Afshin-Jam MacKay: Use your talents, blessings

You are masters of your own destinies – so go live out your passions, Nazanin Afshin-Jam MacKay told graduates at the Monday afternoon session of Western’s 307th Convocation.

“Each and every one of us can make a huge difference in the life of another – potentially even saving a human life using our own talents and blessings,” Afshin-Jam MacKay said.

“In your particular fields, you may not realize it yet, but your decision, your choice to take the initiative and earn this degree may have just changed someone’s life in a very meaningful way. You should not underestimate what kind of power you can have in influencing one person’s life, a whole community, laws that affect a whole nation or even ground-changing discoveries that can heal people around the world of disease.”

Afshin-Jam MacKay spoke to graduates from the Faculty of Health Sciences, Brescia University College and the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at the Monday, June 20 afternoon session of Western’s 307th Convocation.

Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, upon Afshin-Jam MacKay in recognition of her work as an accomplished author, singer/songwriter and human rights activist.

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In 2006, Afshin-Jam MacKay spearheaded a worldwide campaign to save Nazanin Fatehi, a 17-year old Iranian girl who, in the course of self-defence, caused the death of her attempted rapist and was sentenced to death. A petition of 345,000 names was presented to the United Nations. Following a yearlong campaign, Fatehi was exonerated and reunited with her family.

This case spurred the founding of Stop Child Executions, an international registered charity working to save children from the death penalty.

In addition to publishing a book, The Two Nazanins, Afshin-Jam MacKay also launched The Nazanin Foundation to help women and children in need and empower young girls worldwide.

In recognition of her work and leadership, Afshin-Jam MacKay was appointed to the Board of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and, in 2009, was invited to chair the first annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. That same year, she represented UN Watch in a speech before the UN Human Rights Council, leading them to create the post of a special investigator on the situation of human rights in Iran – the country where she was born.

In her citation, Brescia Interim Principal Donna Rogers said in this age of limitless information accessible at our fingertips, it is impossible to ignore the countless acts of global injustice. While Canadians are moved by these injustices, Afshin-Jam MacKay is one who takes action and stands up for those who are stripped of their basic human rights.

“She is an international leader, widely recognized as a tireless human rights activist,” Rogers said. “She stands before us to be honoured for her humanitarian service and dedication to freedom and peace worldwide. Growing up in Canada, after escaping an uncertain future in Iran, she knew not to take her freedom and good fortune for granted. Her conscience would not allow her to forget those who live in fear every day, in any country, where people’s basic human rights are not respected.”

After graduating from the University of British Columbia with a BA in international relations and political science, Afshin-Jam MacKay served with the Red Cross as a Global Youth Educator, becoming involved in such matters as land mines, children and war, the poverty-disease cycle and natural disasters. Her passion for international human rights led her to complete a master’s degree in diplomacy, with a concentration in international conflict management, in 2011 at Norwich University in Vermont.

Afshin-Jam MacKay was awarded the Global Citizenship Award from the UBC Alumni Association in 2008, and the Emerging Leader Award from the YMCA Power of Peace Awards and the Human Rights Hero Award from UN Watch, both in 2009. In 2012, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Award.