Following Nazanin Afshin-Jam’s keynote address at the Global Awareness Week event on February 2, attendees may be kissing the ground they live on – and that’s just what Nazanin wants to see.
“We are so incredibly blessed to be living in a free and democratic country with the rule of law and the universal declaration of human rights at the forefront of our constitution,” says the international human rights activist.
Nazanin’s family fled Iran when she was a baby – after her father was nearly executed. Her interest in global issues prompted her to earn a double major degree in international relations and political science at the University of British Columbia and later pursue further studies in Paris and the United Kingdom. She was named Miss Canada in 2003 and runner-up at the Miss World competition, which gave her a platform to raise awareness for several international causes. Today she continues tirelessly to advocate for human rights, having cofounded the Stop Child Executions organization.
Q: What motivates you to be so actively involved in international advocacy?
NA: Injustice is the biggest motivator. When I see or hear about someone who is oppressed where the rule of law is not being applied, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that cannot be ignored. Unless I personally look into a matter and know that it’s being addressed, that feeling does not disappear.
I try to use my knowledge, experience or contacts where I can to help. Everyone has that capacity to use their blessings to make this world a better place.
Q: What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment to date?
NA: I think my biggest accomplishment to date has been helping raise awareness of human rights abuses in Iran and particularly helping children on death row. I am also proud to have inspired others to believe they can make a difference and then actually see them with my own eyes taking initiatives to fulfill their humanitarian goals.
Q: Is there any cause that you’re working on that you would say is not getting enough media or international attention?
NA: There is a very grave problem of refugees fleeing their homeland because of persecution on account of their political beliefs, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation and being stuck in long bureaucratic lineups. Some wait for years to have interviews with the UN Refugee Agency to see if a host country will give them asylum.
It is a very difficult time for these individuals and families. A lot of restrictions are placed on their ability to travel, many cannot afford rent or food and they are legally unable to work so they’re caught in desperate situations. Due to the sheer amount of these kinds of cases, their stories are not reported by the media and thus forgotten by the international community.
Q: What do you want students to take away from global awareness events like the one at MacEwan University?
NA: With such safety, material comforts and opportunities at our fingertips in Canada, I would not only like for the students to understand that such rights do not come for free but in order to maintain our high quality of life and happiness, we should understand that we also have responsibilities to give back to other parts of the world so they too can have, at least in part, similar capabilities.
Happy neighbours in effect means a happy Canada because with the age of globalization, what affects one part of the world inevitably affects us too. Plus, it just feels good to give.
Nazanin and fellow keynote speakers, humanitarian physician James Maskalyk and journalist Sally Armstrong, are part of the roster of activities at Global Awareness Week 2012.