TAYLORSVILLE — Khosrow Semnani can't escape his faith.
On a recent Friday that unshakable belief compels Semnani to his mosque just west of Salt Lake City, where neatly clustered business parks give way to open pasture and grazing horses. The mosque's parking lot, sprinkled with a dozen or so maroon-and-white taxis, is full. So Semnani parks his black SUV on an unpaved, adjacent lot.
Upon entering the mosque, Semnani removes his polished shoes and proceeds to a large room with vaulted ceilings three stories high. The air smells like a department-store perfume counter, the scents indistinguishably intermingled — the result of the Muslim practice of applying fragrance while worshipping that dates back to the prophet Mohammed's predilection for perfumes.
More than a hundred men and boys sit cross-legged on the carpet; all women are out of sight, comfortably ensconced on a second-story balcony. A wide swath of skin tones and facial features bespeaks Middle Eastern, African and Asian ancestry.
Semnani is the only one in this expansive room wearing a white shirt and tie. Indeed, a significant percentage of these men are working-class immigrants — people who hold down jobs like driving taxis.
After the prayer service, Imam Muhammed of the Islamic Society of Great Salt Lake thoughtfully quantifies the sizable role Semnani unofficially fills for Utah's Muslim community. To illustrate the dynamic, Muhammed recalls a recent conference at BYU where Semnani presented a paper about his experience of being a Muslim in America. Near the end of his discourse, Semnani paused and introduced the imam to the students and professors in attendance — an act that opened a dialogue that otherwise wouldn't have happened between Muhammed and the mostly white, Mormon audience.
"Many of the BYU students wanted to meet an imam, wanted to discuss, wanted to dialogue, wanted clarification on matters," Muhammed recalls. "The professors wanted to participate in the dialogue and create more open communication. With one small act, Semnani had shaped my thinking regarding BYU, BYU's thinking to a certain extent regarding me, and by opening up that communication line we are able to clarify misconceptions."
Semnani, the Utah millionaire most famous for bringing massive amounts of the federal government's radioactive waste to Utah, has now embarked on a new mission that is very much fueled by faith. After more than a decade in the public spotlight, Semnani is shifting his focus from capitalism to philanthropy, funneling his faith in God and humanity into ambitious projects like providing healthcare to the poor.
An Iranian immigrant who came to Utah in 1969 with $47 in his pocket, Semnani (pronounced sem-nah-NEE) helped pay his way through Westminster College with a part-time job as a janitor. Eventually he founded Envirocare (now EnergySolutions) in 1988 and shortly thereafter the company began accepting low-level radioactive waste for treatment and disposal in above ground, reinforced buildings with three-foot-thick concrete walls.
The facility still sits on a 540-acre property in the isolated Tooele County desert west of Salt Lake City. Semnani originally bought the land for $339,000 and, thanks in part to lucrative contracts from the U.S. Department of Energy, eventually built the company up to produce revenues that were estimated to exceed $100 million annually. As of 2005, Envirocare accepted 93 percent of the Class A low level radioactive waste that the federal government farmed out to non-government facilities.
As the CEO of Envirocare, Semnani was once a household name in the Utah media. In 2002 he fought hard to defeat the Radioactive Waste Initiative in a statewide election. Also known as Initiative 1, the ballot measure would've increased the state tax on Class A radioactive waste disposal from 35 cents per cubic foot to nearly $150 for every cubic foot.
However, after Semnani agreed in 2004 to sell Envirocare to the conglomerate that became EnergySolutions for an undisclosed sum that industry observers estimated to be at least $500 million, he literally disappeared from the headlines.
The Semnani that has emerged from those years away from the public square seems a different man, intent on crafting a new legacy. Most notably, he launched Omid for Iran, an advocacy group seeking constitutional democracy in Semnani's Iranian homeland, and founded and funds Maliheh Free Clinic, which provides free medical services to poor and uninsured patients in South Salt Lake. (The Semnani Family Foundation donated $189,500 to Maliheh in 2010 and $187,800 so far in 2011.)
Koz, as his friends and family know him, has also partnered with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to send aid abroad to natural-disaster victims. Earlier this month, his foundation donated $125,000 to LDS Humanitarian Services for famine relief in Somalia and Somali refugee camps. Additionally, last year the Semnani Family Foundation donated $20,000 to LDS Humanitarian Services for earthquake relief in Haiti.
"The one thing that has always impressed me about Koz is he never expects any acknowledgement for what he does," said KSL radio host Doug Wright, a member of Maliheh Free Clinic's advisory board. "As a matter of fact, often he's uncomfortable with it and often he's even a little embarrassed by it.
"I know with his deep religious beliefs, he strongly believes that the things you do for good here on earth should be things that perhaps are only between you and your god — and I love him for that."
It's another beautiful summer day in Salt Lake City, but Khosrow Semnani sits silently in his office and broods. He has a lot on his mind as he pores over policy solutions to societal quagmires like healthcare for the poor.
His ground-floor office looks out onto a lush residential neighborhood near the Masonic Temple on 2nd South. Semnani takes his tea in a maroon Envirocare coffee mug, not out of nostalgia but simply because there were so many mugs lying around when he left the company he founded.
Behind his desk he proudly displays framed photographs of his two teenage sons (he also has an older son who attends law school), as well as two miniature flags standing side-by-side: emblems of the U.S. and Iran.
Semnani is a naturalized U.S. citizen who never shies away from a chance to explain that he is living proof of the American dream. Yet, part of his heart will always be in Iran. For that reason, he started Omid for Iran (translated, it means "Hope for Iran"). Advocating for the overarching goal of a constitutional democracy, he met twice with Pres. George W. Bush to discourage the U.S. from attacking Iran's burgeoning nuclear facilities (the radiation from such an attack could incur thousands of civilian deaths), and he has penned several op-ed pieces for newspapers.
Omid for Iran's biggest success to date happened April 26 when Gov. Gary Herbert signed the Bonds of Friendship with Iran Resolution that Utah's House and Senate passed unanimously during the 2011 legislative session. The resolution "declares that the people of Utah stand with the Iranian people in their struggle for freedom, justice, peace, and prosperity for Iran; and calls on the United States Government, the international community, and the Islamic world to support the Iranian people by defending their democratic rights."
Painful memories persist from the Green Revolution of 2009, which ended in violence after the Iranian government murdered peaceful demonstrators. And yet, Semnani is pushing hard to mobilize Iranian-Americans and, vis-a-vis Omid for Iran, catalyze a bona fide democratic constitution. Although it may be years in the making, his determined faith leads him to believe that the aim is attainable.
Kaveh Ehsani, an international studies professor at DePaul University and co-editor of the journal Middle East Report, forecasts what the road to democracy will entail for Iran.
"Conservatives realize that nowadays there's an engaged and vocal weight of opposition," Ehsani said. "The problem of sharing power with the rest of society cannot be delayed ad infinitum. At some point this has to be addressed.
"It can be addressed through sheer violence — Iran can try to do this, but I think it will fail badly because Iran is a politicized society. But on the other hand, the question of how you share power with people who have monopolized power until now but now are in danger of losing it to more pluralism — that's not an easy question."
As he sips his tea, Semnani chuckles. Despite the odds, he is optimistic about Iran's future — and most of all, he knows his faith won't let him abandon his dreams.
The medical clinic, named for Semnani's late grandmother Maliheh, opened in 2006. The clinic employs six paid employees who combine forces with a small army of volunteer nurses, doctors and medical students that collectively donated 16,000 hours during 2010. Semnani's schedule doesn't permit him to visit frequently, but he stays apprised of the comings and goings at Maliheh through regular meetings between his wife, Ghazaleh, and clinic executive director Jeanie Ashby.
Maliheh's can-do attitude isn't just a band-aid for people without other medical-care options — it's a literal lifeline. The clinic's never-say-never ethos is embodied in a creative, multifaceted program that ensures uninsured patients will receive the medications physicians prescribe for sustaining life or restoring quality of life.
The first line of defense for making sure patients get the medications they need is a laminated card found in every exam room that lists the generic prescriptions available at Wal Mart and Target for about $4. For conditions that can't be treated with a generic drug from the laminated reference card, a clinic staffer is available to help people fill out the lengthy application forms for drug companies' patient-assistance programs. If all else fails, doctors can send a patient in dire need of a specific, expensive medication to Rite Aid — where Maliheh has a running tab that the an anonymous donor pays off in full.
Presently, Maliheh is in the midst of a thorough remodeling to increase its patient capacity beyond the 80-100 people who come on a daily basis for free medical services. Still, the clinic simply does not come close to meeting demand for healthcare services among Salt Lake City's underinsured. Indeed, the waiting list to become a new patient at Maliheh currently requires about 3-5 months.
But sheer numbers aren't the endgame at Maliheh.
"We're running as fast as we can and pinching every penny along the way, but it won't meet all the need," Ashby said. "We just have to look at each starfish on the sand and say, 'made a difference for that one,' and make a difference for as many people as we can."
Although Ashby finds herself perpetually juggling supplies, staff and schedules, she can't imagine having it any other way.1 comment on this story
"Every day I get to talk to people who are grateful that we're here, and it just makes me feel good," Ashby said. "But the Semnanis are who really need to be thanked. The contribution that they make to the clinic and to the community is unequivocal — nobody does that."
Khosrow Semnani timeline
1947: born in Mashaad, Iran
1968: emigrated to the U.S.
1977: earned master's degree in engineering administration from University of Utah
1988: founded Envirocare
2005: sold Envirocare
2006: founded Maliheh Free Clinic
2009: founded Omid for Iran
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