Toronto activist Maryam Nayeb Yazdi is heroine to Iranian prisoners

It was just before Christmas 2010 and Maryam Nayeb Yazdi was doing what she does most days and nights: sitting in her room in her shared Toronto apartment, eyes fixed on the screen, fingers flashing over the keyboard.

It was then that she saw Habib Latifi was about to die. The young Kurdish law student and political prisoner was in a regional Iranian jail, condemned to death. The clerical authorities picked that time to announce his impending execution.

“I knew I had to do something right away,” says Nayeb Yazdi. “Everyone in the West was on a holiday break. It was hard to get anybody in government, so I got in touch with Amnesty International for an urgent action. I got to the media. The word began to spread. But we had just 48 hours to save his life.”

Barely stirring from her computer, Nayeb Yazdi missed Christmas with her family. But the instant social media campaign that spread through many countries bore startling results. People in major cities chained themselves to the gates of Iranian embassies in protest. More than 300 Iranians risked their lives to demonstrate outside the regional prison where Latifi was being held.

The tide turned when revered Ayatollah Bayat Zanjani in the Iranian holy city of Qom declared it was haram — forbidden — to kill him in the sacred month of Muharram. Iraqi Kurds joined the campaign. Then Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, issued a statement urging Iran not to kill Latifi. The authorities gave in.

“The head of the Sanandaj prison came out and told the protesters ‘we are suspending the death sentence — you can go home,’” Nayeb Yazdi says with a beaming smile. “I realized that action can really save lives.”

With her porcelain skin and dramatic sweep of raven hair, the 30-year-old activist has the makings of a media star. But her struggle is to stay in the background, steering an exhausting and ongoing campaign for Iranian human rights. An effort she says is no easier after the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

In spite of her self-effacing manner she is at the centre of an international network, operating through her blog Persian2English: it translates current news of human rights violations into English, and is a world-ranking resource for pundits, politicians, universities, media, human rights groups and the United Nations. Last year, she was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for her contribution to human rights.

Nayeb Yazdi is in demand by mainstream media (and blogs for the Huffington Post) though she shies away from the limelight. She is invited to international conferences and consulted by politicians. Her tweets (@maryamnayebyazd,) attract a mass following, including celebrities like Lady Gaga.

And all this is from her room, where she connects online with four other volunteers. She admits that her single-minded devotion puts her at the poverty line, and at times it’s a toss-up between rent and food.

To prisoners half a world away, Nayeb Yazdi is a heroine. But it’s the culmination of a long physical and emotional journey that began with her birth in Mashhad, in northeastern Iran, 30 years ago.

“We left Iran when I was only five-and-a-half,” she says. “I don’t remember much of it. My mother was determined that in Canada we would blend in and become Canadians.”

The family, including Maryam and her younger brother, settled in North York, and she struggled to learn English, devouring tomes of novels she barely understood, but rising to the top of her elementary school class. Her mother — now a bank manager — moved the family to Markham, farther away from the Iranian community she feared might slow the children’s progress to integration.

The plan worked. “I had no recollection of Iran’s culture or religion,” Nayeb Yazdi says. “I knew we were Muslim, but we didn’t practise Islam.” Independent-minded, she left home at 17 and studied psychology and English at York University, working as a waitress to support herself.

At 20, in 2003, she travelled back to Iran, attending a cousin’s wedding in Mashhad. “Those three weeks changed my life,” she says.

At first, Nayeb Yazdi fell in love with the beauty and culture of Iran, revelling in the lively fashion and entertainment scene that flourished in spite of the clerical regime. Under President Mohammad Khatami, it was a relatively liberal period, and international sanctions had not yet shredded the economy.

All that changed when hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, and news of human rights violations escalated. In 2007, while watching Persian satellite TV to brush up her language skills, NayebYazdi heard a riveting account of psychological torture and solitary confinement by young human rights activist Kianoosh Sanjari, who had escaped Iran after being jailed.

Determined to learn more, she tracked him down for a two-hour phone conversation, while her mother translated. She took the resulting story to a local Persian paper, which rejected it because its advertisers were doing business with Iran. It was a sobering preview of what would become a full-time — and still unpaid — job.

Gradually she built her contacts. In 2007, she founded the online magazine Faryad, then translated and posted reports from activists in Iran to Facebook in partnership with B.C. activist Ramin Joubin. When the protesters against Ahmadinejad’s re-election thronged Tehran’s streets in 2009, amid brutal reprisals from the regime, Nayeb Yazdi stepped up her work.

She founded the website Persian2English, with a core team including Uli Sanden and Siavosh Jalili, and helped by an anonymous supervisor working behind the scenes.

As tensions mounted inside and outside of Iran, Nayeb Yazdi saw misunderstandings, suspicions and anger spread on the Internet. Factions attacked each other instead of uniting to change the regime. Caught in the middle as an independent activist, she often felt besieged, battered and alone.

But successes buoyed her up in dark moments. One was the commuting of jailed Canadian resident Saeed Malekpour’s death sentence to life imprisonment in 2012 — a prelude, she hopes, to his release. Nayeb Yazdi spearheaded a vigorous international lobbying campaign that helped to save his life. Her social media alerts and tweet storms have highlighted the plight of many others slated for execution in Iran’s grim prisons.

She has also become a vital link for people on opposite sides of the world who want to understand each other’s lives, unfiltered by ideology. And although she painstakingly verifies the reports she transmits, her aim is to deliver unmediated messages that can lead to dialogue and change.

By stepping away from governments, factions or political parties, Nayeb Yazdi works without a safety net. And, at a stage when many young women are focusing on career advancement, dating or marriage, she admits that she has “no life.”

“My mother is always asking when I’ll get married and have children,” she says with a chuckle. But like a stereotypical nerd she works obsessively at her computer, forgetting to eat, sleep, or whether it is night or day. Time out for an interview makes her twitchy, and her smartphone is brimming with new messages.

But as her audience builds, so do her hopes and goals. Her current mission is to build an international civil society network, connecting people around the world through the Internet so they can understand their common issues, and get down to examining the complex questions that underlie them. Then they can pressure the authorities to work out solutions.

“The more we understand one another and ourselves the more we learn to communicate,” she says. “What I want to do now is use online technology and social media to revamp creative activism and advocacy on global issues.”

In the meantime, human rights crises are looming. She puts down her empty coffee cup and pulls on her coat. Another long day has begun, and Iran is calling. Three years later, Habib Latifi is still on death row. Always, there’s work to be done.

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