Alice Young speaks to Sahar Zand about her journey from refugee to award-winning reporter.
They came to her home and took her father away. Her mother then said, “we’re leaving”, and she never saw her home again.
“I left Iran a confused, lost and terrified child who felt invisible – but my experiences along the way are the reason I now travel the world trying my best to give a voice to the voiceless by telling their stories.”
Sahar Zand is an award-winning British-Iranian reporter, multimedia journalist and documentary-maker. She left Iran at the age of 12, was smuggled across Europe and arrived in the UK a refugee.
Now, she uses her voice to share the tales of those whose voice cannot be heard, uncovering stories from around the world that would otherwise remain unreported.
This passion for story-telling is a thread which runs throughout her work across the BBC, Channel 4 and international broadcasters. She is not afraid to travel to war-torn areas across the globe to reveal shocking, unheard stories – from the young girls force-fed in preparation for forced marriage in Mauritania, to the people speaking out as part of the #metoo movement in Bollywood.
Documentary-making plays a pivotal role for Sahar in uncovering stories. Where traditional news bulletins deliver information fast and efficiently, Sahar says, “a documentary goes more in-depth about a topic – often in a more compelling manner, helping us slow down in the noisy world of fast information.”
“They’re often filled with cliff-hangers, drama and characters the viewers care about and relate to – the viewers often feel like they’re going on a journey with a friend.”
Although she has produced and presented several documentaries uncovering stories full of drama, it may come as a surprise that the story she has found the most difficult to tell, is her own.
Sahar was a young girl when her father was taken away from her home in Iran – packing a bag, her mother told Sahar and her younger sister that they would be leaving.
They took a plane to Denmark, travelling under fake passports with the help of a smuggler. “We arrived at a huge enclosure with tall cracked walls covered with barbed wire”, she told the BBC’s Documentary Podcast. “Surely this must be a prison and not our new home? Wrong – this place became our first home in Denmark”.
Initially, Sahar was frightened by the many unknown faces around her in the refugee camps – but once conversations started flowing and people began sharing their stories, something changed. Sahar learned to appreciate the importance of listening to the voices of those around her and how vital it was that stories such as these could be heard.
“When I first decided to make the documentary, I knew it would be challenging, but I had no idea it would be as difficult as it was”, she says. “I hadn’t realised, until I started making Me, the refugee, that some of my most painful and traumatic memories had been trapped in an imaginary jar, shut tight, and pushed to the very back of my head, almost forgotten.”
In retrospect, Sahar says the main characters of this documentary were her demons – “instead of escaping them as I had done for years, I was forced to come face-to-face with them,” she says. “It was like opening an old wound; one which I didn’t have a remedy for.”
Me, the refugee, a BBC documentary podcast, explores Sahar’s journey from refugee to reporter – highlighting the complex and difficult experiences she faced as she and her family left their home behind.
“The process of making the documentary took me over a year, and I hated every second”, she says. “I left Iran a confused, lost and terrified child who felt invisible – but my experiences along the way are the reason I now travel the world trying my best to give a voice to the voiceless by telling their stories.”
She says that’s the reason why she wanted to tell the story of the voiceless young Sahar in the refugee camp – “to show the world why listening to the voices of people with different stories to us is so important in creating a compassionate world.”
Just as her own experiences have been instrumental in her drive to share others’ stories, using her languages has also played a key part in Sahar’s successful reporting.
Amplifying the voice of the voiceless is a narrative which Sahar holds close, as she explains how speaking another language is often the key to unlocking more stories.
“Speaking the same language as the interviewees – as opposed to communicating with them via an interpreter – I can connect with them on a deeper level – crucial when trying to create rapport and gain their trust”.
“The memory of what it feels like to be invisible, of feeling the need to cry out for help only for your voice to disappear, never leaves you. But now I know that my voice matters, and that makes all the difference”.
You can listen to ‘Me, the refugee’, Sahar’s documentary for the BBC Documentary podcast, here