News 2012: Author, human rights activist Roxana Saberi addresses Class of 2012

News 2012: Author, human rights activist Roxana Saberi addresses Class of 2012
Author, human rights activist Roxana Saberi addresses Class of 2012

"We all have our own prisons. We're all tested in our own ways throughout our lives. We can try to turn these challenges into opportunities."

Roxana Saberi
Remarks to Undergraduate Commencement
Vietnam Veterans Peace Memorial Amphitheater
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
May 27, 2012

Thank you, Chancellor MacCormack.

Greetings trustees; President Caret; Senior Vice President Williams; Provost Farrington; faculty, staff, and administrators; friends and family; alumni; and most importantly, students.

I am honored to be here today.

To tell the truth, when I was invited to speak here, I wasn't sure what to say to try to inspire you. True, I've been in the world longer than most of you graduates--but not that much longer. And I'm sure there's a lot that all of us gathered here could learn from each of you--because everyone's journey has meaning.

Today I'd like to share with you some meaning I've found on my journey. I have been lucky to learn lessons about listening to my conscience, turning trials into triumphs, speaking out for those who can't speak out for themselves, and following my heart.

Before I get to that, though, I would like to ask the graduates:

How many of you know what you want to do in the future?

How many of you have no idea?

It's great if you know, and it's really OK if you don't.

When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. Today I still do journalism work, but I'm also a human rights advocate, and who knows what I'll be doing one year from now.

It's natural for our passions to change. No matter where they may take you, I urge you to follow your passions and your heart. This will not only give you an edge in your profession, it will also bring joy and purpose into your life.

But please remember: whether you're a healthcare provider, an engineer, an entrepreneur, an artist, a scientist, ... or a stay-at-home mom or dad, your job is not who you are. It's merely what you do. It's the spirit in which you perform your job that ultimately matters.

Back to following your heart...
In 2003, when I was 25 years old, I followed mine to the Middle East. I had a chance to live and report in Iran. Some friends and colleagues advised against it, but this was my passion, so I followed it.

I lived in Iran for six years. I fell in love with the country and its people, and I started to write a book about them.

But following our hearts is not always easy. In fact, it rarely is. Sometimes, when we follow our hearts, obstacles arise. Things don't go as planned.

Many of you know what this is like. As some of you said earlier, you're the first in your family to graduate from college. I'm sure it hasn't always been easy. Maybe, in the future, your dream job won't make you wealthy, maybe a relationship won't work out, and you'll get hurt.

And then you might wish you had never listened to your heart in the first place.

That was my wish one morning around three years ago, when my life changed suddenly and drastically, forever.

Four Iranian intelligence agents forced their way into my apartment in Tehran. They locked me up in the notorious Evin Prison, a prison that holds many prisoners of conscience. These are people being punished for peacefully standing up for basic human rights. They include journalists, bloggers, activists, attorneys, members of Iran's minority Baha'i faith, and outspoken students--students your age and younger!

I had heard stories of torture in that prison, of a mass execution, of hangings, and of mysterious deaths.

So I was terrified.

Like many political prisoners, I was first held in solitary confinement, without access to an attorney and unable to tell anyone where I was.

My captors accused me of being a spy. They said I was doing so many interviews, I couldn't possibly just be writing a book. They claimed my book was a cover for espionage for the C.I.A.

I told them I wasn't a spy. I explained I was simply practicing good journalism by interviewing people with diverse perspectives. I was just being thorough!

But they said they didn't believe me. And they said if I didn't confess that I was a spy and ask for forgiveness, I could stay in prison for 10 or 20 years. They could even see to it that I get executed. But if I confessed to being a spy, asked for forgiveness, and agreed to spy for them, they would release me in a matter of days, and I would be back home in my own bed.

I knew that some other political prisoners before me had been forced to make false confessions. Sometimes they were freed, fled to safe places, and recanted those statements. Sometimes, they stayed in jail.

I didn't know what to do about the pressures I faced. I only knew that I was afraid.

I tried to remember sayings about courage that I had learned when I was free. For example, Gandhi said, "I do believe I am seeking only God's Truth and have lost all fear of man."

So I told myself, "I must not fear man. I must not fear my captors, my interrogators."

But then I thought, "Gandhi was never in prison in Iran. He would have been terrified, just as I am!"

In your lives, you have also faced adversities. In difficult times, you may have turned to the friends and family who surround you today. Friends and family are very important.

But if you couldn't turn to them, what would you do?

I was stuck in a prison cell roughly 7 feet by 9 feet. When I held out my arms, I could almost touch the walls. I had no one to talk to, except myself and God.

I talked to God a lot, and I bargained with him. I told him, "If you set me free soon, I promise I'll never interview anyone ever again. I'll never write a book. I'll give up all my worldly goods and dedicate the rest of my life to serving the underprivileged."

But apparently God had other plans for me.

I felt alone, hopeless, and helpless. I wasn't a hero. I wasn't an activist. I was simply writing a book. I didn't have a cause. If I did have a cause, it was to be free.

I was at my darkest, most desperate point, and I had to make a decision.

I decided to make a false confession. I was forced to confess on videotape. I lied to the camera, to the world, and most importantly, to myself. I said I was a spy, I apologized, and I asked for forgiveness.

My captors were happy I had cooperated and promised I would soon be freed.

But I wasn't happy because I was ashamed at what I had done, and I knew that one day, whenever I would be released, my body would be free, but my conscience would always remain behind bars.

Have you ever done something you knew you shouldn't do? We probably all have.

Maybe you were dishonest. Maybe you deceived someone. Maybe no one ever found out, but you knew. And that's actually the worst punishment because your conscience could never be free.

What did you do then? Did you try to right your wrongs, or did you hope to forget them?

Though I was deeply ashamed of my false confession, I was too afraid to right my wrong at that time.

But gradually, I found more courage because after two weeks in solitary confinement, I was moved to another cell with other women political prisoners. They included a humanitarian worker, two women who were arrested after they went to their local bakeries and shouted, "We want bread!" and another falsely accused spy.

Some of them told me that they, too, had been pressured to make false statements about themselves or other people, and they had been promised freedom in return. But unlike me, they hadn't given in. They said they would rather tell the truth and stay in prison than to be freed after telling lies.

This kept their conscience free.

They inspired me and made me realize that I did have a cause: to have a free conscience.

So this is a lesson I learned from them: No matter how hard the situation we're in might be, if we do what we think is right and stay true to our principles, ultimately the right path will appear. This may be the hardest path to take, but it's the surest path to true freedom, the freedom of one's conscience.

The next time I was taken in for questioning, I recanted my false confession. My interrogator told me he knew from the very beginning it was false. I thought, "That's great, so now they can free me!" But instead, my captors put me on trial and sentenced me to eight years in prison.

I went on a hunger strike to protest this injustice.

By this time, I had learned other lessons from my cellmates that gave me the strength to endure.

For example, they taught me to accept what we can't control, and realize what we can control: our attitudes. I couldn't change the fact I was behind tall cement walls.
But I could change my attitude.

I evolved from feeling self-pity and powerless to gaining acceptance and the realization I still had the power to control my mind and spirit. It's as Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wrote in his book, Man's Search for Meaning: The last of the human freedoms" is the ability to "choose one's attitude..."

We all have this freedom, no matter where we are and no matter what happens to us.

Another lesson I learned in my cell was that I couldn't change the past. I couldn't magically turn back the clock to the night before my arrest and catch a red-eye back to my hometown of Fargo, North Dakota.

It also did no good to worry about the future. It never does, whether we're in prison or free.

So instead of dwelling on the past, we can learn from it; instead of fretting about the future, we can try to prepare ourselves for it; and instead of wasting time and energy on the things we can't change, we can try to make the most of the present moment.

My cellmates were doing this every day. They wanted to learn and grow every day. For instance, they asked me to teach them English, so I taught them vocabulary: to shop, to travel, and to swear. (Humor is a key to survival!)

One of the women, Mahshid, taught me it's possible to find something to be grateful for each day, even in prison. Catching a rare glimpse of the moon through the bars of our window made her happy. So did brushing her teeth five minutes every morning and five minutes every night. She joked that when she was free, she never had the time to clean her teeth with so much care. She liked to tell me: "We can make paradise for ourselves, even in hell."

My cellmates showed me that behind every suffering, there is a grace. We can all realize this. You'll probably never end up behind bars--I hope! But we all have our own prisons. We're all tested in our own ways throughout our lives. We can try to turn these challenges into opportunities.

When things don't go our way, when we can't find a job in this tough market, when we lose someone or something, we can still try to make the most of what we do have, find pleasure in little things, be flexible and adapt. So when a challenge arises, let's say, "Bring it on!" and use it to grow.

Another lesson I learned inside prison came from the outside, from people like you. Friends and countless strangers around the world were calling for my release. They were signing petitions on Facebook, writing letters to Iranian officials, and some even went on parallel hunger strikes with me.

When I heard of this support, I felt humbled, grateful, and empowered. I realized I wasn't alone anymore. I didn't have to stand up to injustice by myself anymore.

And I understood that when we don't have a voice, we need someone to speak out for us. When we do have a voice, we have the responsibility to speak out for those who can't speak out for themselves.

I believe it was these calls for my freedom from people like you that helped pressure my captors to release me after 100 days.

Before I left, one of my cellmates who is still in prison today for her religious beliefs told me: "Roxana, when you go back to America, please tell others our country is not only about the nuclear issue. It is also about people like us."

Now I am free. I can use my voice. And so can you.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

We can all be aware and active. We don't have to go to prison to realize there are people all around us who can use our help--whether they're in our own communities or on the other side of the world--because we are global citizens, and we're all part of one humanity.

That's why we must be a voice for the voiceless.

I know that many of you already are.

I've learned that here at the UMass Dartmouth, civic engagement activity is part of your curriculum. Students and faculty gave 179,000 hours of service to local communities last year. And your school was recently named one of the nation's top colleges and universities on the President's Honor Roll for Community Service.

Maybe you have already seen some results from your work--in literacy, neighborhood revitalization, and supporting at-risk youth.

Or maybe you feel you haven't affected enough people. But when we affect one person, that person may affect 10. Those 10 may affect 100.

You are our future, and the world will be as you make it.

I hope you can take these messages with you as you continue your journey:

Number One: Follow your passions. This will help you persevere when the going gets tough.

Two: Listen to your conscience. Listen to that little voice inside you. It may take you down the most difficult path. But that may be the surest path to true freedom.

Three: Even if you cannot control anything around you, you can always control your attitude. No one can take that away from you. As my father told me when I was able to call him from prison, "Roxana, they cannot hurt your soul."

No one can hurt your soul unless you let them.

And finally, four: You may be just one voice, but always remember that voice can make a world of difference. You and your contributions to the world are unique.

Congratulations on how far you have come, and good luck as you move on.

I wish each one of you passion, compassion, and the ability to turn trials into triumphs.

May you be inspired and inspire.

May you be loved and love.

May you be free and help others to be free.

Thank you, Class of 2012. It has been a privilege to be here.