Interviews

INTERVIEW WITH JAHANSHAH JAVID

Founder of  iranian.com

Jahanshah Javid - iranian.com

What inspired you to start Iranian.com?

By the summer of 1995, I had been working for various news organizations (mostly in the Islamic Republic) for 15 years. I gained lots of experience but one of the biggest lessons I learned was how important and precious freedom, particularly freedom of expression, is. More precious than god, rulers, religions, ideologies, culture or country. I was ready to “bust out” so to speak, and completely divorce myself from the revolution I had wholeheartedly supported in my late teens and early twenties.

What made you observe that the Persian community needs an apolitical publication to rally around?

Iranian emigrants did not really have a voice after leaving Iran. There were some Persian-language newspapers, magazines with limited circulations, as well as local radio and tv stations, but there wasn’t much to be desired. Journalism has never appealed to Iranians, not as a reliable source of information or a career. Therefore we are way behind the rest of the world in training real journalists AND protecting free speech. We know many great Iranian poets and artists. But in the course of history, how many journalists can we name with admiration?

I thought there was an obvious demand for an English-language magazine or newspaper of some sort for the new generation of Iranians who had lived at least a decade in English-speaking countries and Persian was no longer their first language. And these Iranians needed a media outlet to represent their points of view and life style, which were much more open and secular because of their exposure to free, democratic societies in the West.

When did you begin iranain.com?

The first “issue” went online in late July 1995 (http://www.iranian.com/Sep95/). When people typed in iranian.com, they saw a cover photo with the title “THE IRANIAN”. It looked like, and it really was, a magazine more than anything else. It just wasn’t in print. A new issue would go online every two months.
*Editor’s note: I was there and contributed an article to the very 1st issue

 When did you know it had caught on?

I wrote an editorial in the second issue and boasted that iranian.com had received “70,000 requests, from 2,500 hosts in more than 20 countries in less than two months.” Those are not impressive numbers compared to now, but in those days I was definitely psyched.

 Where do you think Iranian.com’s greatest impact has been?

It’s difficult for me to say. I’ve been too involved in its day-to-day operations to think about its impact. I would have to step back and look at it objectively, and that’s virtually impossible. But what I can say is that my goal has always been to be as open, inclusive, diverse and interesting as possible. I have not fully lived up to my motto — “nothing is sacred” — but I think many have gotten the message that freedom of thought and expression should not be hindered in the name of god, country or culture. If you feel you have nowhere to express yourself, you can always count on iranian.com. Well, almost always 🙂

What do you think Iranian.com’s biggest contribution has been to the discourse of the Persian diaspora?

I don’t know how much impact iranian.com has had, but what I’ve gathered from reading letters, comments, articles, blogs, even emails during these past 16 years or so is that there has been a noticeable change in attitudes in favor of universal rights. Specifically people seem to be much more sympathetic towards the plight of Bahai’s, regardless of religious differences, and more tolerant of homosexuals. They may not know it, but people have gotten used to the idea that they have the right to express their feelings and views. We all owe this freedom to the Internet, and iranian.com has been a tiny part of it.

 What were some of the early challenges?

The first ten years were very hard financially. I had to pull through with lots of help from family and friends. But I was determined and nothing, no one, could stop me. I was having too much fun to worry about money problems. It’s an obsession really.

Did you at any time think, this is it, we can’t surmount this or that challenge?

I knew early on that eventually the Internet would explode with websites and iranian.com would have to change and adapt and revitalize along the way in order to remain relevant. iranian.com has changed many times over the years, but always with considerable delay. For instance we introduced blogging at least six years after it was invented. The site became interactive much later than it should have. And today we need a major overhaul to make the site far more interactive, user-friendly and exciting. We’re working on it. People will see a fresh, new iranian.com in the coming months. I’m very excited.

Where/who do you think your biggest support base is? Geographically and demographically?

Most of our readers are in the U.S., followed by Canada, Europe and Australia, mostly male in their 30s and 40s.

How do people contribute to Iranian.com? Do you take unsolicited contributions? Do you solicit any written or artistic pieces? Do you pay for any content?

There’s the option to self-post anything you like in the blogging section, or you can submit articles for consideration. Not all articles get published. In our next version though this discrimination will end and essentially there would be no separate section for select articles. Anyone can publish anything they like. I haven’t solicited or paid for articles. Early on I paid $70 for an article about Iraj Pezeshkzad. That was the first and last! If someone feels strongly about something they’ll write it. And hopefully they’ll share it with iranian.com. Thankfully many have.

Have you ever thought about an Iranian scholarship, for a budding young Persian journalist seeking to use technology and/or internet communication in a novel way to serve the Persian community or its collective interest?

I would love to do that some day.

How would you like to see Iranian.com grow from here forward? Where would you like to see it go?

We have to integrate many of the latest technologies, especially the ability to post everything from text to photos to videos in a fast and easy way. We will offer some of the best functions of Facebook, twitter and other popular services. The word that most comes to mind is “immediacy”. Content on speed!

In so far as the “Green” movement, do you think e-based publications have or can play a role in the movement ?

The Green Movement, and Iranian civil society in general, owes a great deal to the internet. Websites play a key role in facilitating all sorts of discourse. It’s impossible for websites not to address the horrendous situation in Iran, even if you’re not political.

Do you get submissions from Iran? Do they come, at times, with pen names or anonymously?

Very few submissions come directly from Iran. Iranian.com has been officially blocked there for more than six years. Most contributors — whether in Iran or abroad — use pen names.

Do you have a non-iranian readership? If yes, how do you feel about that?

We do, but it’s hard to measure. My guess is less than 5%. These are people interested in news about Iran or are married to Iranians and want to know more about the culture.

Are there any causes you do, or are willing to, support, given the bully-pulpit that you have among the Iranian community? If so, can you name one or some of them?

Anything that helps the weak, any campaign to save someone from death row, any effort to help activists fighting for equality and freedom. These sound like clichés… loaded words. But for us Iranians, “freedom” is not a concept you read about in school. It’s not easy to find other nations who suffer more from a lack of freedom than Iran. So we understand and appreciate it more than others. I certainly do.                                 **

___________________________________________________________________

INTERVIEW WITH CHILD FOUNDATION:
Massoud Modaress, Executive Manager of Child Foundation

In light of recent events, including criminal charges from a prosecutor in Oregon and an ensuing federal indictment on tax charges, I thought I’d interview some of the current Executive Manager of Child Foundation to try and shed some light on this issue. CF is after all a well-known humanitarian organization that has gained the support of many Iranians in the United States. Its viability depends on being able to retain their trust. As CF tries to emerge strong and still effective as an aid agency that delivers not only various forms of humanitarian assistance , but good will, from the US to poverty stricken children in Iran, we have tried to compile some facts to give our readers some perspective.

Background:
CF was established in 1994. Its philosophy was that the best way to help Iranian children in need is to provide educational opportunities to them. In doing so, they would create positive social change from within. They drew their model from existing organizations that support international children. What is unique about CF is that they added the element of education and introduced that, as well as dire poverty, as the basis for aid.  

Aid Model:
CF volunteers and social workers scour rural areas for poverty, and then choose the children who are high-achievers (“ba estedad”) or most inclined to pursue their studies and do well. They offer to find sponsorships for those children, and by extension, their families. They let the family know up-front that they are choosing the child or children in their family because they see in them a talent or drive for school. The family only gets the aid when they give the commitment that chosen kid(s) will go to school. If the child fails, the aid will fail.

The following is our recent interview with Mr. Modarres, Child Foundation Executive Manager who is based in Portland:

How did you end up in the legal battle you had in the US?
I cannot recall one specific incident or reason, but after 9/11 nearly all US based foundations who had been working with in the Middle East region had been under government scrutiny. We were definitely not an exception, particularly since we send humanitarian assistance to Iran which is not exactly on Washington’s Christmas list.

What were you ultimately charged with?
The government had charged us with two counts: one was for  violation of sanctions laws against Iran for transferring funds to Iran which happened a few years ago, and another was for violation of IRS granted nonprofit tax exemption status by allowing specific donors to have oversight and authority over the expenditure of the donations.

What does it mean in plain English?                   
Several years ago, there were no explicit terms in the sanctions law prohibiting humanitarian organizations from sending money to Iran to alleviate human suffering.  At that time, the Child Foundation’s interpretation of the law was that sending money to Iran was within the boundaries of the sanction laws. Though sending money to Iran by a humanitarian organization is not prohibited, the US Government has asserted that Child Foundation should have contacted the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control and first obtained a license for sending money to Iran, even for humanitarian causes.  The charges against Child Foundation are focused on the means by which the funds were transferred, an area as to which there has been considerable lack of clarity in the past. In reference to the tax violation charge, Child Foundation tried to accommodate the wishes of specific donors who donated large sums of money for humanitarian purposes. They wanted to be more involved and have direct knowledge of how their money was being spent toward humanitarian aid. Our intention was to remain loyal to our donor’s wishes and felt that this responsible act was within the boundaries of the law.  We now understand that this was not the case.

What is CF’s main activity and why should we as Iranian/Americans support it?
Our activity is entirely humanitarian and our goal is very simple, to help children living in poverty remain in school. We provide basic necessities to enhance the quality of the life for these children, as well as their respective families, so they can attend school. By providing children access to education, we hope to not only increase the number of students graduating from school but also address other social issues within the community. Education is one of the best preventive health tools. It can prevent girls from early matrimony and create more independence. At a more appropriate time, education then helps create smarter mothers who will in turn raise smarter children. A rise in literacy and arithmetic means being a better worker, which means a stronger economy. Education can reduce crimes and illness. And it is a tool that will only continue to give. Particularly in the areas where we work, it is a priceless investment that gives opportunity and hope. There is nothing better than that.
We are passionate about our mission, because we have seen it work with our very own eyes. As a result, we keep our operating costs and our overhead low because we want the most of every dollar to go towards our sponsored children. A bi-product of our humanitarian activity in Iran is the good-will it creates among individual people and whole communities, vis-à-vis their sponsors, which are in many cases from the US. We think this kind of humanitarian work is consistent with the stated objectives of the US in Iran, vis-à-vis the people of Iran.

Why do you think you couldn’t convince US officials of that?
We think we had to some degree. We must have or else our situation would be worse or even they might have shut us down by now.

Are you still able to operate as a US based organization giving aid to the people of Iran?
Yes. We were never prevented from working as a charity, even while the investigation continued. We are, however, limited to only sending food aid to Iran and this is not a court ruling, but simply OFAC law. Of course, this causes multiple issues. It costs a lot more money and makes the process a lot more tedious because we have to purchase food here and then send it. The purchase, shipment, clearance from customs, domestic shipping in Iran, and distribution takes a lot of human labor and unnecessary capital that can easily be avoided if we were allowed to send monetary donations to Iran. Unfortunately, this is the only way to send help to Iran from the States, right now.

How do you fare in Iran and how do you work?
We take a hit on both sides. In Iran some are skeptical of our work because the aid is coming from US donors. The government frowns on that to some degree. They think it may be used as a tool to bring Western influence to the region. Fortunately, we have gained the trust and loyalty of most in Iran. Our sister organization in Iran “Bonyad refah Koodak” (BRK) finds the families, recruits the children for scholarship aid, and works on food aid and distribution across all cities.

Are rural families receptive to the idea of education?
In Iran, there is an undeniable culture for education and bettering your opportunity through academic studies. Families believe in education for their children, including their daughters. In cities and in rural areas, an educated girl is valued as a higher person in society. She sees herself at a higher scale, and her community around her encourages her independence. A girl with education can be married to a man from a better family, with higher education, and that fact alone can lift her and her future generations beyond the grip of poverty. Without it, most doors are close. Education prevents prostitution among young girls and it reduces the propensity for drug abuse. It gives hope and inspiration – it is a great tool to fight a lot of ills, not just poverty.

What does CF need to do now?
As a community  in this country, we need to come together and establish a unified  voice against the part of sanctions law that adds additional hardships for poor families by preventing  humanitarian aid from reaching those in need, in Iran.  There are thousands of educated and successful  Iranians who live and work in the US, and who are  a productive part of American society and want  to help those less fortunate but can not do it for the people of Iran.

What do you want to convey to your supporters?
While we pled guilty in order to bring closure to these proceedings and stop spending money on legal fees, the fact is that after more than five years of investigations there have NOT been any charges against CF for embezzlement, fund abuse, or money laundering regarding our past 16 years of operations. Right now we need to make these truths known to those who have supported us in the past, those who presently support us, and those who consider supporting us in the future.

Note:
Sacramento Mayor, Kevin Johnson declared Saturday, February 12, 2011, as “Child Foundation Day” and marked it with a benefit concert at the Crest Theatre.    **

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