TEHRAN, IRAN — Masumeh Delavar's life was in ruins a decade ago, and getting an education seemed a distant dream.
"My parents had died, and the rest of the family were drug addicts," says the soft-spoken art student, as she tells of her rescue by Iran's largest charity, the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation.
"This is the best thing that has happened to me," says Ms. Delavar, sitting Thursday with a handful of young women with similar stories at a Tehran women's shelter run by the charity. She wants to finish her university degree, find a job, and "be independent" – steps all paid for or heavily subsidized. "If I had stayed home, I would not have any of these opportunities."
Iran Thursday marked an annual day of giving to the charity, known as Komiteh Emdad in Farsi, which is named after the founder of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Today, Emdad reaches 4.5 million of Iran's 68 million residents, and by its own tally caters for 92 percent of Iran's poorest people in 52,800 towns and villages.
From its inception before 1979 – when it had no name, and focused on sustaining the families of strikers challenging the government of pro-Western Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi – this organization has grown along with the Islamic Republic, using charity to win public loyalty and support for clerical rule.
This Iranian example – of translating good works that range from job creation, bank loans, and orphan care to building cheap housing, into political power – has been copied by the Shiite militant group Hizbullah in Lebanon, and to a lesser degree by anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.
The charity became a pillar of the revolution by "getting more people to be friendly with the clerics and the imam," says Hamidreza Taraghi, one of the foundation's directors. "Emdad emerged alongside the revolution with Imam Khomeini, and helped with support and money," says Mr. Taraghi. "[It] was successful in aligning many of the poor behind the revolution."
The foundation plays that role to this day, mixing its philosophy of outreach to the poor, with doses of the kind of ideology that define Iran's Islamic regime.
The organization's reach is long and broad. Officials say that 170,000 "good Samaritans" are sponsoring 270,000 orphans and children in poor families. Thursday, one donation site – 1 of 30 in Tehran, was manned by women in black chadors sitting at tables covered with cards, each with a photograph of a child. Sponsors pay just over $10 per month. Iranian TV carried live broadcasts from five of the donation sites.
The foundation says it insures 3.9 million Iranians, providing free or cheap healthcare, and fields nearly 100,000 volunteers. New housing also falls under its purview; poor families will soon to move into 350 new residential units in Tehran. The charity also estimates it has bankrolled 1.56 million loans since 1979.
Such scale was unimaginable when the charity first began, and budding revolutionaries were calling strikes to make their point, shutting some government and ministry offices.
"We started to help people who were striking against the former regime, to keep them strong," says Taraghi. "We would give them money, food, and salaries so they could endure."
Initially, families of those in Iranian jails were given support, and if a store or business were burned down during protests, the group would compensate the victims. Learning that lesson, Hizbullah has rebuilt businesses and homes after wars in Lebanon during the past 25 years, earning political capital along the way. In Iran, the charity's work expanded to every corner of the country after the revolution, when teams of volunteers sought out the poor in the remotest villages, and cared for families of "martyrs." In the early days, there was little more than token cash, clothing, and healthcare provided by volunteer doctors.
Today, with public donations estimated at $97 million a year – plus funding from the government and office of Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – no other organization has such a far-reaching impact on Iran.
Still, some here express skepticism. "I don't believe in these guys," says a woman in a black chador, after donating a hand-sized jug full of cash. "I don't know if they really give it to the poor; I think they take some of it. I am needy myself, and never received any help from [the charity]."
The charity says it now supports 800,000 students, and some 70,000 have been able to get university degrees. Among them is Marzieh Nazari, who just completed her law degree, and has lived more than nine years in the shelter for women whose families are shattered by drug addiction. She is the oldest among 35 others as young as 9. "This has had a big effect on my life.... I would not have been able to go to school," says Ms. Nazari, who is looking for a job with Emdad's help. "What I learned from [living] here is that I should give back whatever I have," says Nazari. "If I can reach a point where I can help other people, I always will help."
Gratitude is often expressed through loyalty to Iran's Islamic system, known as nezam, which runs the Relief Foundation in close association with the supreme leader's office. Charity is a tradition in Sunni as well as Shiite history, says Taraghi, "but the Shiites and Iranian revolution were successful in setting up this new system that no other country has been able to create."