AWAKE AT NIGHTWith Melissa Fleming
While visiting Afghanistan in May 2002, Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh engages with members of the local community. At the time, she was working for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and travelled frequently to Afghanistan. ©Courtesy of Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh
14 JUNE 2019
Born to Help Others
14 JUNE 2019
Born to Help Others
Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh is an effective and tireless advocate of human rights. A lawyer, she holds a senior position at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, working on refugee protection. But she has never lost her human touch. Perhaps it’s a legacy of her own experience as a refugee when she was just 10 years old. In 1979, her father was serving as the Iranian ambassador in India. But following the revolution in Iran, the whole family had to flee from Delhi.
“Since childhood,” she says, “I grew up with my mother telling me: ‘You were born to help people.’ It was something that was impounded in my brain from the time I was raised, from the time I was born: ‘You were born to help people. This is why you are on this earth’.”
+ Full Transcript
Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh Edited Transcript
Melissa Fleming (MF): This is Awake at Night. I’m Melissa Fleming.
Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh (ST): Since childhood I grew up with my mother telling me: “You were born to help people.” I mean it was like something that was impounded in my brain from the time I was raised, from the time I was born: “You were born to help people. This is why you’re on this earth.”
MF: Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh is one of the most effective and tireless advocates of human rights that I know. A lawyer, she holds a senior position here at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, working on refugee protection. But she has never lost her human touch. Perhaps it’s a legacy of her own experience as a refugee when she was just 10 years old. In 1979, her father was serving as the Iranian ambassador in India. But following the revolution in Iran, the whole family had to flee from Delhi.
ST: My parents did everything they could to practically pretend that everything was normal. Obviously, despite the fact that everything was not normal. So, for example, I remember there were a lot of demonstrations in front of our house, because my father was the ambassador and basically the house was the representation of the government at the time. And so there were a lot of students who came to express their discontent in the form of massive demonstrations with hundreds of people.
I say hundreds, but I really mean that, when you were a child, any grouping that’s beyond ten people looks huge. But this was really a few hundred people, because I remember them. The house had police officers that pretty much had barricaded all around the house for our protection. And I still was not quite conscious of what was happening, until the time where I remember walking into my bathroom which had a window that faced the front of the house, where you could see clearly the demonstrations.
I walked in, I flipped open the lights in the bathroom, I saw my father and mother at the window, and it was one of the only times I actually remember my father screaming at me: “Turn it off!” And I just burst into tears because I couldn’t understand what I did wrong. I just wanted to go to the bathroom and I turned the lights on. But of course, when you turn the lights on, you see who is inside. For me, it was one of the earlier times where I felt unsafe, where I felt like I actually couldn’t do what is a pretty normal thing to do, which is to walk into your bathroom or flip the lights on, that really shocked me and really brought this image of insecurity home for me.
MF: You had to leave suddenly. What was that like?
ST: We left in the middle of the night. But most of the flights from that region at the time were taking off in the middle of the night. So, there was a level of normalcy to the way we were leaving, because when we left, we often left at weird hours, except this time there were people crying at the airport. Embassy staff who had come to see us off, who were crying. We had two dogs that we had to leave behind, and we weren’t even told that we weren’t coming back. So, it didn’t even occur to me to react to the fact that I wasn’t going to see my dogs anymore. Things were strange in our departure, but at the same time I just don’t think I really understood. And, in hindsight, and hopefully I’ll never be in a situation where I have to pack my kids in the middle of the night and go, but I do wonder how much one should not be actually more open with children. My parents didn’t tell us anything. Maybe if they had told me we weren’t coming back, there would be a few things that I would have taken with me.
MF: Like what?
ST: I had a little doll. His name was Ali Daad. I even remember my doll’s name. And, you know, when you have children, they get obsessed with these little things. Their “doudou”, this thing that they take with them everywhere. I didn’t pack my “doudou” and, when I was ten, it wasn’t as serious “doudou”, but it was still something I felt very attached to, that I had brought from Iran with me. Silly things, like a racer collection I remember I had.
If I had been told: “Think about four things you really want to take – not a lot, we don’t have a lot of space”… Maybe I say that now, as a nearly 50-year-old, but I think we underestimate maybe the importance of making the children part of the process that you’re going through as a parent, when you’re going into exile. My parents really have always done an incredible amount for us and have always had our best interests at heart. I will never hold anything against my parents. So this is just a hindsight reflection. I think that, just as parents would have some time to process the fact that they’re going into exile, some level of bringing your children into that process earlier on could also help. I would have picked up a few things with me.
MF: You were somebody who moved your whole life but now you were forcibly moved. So did you know that you were a refugee?
ST: I don’t think that we understood. At least I certainly didn’t understand the term “refugee” for what it meant. I don’t think at that young age I ever understood that it meant we wouldn’t be going back to Iran. We were lucky, because we were safe in London and my mother’s sister lived there. At least, we were able to have a home where we could go into. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment. My aunt and my uncle, and then the four of us landed on them, while two weeks later my father came as well. And being in London was not such a difference for us because we were also regularly going to London to visit the family. So I don’t think that I really grasped the concept of being a refugee. In fact, I didn’t really grasp that concept until university. And I think again it was because my parents just turned completely their focus to: “You need to learn, to stand on your own feet. You cannot rely on anyone they can take everything away from you, but they can’t take away what you have in your mind.”
MF: They started talking to you differently
ST: This is it. This change of attitudes and approaches, a big focus on education. It became a mantra in our house that was all we talked. Besides them talking about what was happening in Iran, the focus was: “We need you to pull yourself up.” And it is fear that basically took my parents over, that they could no longer rely on anyone else. Education was the only thing that was going to get their children safe.
MF: You are in the UK, you are 10 years old. Your father has lost his livelihood. You’re living in a two-bedroom apartment, kind of squeezed tight. What happened then? Describe what your life was like.
ST: You know there’s one thing I remember very well from that time. It’s painful as much as it is the sense of pride and I don’t know why, but it brings tears to my eyes: Whether it’s painful or whether it’s really how proud I am, because you know I often cry when I’m happy.
When we came, I didn’t speak a word of English, because we were in the French system. We came to the UK. I could not get into the French school. First financially, but also because of space. So, I was put into the public school in London. It’s difficult enough to come to a whole new environment. But on top of that you don’t speak the language. And so, I remember my teacher spoke a little bit of French.
And, at one point, there was a game or tests, where she divided the class in two and she would ask questions. And the different team members would have to go to the board and write the answer and then depending on that, they would win. And, she sent me to the board. And then she said: “What is the name of the body of water between the UK and France?” I said “La Manche” in French and I think she must have known that, if there was one thing I would know, it would probably be that, so she asked that question and I got a point for my team, despite the fact that I barely spoke English.
These are the little examples that I always could think back of. There were the people who extended a helping hand however they could. And my brother, I remember, he could not get into the school system and he was in his last years of the French bac, and he was a very critical time for him. So, he ended up doing correspondence at that level. And he used to go to the bathroom, and he would basically study throughout the night or very late at night, with the lights on, because everyone else was sleeping everywhere in this two-bedroom apartment.
MF: It was the only space where he could turn on the light.
ST: And so that’s what brings tears to my eyes. This is the type of commitment that we had. Thanks to my parents who really said: “You have to do this.”
MF: So, were you doing it for them? Or did you find that you and your brother and your sister had some kind of instinctive drive in yourselves, given this new circumstance?
ST: I think it was given these circumstances. It was a great push, but I should also say I come from a family where my father had done his PhD at the Sorbonne. My mother did her specialization as an obstetrician gynaecologist in the US. She was one of 13 women of over 500 men when she did her medical school and she was one of 13 children as well in that family. And she was the only one who went on and got her education, who fought to go to the US to get her specialization. And it’s today what saved us. Because she had done her specialization in the US, we were subsequently able to immigrate to the US where she could do a conversion test and be able to work, thanks to the studies that she had done.
MF: At what age were you when your parents decided to migrate to the United States?
ST: I was 13. We were waiting to get our green card, because my mother’s brother was a US citizen and sponsored us. So we wanted to move to the US – my parents wanted us to move to the US – so that my mother could work. Not in the best jobs, again to her credit. She took anything that she could take.
MF: What kind of jobs did she take?
ST: I think at one point my mother worked in a very difficult downtown area of Washington DC, in a hospital working with drug addicted, HIV-positive pregnant women. I mean really tough cases and without a great pay in the public system. But she did everything she could.
MF: Can you describe what it was like for you, first arriving in the US?
ST: Yes. Now that I think back, we first went outside of San Francisco. It was a terrible little suburb. And I remember the first child who spoke to me in school asked me if I smoked weed. I was 13 and it was a real shock for me, when I first arrived. I didn’t even know what weed was.
It was also around the time when American hostages were taken. So, actually our arrival was incredibly hard. My sister would have tomatoes thrown at her and eggs thrown at her and when she would walk home from school and people would scream at us: “Iranians go home”. And our big thing was a joke in our family was “Oh yeah, well we would if we could.”
And it’s incredible now, when I see this UNHCR posters saying: “‘Refugees go home!’ – ‘He would if he could’”. That was literally the joke between the three siblings or in particular my sister’s and mine: “Oh yeah, well we would if we could!”
So, at that time, we didn’t feel this draw, because we were still very young, about wanting to go back –through in a lot of ways, it was still positive for us being in the US. I had not internalized yet the fact that I was a refugee, but I would still comment and say “Well, I would if I could”, just because it was the rebel side of us that was coming out because we were being attacked. But we didn’t last long. We moved after several incidents.
MF: Your parents saw that it was not good.
ST: No, it was not. So we moved to Washington, D.C., because most of my mother’s medical school friends had been there forever.
MF: What kind of expectations did your mother have of you?
ST: Since childhood, frankly even before the revolution, I remember a constant line that my mother always said to me. I grew up with my mother telling me: “You were born to help people.”
I mean it was like something that was impounded in my brain from the time I was raised, from the time I was born: “You were born to help people. This is why you are on this earth. You were born, you were raised to help people.”
MF: She didn’t say that to your brother or your other sister?
ST: No, it was only me. It was like: “You. Your calling is this: to help people.” And because she’s a medical doctor, in her mind helping people meant being a medical doctor. It was so clear for her: “You were born to help people; you are going to become a medical doctor.” And so I grew up with that in my mind and also genuinely thinking: “Yes, I want to be a medical doctor, because I want to help people.” So, I went to university, I went to Northwestern, I did two years of all the pre-med classes and then, towards the end of my sophomore year, I was taking a Spanish conversation and composition class. The teacher was a refugee from Uruguay and every piece of work that we had to do was somehow linked to the dictatorships and the issues around Latin America. And I remember we had to write an essay about Sting’s song, They Dance Alone: “Hey Mr. Pinochet, you’ve sown a bitter crop.” And so we had to write a Spanish composition, on what that meant to us.
MF: This was his method of teaching you Spanish.
ST: This was his exact method. Then, unfortunately for him, it was badly criticized in a rather conservative university at the time. But I thought he was just a star.
And so, we were learning Spanish, but it was awakening so many incredible thoughts in me. And it was really for the first time that I started practically coming to terms with what my father had gone through. You know, going to the gas station and not knowing how something worked. And with his accent asking and really having such a disrespectful response and always facing discrimination or a level of disrespect because he was a foreigner, because he was the “Other”.
Through these classes and through these discussions in this class, I remember at one point I wrote my professor letter asking him “Why?” “Why do people have to suffer? Why are people tortured? Why are people discriminated against?” It’s so unfair. It can’t happen. And then, I wrote him the story of my father. But I did that in English. For the record, I wasn’t that good in Spanish, but I wrote him the story of my father and then I remember, at the end of my letter, I thanked the professor for having made me realize how unfair the world is and how I needed to do something about it. In honour of my father.
At the end of that semester, I went home and I told my parents that I do want to help people, but I want to help them through the law. I want to help refugees. And I don’t want to go to medical school. I want to go to law school. My parents did not speak to me for three months, after that, three months.
MF: They were very disappointed in your choice.
ST: They were incredibly upset.
MF: Did they say why?
ST: Yes, my parents were very upset. Firstly, my mother really still believes that you can only help people, if you are a doctor. So I think there was a level of disappointment in her that I wasn’t going to go to medical school. But more importantly, my parents are risk averse. They have gone through so much upheaval that they do not like anything that isn’t as safe or certain as possible. Medical school is safe. So, I told them I wanted to study political science and I want to go to law school. “Political science, you can’t do this. What does that mean?”
MF: What were you saying back to them?
ST: I was saying that let’s not lose sight of what I want to do with my degree, which is that I want to go to law school to help refugees. I want to do refugee law. I want to help fight discrimination. I want to stop persecution. So, forget the political science degree or the classes that really were exciting me incredibly. Let’s talk about where it is that I want to go. Let’s not talk about the fact that I’m taking a comparative whatever in political science. But it was very hard for them. It was very hard just because they couldn’t accept it. So then it was a step-by-step evolution. But, you know, my strong message on this aspect to any young person, whoever asks me anything around these things is: if you find your passion, you just you have to stick to it, even if it appears like you are disappointing those around you. If you believe in it, you just go for it. Count yourself lucky that you found your passion. And so that’s what happened to me. I found my passion and today my parents are very proud of me. Had I bent there, I don’t think I would have been successful, because it’s not who I was meant to be so.
MF: So, you decided that you wanted to work for the cause of refugees. One thing led to another and you were able, through a US government programme called Junior Professional Officers (JPO), to join the ranks of UNHCR. Where was your first posting?
ST: I was first posted in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia. It was the end of the Vietnamese boat people, the Comprehensive Plan of Action for the Vietnamese. So it gave me a taste of what these camp situations were like, which frankly, looking back now 25 years later, they were horrendous.
MF: Can you describe what they were like?
ST: I remember still this young interpreter who worked with me, who would say that every night he used to go on top of the roof of where they were staying. He had basically spent his whole young adulthood in a prison and he would sit on top of the highest point of these sort of made up container homes, and he would look across the wires to Kuala Lumpur lights and he would say: I always wonder what life is like over there. So, when we say refugees wish they your problems… These are the types of things that these individuals were reflecting on. They had no idea what was life like outside, they had zero freedom of movement. When I came back to UNHCR recently, my greatest joy was to see this changed approach: these out-of-camp policies, the encouragement of states to enable refugees to move and to integrate and to be included in societies. Because, before that, refugees’ lives were on hold. This kid’s life was on hold.
MF: And that really disturbed you.
ST: A lot of things disturbed me. I was young, I was 24, right out of law school. Very bubbly, American, excited to be here. And so I was confronted with that which was sadness for me. It was sadness to see these kids in these camps. And the urban caseload, frankly, was even worse than that.
MF: These were the refugees who were not in camps.
ST: Yes, the urban caseload were asylum seekers who had come in their majority with smugglers to Malaysia, with the view of moving onward. And Malaysia, at the time, whether you were Somali or Iraqi or Iranian or Afghan, you didn’t need visas. So it was like good a place where most were brought. And then the smugglers would steal their passports and dump them there and tell them “go to UNHCR”. So you had some genuine refugees and my task was basically to interview them.
MF: What was the interview like?
ST: First of all, more often than not, I did the interviews, whether it was in Dari or Farsi, in their language. So this enabled them to open up a little bit more. The interviews were for me incredibly hard to conduct, especially when I had older men in front of me. There was a time when I couldn’t always not see my father in front of me, when I was doing interviews.
MF: Why did they remind you of your father?
ST: Their vulnerability, their fear that I felt, besides their own stories. But really, I think it was their vulnerability that struck me the most. And that’s why I think it was an incredibly hard experience for me, but a very humbling one. And I was very grateful subsequently for that experience. I cried a lot. Every night I went home and I called my father. I cried and he’d say: “Come home, don’t do this work. It’s changing your character. You were fun, you were a happy person, now you’re a sad person.” And I said: “No I’m not,” while laughing and crying. “No, I’m not a sad person. I feel incredibly honoured to be doing what I’m doing.” But seeing still, even in Malaysia, the fear in the person’s eyes when I was interviewing them, really was very difficult for me to handle.
I don’t know how else to say, but I felt stupid like: who am I to ask this person to pour their stories out to me in order to make their case. I felt like I’m just this young kid. And why should this person open up this way to me? I felt like it was disrespectful for them. And it really bothered me. But I also knew I had to do that, because I had to understand their case so I could make their file and have them be recognized, so they could be resettled. But it was personally a very hard process for me. I felt I was being disrespectful to the refugees, because I was asking them: “Tell me. And then what did they do to you? And then did they beat you? And then? And what happened to your son?” I felt, in some ways, I was being unfair, because I was asking them to open all of their wounds, so I could make their file and then I would say: “Okay, thank you, we’ll come back to you.”
MF: Is there any person in particular you recall? Any story that particularly just stuck with you?
ST: There was one Afghan gentleman who was older, who had lost all his family at the hands of the Taliban. And I think what I remember the most about him wasn’t as much about his story which was the typical story that you heard about what was happening during that period in Afghanistan. But what struck me the most about him was at one point I was with my head down and I was taking notes of what he was saying. And I looked up and his hands were shaking. That was hard for me. That was like throwing cold water on my face. This poor man.
It was a very humbling experience and I’m really grateful for it, because I think that if you want to do this work, you can’t lose sight of the fact that the refugees have suffered, and they continue to suffer throughout their journey. It’s not just what happened to them in their country of origin. It’s that they continue to struggle in the countries of asylum, if they’re not well integrated.
MF: Did you ever have a sense of guilt that you had actually managed to get to America and have a better refugee life? Also difficult, but…
ST: I never felt guilt. I felt a responsibility, but I never felt guilt. I don’t judge. I never judge people. And I don’t think it’s fair for anyone to judge. No one knows what’s happening in people’s lives. So I never felt guilty, but I certainly felt that I was tasked. It was a responsibility for me to better the lives of others.
MF: You went on after Malaysia, too. Probably one of the most difficult situations anywhere. And that was Rwanda. I mean it was after the genocide. What was the timing? What were you experiencing? What was your function there?
ST: I went, yes, in 1995 to Rwanda to a little village called Kibungo, at the border with Tanzania. And it was when people were starting to come back. I was doing returnee monitoring. I was following the returnees to their villages, because I also was there during a time where you started having mass returns. In Zaire they were attacking the refugee camps and people were being in the hundreds of thousands crossing the border, in the worst type of situations you can imagine. And the stories you heard were just unbearable.
MF: Do you remember one?
ST: I still have one person that I remember. I still have his whole person in my mind so well. He had elephantiasis. His feet were enormous and he couldn’t move. And this big Rwandan man with elephantiasis was crying in front of me and saying in French: “Madame, I have seen great suffering, I’ve seen great pain.” And he pointed to his one son and he said I had eight children. He’s the only one that I have left. They killed my other seven. And I can’t even take care of him, because of me, because of my feet and because of my circumstances. So really I can’t describe to you the extreme suffering that these people faced.
MF: Were you able to help them?
ST: As you could help anyone in those types of circumstances, as there were so many people and so many needs. On the Rwanda days, I always say I have never experienced such extreme emotions from both sides of the spectrum. From this gentleman suffering, to one of the best experiences I know, as I was supporting the family reunification of a small girl, who was living in the Tanzania camps. I had met her parents who had returned to Rwanda and who had asked for their daughter to be reunited. So, I had found her through the whole system that we have in the camps in Tanzania and I went to see her, because I was doing a lot of cross-border for these family unification purposes as well. And she was surrounded by people who were feeding her these incredible lies about what awaits her across the border, because at the time there was also a great push not to see returns take place, because there were a lot of genocidaires – I can’t indicate numbers – but there were a lot of genocidaires in the camps as well.
So, they had no interest in actually seeing the camps close and return taking place, because they would face whatever they would face back in Rwanda. So there was a lot of pressure on people not to go back. So this little girl who must have been like 11 had so much pressure on her not to return. And she wouldn’t believe me when I told her “I have seen your parents. Come with me. They’re waiting for you.” And on the other hand you had a huge group gathering around us to try to dissuade her from coming, saying: “Killers. They’re going to kill you.” It was actually quite nerve racking in some ways, because I also felt there was a security threat as well in that there were all these people gathering.
So I left and I don’t know why I had this idea, for which in hindsight I was very proud of myself. I took a Polaroid picture of myself with the parents that went back to the camp. And then I took her aside in a separate tent, away from everyone and I showed her the picture and I said: “I know your parents, come with me”. And she was with her aunt who said to me: “You take her and you take her straight back to her parents.”
I swear, I’m not exaggerating the story: She came back with me. I had malaria. I didn’t realize it was malaria, but I was not feeling well and I crossed into Rwanda. We went into the centre where the kids go in the first instance and I was starting to get late and they wouldn’t let me take her to her parents and I said there’s no way I am leaving this kid in the centre tonight, when she was being told they’re going to take you across the border and they’re going to kill you. I have promised her I am taking her to her parents and I’m going to take her to her parents. And I was able with the Representative’s great support, the head of ICRC. They agreed. We took her with their driver and I swear, every 15 minutes I was stopping the car throwing up. I will never forget. She was starting to look around me, as we were getting close to the village and at one point, they had these huts. We passed by one and there was a crowd around it. And the little girl looked and she saw her parents. And my driver was driving fast, because I don’t think we realized that was the house and that we passed it. And then at one point, luckily she didn’t know how to open the door because she would have fallen out while driving. She started banging on the window, because she had seen her parents and then the whole crowd started running after the car and I threw up. This was of the most beautiful moments.
MF: How about your personal life at that time? You were getting towards the age where I’m sure also your traditional parents were saying “when are you finally going to get married?” What were you thinking at that time?
ST: I wasn’t there yet even though my age was there and my parents thought I was there. But in my mind I had never wanted to be married, because I was so committed to working for UNHCR and working for refugees that I always believed very strongly that getting married meant sacrificing everything that I had fought hard to get. And so I said, “Well, I’m not interested. This is my life. This is what I want to do.” And I wanted to go to Afghanistan. I had put myself in a situation where I was being positively considered. I was super excited and my boss would not release me. So, I had to stay for an extra year. And it was during that year that I actually met my husband. So, it has made me even that much more of a believer of things happen for good reasons. So long as you give your all, you make your efforts, you go after what you think you want. If it doesn’t work out it just wasn’t meant to be and it wasn’t meant to be for very good reasons. And I met my husband and I was very lucky because I feel very lucky as a person because I’m very well surrounded. I have great friends, I have great family.
MF: How did he switch you, because you said you didn’t want to get married, you wanted to go to Afghanistan and yet somehow he must have convinced you that you could have a life in the UN and still be married and be a mother.
ST: Well, he did convince me, I don’t want to discredit him. He really is great. But I needed someone else to tell me something which a very good friend of mine told me at the time, who said to me that when you work for UNHCR and you move from country to country every two to four years, you are facing new challenges each time and you don’t see time pass by. You have a new apartment, you have new friends, you have a new work plan, you have new colleagues, you have new challenges and just when things start becoming maybe a little bit “I’ve done this”, well it’s time to pack up and go to a new place, new challenges, new apartment, new friends. And so, the next thing you know you’ve reached a certain age where you say: “You know, I actually wouldn’t have minded having children” – which you don’t necessarily think about when you’re in the process of having all these exciting postings. And she said to me: “Think about that.” Think about where you want to be when you’re 45-50. Don’t only think about where you are now at the age of 30. And honesty, it was a very important piece of advice that got me out of my today bubble and got me to reflect about what it is that I wanted to do.
So, my struggle was that I realized that I actually would like to have a family, I wanted to commit to this relationship, but I did not want to stop doing this type of work. And so, I had to find a way to do both and my husband is based in Geneva. He couldn’t come with me. And I was very lucky in that, at the same time, a post came up in the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights responsible for the Afghanistan operation. And I was able to get their job.
MF: Based here, being able to travel.
ST: Exactly. I was in and out of Afghanistan constantly, but based in Geneva, running the human rights programme together with the support that we were providing to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. But based in Geneva while I was able to also do what at that time felt that I wanted to commit to, which was a relationship with my then soon to be husband.
MF: We’re going to fast forward a little bit. You’ve had three children. Did you raise them any differently than how you were raised?
ST: Actually, I have become my mother. But all the great things about my mother. I again feel very lucky, because I have an incredible husband who is a partner. And there’s no way I feel that I could have done anything, pursue my passion if I did not have him as my partner. Because he accepts responsibility for the family on an equal footing. And he encourages me and partners up with me and we raise our children together. We have equal responsibility. Actually, when it comes to math he has more responsibility than I do.
So, I raised my children in the same manner, in that I tried to instil the same type of values that my parents instilled in me. My children are very empathetic. My struggle with them is that I don’t want them to struggle. I don’t want them to suffer, but I want them to feel the suffering of others. To be empathetic towards that. And, we’ve tried to raise them in a manner that is very sensitive to the feelings of the person that is across from them. And, education, good studies – all these core aspects that my parents instilled in me are core to what I’m instilling in them as well.
MF: What keeps you awake at night these days?
ST: What really keeps me awake at night? Our images.
MF: What kind of images?
ST: The shaking hand?
MF: You still see it.
ST: I see images. I don’t know what it is. I wish I didn’t. I really wish I didn’t, because I suffer. I know his cheek. I never experienced it, but what keeps me awake at night is the pitch-black darkness on the Mediterranean on a dinghy boat with the mother holding her child. Recently we were in Tunisia and we had this great hotel room overlooking the Mediterranean and the sea, and it was so windy and all I kept telling my husband was: “Oh, my God. This poor mother who is out there tonight on this dinghy boat.” That’s what keeps me awake at night. It keeps me awake at night, but it keeps me motivated.
MF: Shahrzad, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast and sharing so much and so deeply your story.
ST: Thank you.
MF: Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. You can find us on Facebook @UNHCR and on Twitter we’re @refugees and I’m @melissarfleming. Please spread the word about the series using the hashtag #awakeatnight. If you were inspired and moved by this episode, do subscribe to Awake at Night wherever you get your podcasts. And, if you could, could you take time to review the podcast? It would help us spread the word and get more attention to the people who serve humanity.
Thanks to the fantastic design and studio teams here at UNHCR, and to my producers Bethany Bell, and Laura Sheeter of Chalk and Blade. The sound design was by Pascal Wyse and the original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah – and produced by Ben Hillier.
My next guest is a man who had to leave his homeland, because he defended refugees as a UNHCR spokesman. He tells me how, despite all he’s given up, working with refugees has shown him the best of humanity.
Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh speaks with a forcibly displaced child in Eritrea in 2018. Based at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, she often travels in her capacity as Deputy Director of UNHCR’s Division of International Protection. ©Courtesy of Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh
UNHCR Spokesperson and Head of Communications Melissa Fleming interviews Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh, Deputy Director (Policy and Law) of the agency’s Division of International Protection. ©UNHCR/Susan Hopper