By Sean Meyer/London Community News
Choose to lead is the motto used by Brescia University College in its promotional materials.
Although Nazanin Afshin-Jam hadn’t heard of the college before agreeing to come speak at its 10th annual Breakfast for Bursaries event, she clearly has nonetheless taken this motto to heart.
Afshin-Jam, an international human rights activist and president and co-founder of Stop Child Executions — as well as being a singer/songwriter, actor and former Miss World Canada — spoke to a crowd of 360 people on Thursday (Oct. 20) at the London Convention Centre during the annual fundraiser for the Eleanore Donnelly Bursary Fund.
Brescia University College is affiliated with the University of Western Ontario and has 1,100 women registered as either full or part-time students. The fund provides financial support for mature women who have made the decision to further their education.
Since its inception in 2002 — and including an $80,000 contribution this year (the 40,000 raised by the event was matched by the Ontario Trust for Student Support) — Breakfast for Bursaries has raised over $350,000 to benefit women’s education.
“To know there is a school that is concentrating on women and women’s leadership programs, I think that is really important, in this day-and-age, to hone these women to become the future leaders of tomorrow,” Afshin-Jam said. “They will be the next generation of people leading our country, leading the world, and raising babies who will be the next generation after that. It is important to speak with them and inspire them and to let them know they can make a difference.”
Born in Tehran, Iran in 1979 — the same year her family fled the country because of the Islamic revolution — Afshin-Jam quickly decided she would make the most out of the freedoms and opportunities she enjoyed after her emigrating to Canada in 1981.
“I was always a very sensitive child, sensitive to the pain and plights of other people. I was always asking questions, why this, why that. And then I learned you can actually make a difference,” Afshin-Jam said. “It is just who I am; I think I have a calling. I think God put me on this planet to try and raise awareness on some of these issues and inspire people to make a difference.”
Afshin-Jam knew as a young woman the world today responds to celebrity and so she decided to enter the 2003 Miss World Canada competition in an effort to gain some media attention to the causes she cares about. She would win that title — eventually being named First Runner Up at Miss World in 2003 — before also becoming a singer/songwriter and actress, again with the intention of using whatever celebrity should had to further issues such as human rights and women’s empowerment.
In 2005 Afshin-Jam used her celebrity to spearhead a campaign to save the live of Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi, who at the time was an 17-year-old sentenced to hang for stabbing one of three men who tried to rape her and her 15-year-old niece.
After generating a petition with approximately 350,000 worldwide signatures, $40,000 in bail money and significant international pressure, Mahabad Fatehi was released on Jan. 31, 2007.
From there Afshin-Jam went on to focus her attentions on other issues, including working to put an end to the executions of minors in Iran (which has over 160 children on death row at one point) and abroad. Afshin-Jam is the recipient of several human rights awards of distinction and was appointed to the board of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation to help eliminate racism and discrimination in Canada.
“I have made it my life’s mission to help those who are most vulnerable, to be a voice for the voiceless. My activism doesn’t stop at child executions,” Afshin-Jam said. “One of my dreams is to create an organization called United People. I hope that one day this organization could work beside the United Nations… which often is made up of leaders who don’t speak for their people. This organization would bring together ordinary people who can speak out for those who don’t have a voice.”
Afshin-Jam, who has spoken at venues such as the United Nations and British Parliament, said she was happy to be in London to speak to those who perhaps she can inspire to do more.
“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. That is the message I want to share, that you can make a difference,” Afshin-Jam said. “If I only reach even one person in this room and it sparks some idea or it resonates within themselves that they should get involved… if that happens, then I have accomplished what I am here to do.”