everyone. They were all lovely happy family members.
Activities were not just lessons, such as talking about many aspects of life and giving children confidence. Many of them felt that all they were being given could be taken away from them, especially if they were naughty. I remember one little girl – if she was naughty, she would go and hide under her bed. We would go and find her and as we brought her out she would say, “Don’t put me out in the ‘koucheh’ (street).” That was where she had been found, just wandering, abandoned, with no-one looking after her at all. We had to reassure her and others like her.
Pastor Christoffel’s death and funeral
Pastor Christoffel became ill very shortly after I arrived in Isfahan in late March 1955 and he went into hospital. I was able to go with Gwen Gaster to the hospital to see him. Unfortunately, he died on 23 April, which was just literally one month after I arrived so I did not know him well but I certainly knew his work and, of course, met people who knew him so well. People were obviously very sad at his death. He was very elderly and as he had been ill, so I think in a way it was not unexpected because of his age. He was very much respected and very much missed.
Nur Ayin’s work with women and children was of a kind that had never been seen before in Iran. In 1961, during those first years that I was there, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip came to see us, brought there by the Shah and Empress Farah during a State Visit. Sometime after that, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon came to Isfahan and I actually sat and talked with her for about a quarter of an hour because I was about the same age and she called me over. Princess Alexandra and Lord Ogilvie also visited Isfahan and we met them. Suddenly, the work had become famous. After that, the Shah’s sister, Princess Ashraf, gave a lot of her own money to help finance the training of Iranian teachers of the blind. That has now developed into a Blind Welfare systems throughout Iran.
When thousands were blinded by Saddam Hossein’s chemical weapons in the war with Iraq (1980-1988), the work that Pastor Christoffel had started and that Nur Ayin had established since then, had been developed and extended so there was help awaiting those who were blind or who were tragically blinded in the war.
Pastor Christoffel’s legacy
Before Pastor Christoffel there had been literally no education or care for blind people in Iran but, after his work, people heard and recognised that this was something that could be done. What Pastor Christoffel did was pioneering work that was shown to be practical in Iran and has now spread throughout the whole world. I am sure that what Pastor Christoffel started, and the type of work that has spread to other countries around the world, has also become an example there and in that way has continued to spread. It is a most amazing thing that someone is called by God and responds and where that can lead to! This was the beginning – the determination of this one man to do this work and not give up no matter what happened. He was tremendously respected for that and will always be remembered.
Nur Ayin and beyond…
The day that I arrived in Iran in 1955 was the Persian New Year so everybody was on holiday. When we arrived in Isfahan, a young man came to let us into the Diocesan compound. He had been playing volleyball. He was actually the first person I met in Isfahan. He would be my Persian language teacher and eventually my husband – we were married for 52 years! He had offered to teach me Persian in exchange for English lessons, as Nur Ayin Institute couldn’t really afford to pay for lessons for me. There was barely enough money to keep everything going. At one point, I was sent to Tehran to speak at various organisations to raise money for Nur Ayin.
Later, I went on to become Head Teacher of Rahmat School, the Diocesan Primary School in Isfahan and we were able to have blind children come over for half-a-day to study in class with sighted children. The rest of the day they carried out activities in Nur Ayin. Then, gradually, children with other disabilities started to attend the school. It was the first time that anything like that had ever happened in Iran.
Note: Doris and her husband had their home in Iran for 23 years – she as Head Teacher of the Diocesan Primary School for part of that time and Mr Sadeghi as Head Teacher of Carr School, the Diocesan Boys’ Secondary School until 1975 when the Iranian Government closed the school. Blind children were included wherever they worked. After Doris moved to the UK with their children in the 1970’s, she became a Social Worker for the Blind. Now in her 90’s and widowed, she lives in South Wales but still stays in regular contact with her family in Iran and around the world, and also with some of her past pupils from Nur Ayin and their families.