On the stage and small screen, actress Sahel Rosa has an alluring presence that demands you notice her. With her expressive eyes and quiet confidence, she is able to breathe life into the characters she plays with such ease and grace that it’s hard to believe she is only 23. But she is no ordinary 23 year-old. Behind her soulful eyes and radiant smile is a powerful story of survival and a determination to live.
Sahel’s story begins, far from the glamorous stages she graces in Japan, in a small town Kurdish village, in Iran, close to the Iraqi border, some 20 plus years ago. During the 1980s, one of the most brutal and bloody wars of the 20th century was taking place between Iraq and Iran, which resulted in over a million casualties. As in all such wars, innocent civilians caught between the warring armies suffered tragic consequences. And so it was with Sahel’s family.
At the time Sahel was born, the Iran-Iraq war was well under way and, although both countries eventually agreed to an official ceasefire in 1988, frequent artillery strikes and aerial bombardments continued along the border of the two countries. Unfortunately, the village where her family lived was within range of these Iraqi attacks. Not withstanding the constant threat of attack from the Iraqi military, daily life in the village was a hard and poverty filled one. With little food and clothing and houses made of rocks and dried mud that barely held any heat, it was a daily struggle just to survive. But despite the hardships, Sahel vividly recalls the tender care and love she received from her family. As the youngest child of the family, every night, her father would affectionately carry her to the crowded single bedroom, which she shared with her 11 brothers and sisters. “To this day, I still remember the kind face of my father who always put me to sleep, ” Sahel professes.
But even this routine, which provided her with a small respite from the realties of war, would be brought to an abrupt end on one fateful February night in 1989. Just like any other night, Sahel’s father tucked her into bed and gave her a good night kiss. This was the last time she saw him. In the middle of the night, there was an aerial bombing that demolished the entire town. By the time the rescue crews arrived, all they could find were the charred and dismembered bodies of the villagers amongst the rubble. There was little hope of finding survivors. But later, just as the rescue team was given the order to head back to Tehran, one volunteer on the team, Flora, a university student majoring in psychology, decided to take one last walk through the devastated area. According to Flora, she noticed a small blue flower miraculously growing among the jagged pieces of burnt rubble. It was so out of place she couldn’t help but stare at the flower. Next to the flower, she noticed what she thought was the hand of a small doll. But when she bent down to touch it, she realized it was no doll. It was the hand of a small child. That hand belonged to Sahel. She would be the sole survivor in the town of 400 people. For the next several months Sahel remained in a hospital recuperating from her injuries and adjusting to life on her own. For the first time in her life she was able to take a proper bath and see her own reflection since there were no mirrors or proper running water for bathing in her hometown. During this period of convalescence, Flora, the volunteer who discovered Sahel, visited frequently. However, after Sahel left the hospital and was placed in an orphanage, Flora lost track of Sahel.
But, as fate would have it, their paths would cross again more than a year later. Sahel was shown in a national television commercial that featured orphans in need of adoption. Since most potential adoptive parents preferred younger children, it was difficult to find a foster family for Sahel, at age 5. When Flora saw the commercial she sought out Sahel and began visiting her again on a weekly basis.
Although, Sahel eagerly looked forward to seeing Flora every week, time was running out for her. Once the orphans turned 6 years-old, they would be sent to a different institution and since Sahel was fast approaching the age of six, time was of the essence. Determined to save Sahel from this fate, Flora decided to adopt Sahel. This was not an easy decision for Flora as she was a young single woman who came from an affluent tradition bound family whose name was well known throughout the conservative country. Flora’s parents were not pleased with her modern independent views and were resolutely against her decision to adopt. This and other misunderstandings led them to disown Flora and cut off all financial support to her. Being banished from her family and with no other means of support, Flora eventually had to place all of her trust for the future into the hands of her Japanese fiancé who was now living on the other side of the world in Japan. In 1993, Flora and her now adopted daughter Sahel left Iran and flew to Japan.
It was supposed to be a new beginning and a chance for Sahel to become part of a family once more. But, any dream of a happy family life was soon shattered when Flora’s fiancé abandoned them after just 3 weeks of living together. Flora and Sahel found themselves homeless in a foreign country with just ¥10,000 in their pockets. With nowhere to go, the two sought shelter at a nearby park. Since Sahel was registered at the local Japanese school, she attended classes during the day, while Flora worked in a nearby factory, and then returned to the park once school was finished. On days when it was raining, they found refuge in the public library until it closed and then stayed in the public toilets. People in the neighborhood began to notice their dire circumstances and one of the women who worked in Sahel’s school cafeteria took pity on their plight and lent a helping hand. This kind lady not only helped them find a small apartment but she also assisted Flora in finding a job with an Iranian company.
Though they were no longer homeless they still faced daily hardships. Being foreigners in Japan and members of a poor single parent family, they struggled to adapt to their new lifestyle in a radically different culture. But, mother and daughter persevered with determination and love. This was especially important when Sahel entered Junior High school where she found herself the target of constant bullying. It escalated to the point that her shoes were thrown out the window and she was pushed down the stairs. In her autobiography, Sahel confesses to even contemplating suicide during this time period but didn’t go through with it because of the love of her adopted mother and the fact that, “I was the last survivor in a town completely destroyed by an aerial bombing and not a single member of my entire immediate family is alive today. I couldn’t understand why I had to suffer so much and wanted to know the reason why I was alive, the reason I was being kept alive.”
Sahel was also painfully aware of how her devoted mother sacrificed her entire life for her. Her mother, Flora, never complained about their dire circumstances, even though she had grown up pampered in a rich household that had maids and was given the opportunity of attending the best schools and universities in Iran. Her dream as a young university student of obtaining a doctorate degree in psychology went unfulfilled. Always wanting the best for Sahel, Flora would even live on half a can of tuna a day in order to pay for Sahel’s swimming lessons. In her 2008 book, “From War Zone to Actress,” Sahel describes how Flora once told her, ‘There are parents who don’t love their children even though they gave birth to them. There are even parents and children who have completely broken ties with each other. I don’t believe it makes any difference whether you are connected to someone by blood or not. In a way, because we are not connected by blood we share an even stronger bond.’
It was this message that provided Sahel with the answer as to why she was kept alive as a survivor, against all odds. She believes it is her responsibility to not only convey the horrors of war to people but to also share with the Japanese public the importance and value of adoption. Often times, in a country as ethnically homogenous as Japan there is a tendency to associate shame if someone does not share the same bloodline in the family. Sahel passionately describes how, “I want to change this way of thinking. Adoption is not something to be ashamed of and it can save someone’s life. Japan is not at war and since it is at peace I would hope that more people choose to adopt. I know that one day I too will adopt.” This message is something she reiterates when she speaks at local universities.
Sahel’s life began to change for the better in high school. She was freed from the dreadful daily bullying she experienced in Junior High and began to discover more clearly who she really was. She was also old enough now to financially assist her mother by working odd jobs such as handing out tissues to help raise extra money for the two of them. It was during this period that she found out about an audition to become a reporter on J-Wave radio’s “Good Morning Tokyo.” Not only did she pass the audition but the reporting job opened the door for other entertainment related opportunities. By 2006, Sahel became a regular reporter for Asahi Television’s “Super J Channel,” a show in which three non-Japanese commentators report on different places throughout Japan. Her biggest break, however, came unexpectedly when she impersonated the popular half-Japanese news caster Takigawa Crystal on the segment titled “Shuukan Otokomae News” on Nippon Television’s popular program “The Sunday.” The day after her segment aired, the television studio was inundated with e-mails from people wanting to know who she was. Instantly, Sahel went from relative anonymity to being the most searched person on the Japanese Internet.
This newfound fame allowed Sahel to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a well-respected actress. She describes how, “Ever since I was a little girl in Iran and saw the Japanese drama “Oshin” I felt drawn to acting. Acting is a way for me to express my emotions on the outside and that is why I act.” Now known to the Japanese public as “Sahel Rosa,” like all successful actresses she wishes to excel at her profession, but she also humbly remembers her roots and aspires to one day, “ establish an orphanage in Iran.”
When asked about how she feels about her homeland, her answer is filled with mixed emotions. This past year, Iran has been in the news on a regular basis since the disputed presidential elections and subsequent violent protests there. Sahel describes the heartache she feels when she watches this news, “I see people in my country suffering but there is nothing I can do. My only hope is that the wishes of the citizens of Iran will be heard and that the country will become a better country.” Sahel also adds that, “The images of nuclear weapons and terror are, a lot of time, all that people associate with Iran but I would like people to notice the good things in Iran. Like Japan, we have an ancient culture and many world heritage sites. Many of the delicacies such as caviar and saffron originate from Iran.”
Though the current chapter of Sahel Rosa’s extraordinary life finds her gracing the stage and television screens in Japan, future successful chapters of her life, no doubt, await to unfold for this resolute young lady who is a glowing testament to the human spirit of survival.
Story by Erika Wiseberg
From J SELECT Magazine, November 2009