When Sahel Rosa was about four years old, she said goodnight to her mom and dad and went to bed. That was the last she ever saw of her parents and 10 older siblings. Their home and much of the town on the Iranian side of the border with Iraq was destroyed in an air raid, despite the fact that there was supposed to be a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war. Yet, miraculously, Sahel survived for four days buried beneath the rubble until her hand was discovered sticking up beside a blue flower by a 23-year-old nurse.
Since then, Rosa, now 24 (though she is not sure exactly when her birthday is) says that hardly a day goes by when she doesn’t ask herself why she was spared and what she was meant to do with her life, which has taken her on a difficult journey from a bombed-out Iranian town to TV personality in Japan. “I don’t remember much about that time,” she says quietly in fluent Japanese at NHK one afternoon. “It’s more in flashbacks or in my dreams. I’ve been told that the townspeople lived in constant fear of bombardment. Even today, when I hear fireworks, it stirs up memories.”
Rosa wrote about her experiences in a book titled "From War Zone to Actress," which was published in early 2009. “After I lost my family, I was in an orphanage for a few years but no one wanted to adopt me,” she says with a gentle smile. “When I was 7, I appeared in a government-sponsored TV commercial asking people to become foster parents of war orphans, and Flora – the nurse who saved me – saw it and decided to adopt me. When I was 8, I came to Japan with Flora and her Japanese fiance, but three weeks after arriving in Japan, he threw us out. I don’t think he wanted me, but I was too young to understand what was going on. I remember that my mother always made sure I had food, even if she had to go without it herself. For awhile, we’d take shelter in parks, and wash by using taps in public toilets. I would survive on school lunches during the week. On weekends and holidays, we used to go to supermarkets to eat the food samples they give out to shoppers. Eventually, some kind people helped us find a small apartment.”
Contemplated suicide after bullying at school
While her mother worked at menial jobs, Rosa continued to go to school, where she says she was subjected to bullying. “There were times when I contemplated suicide, but it was my mother’s devotion to me that kept me going. She always had a smile on her face for me,” she says. “I was in a world I never knew. Until I came to Japan, the only thing about it I had seen was the TV series 'Oshin' in Iran. The hardships that Oshin faced and overcame really inspired me to persevere. It took me 4-5 years until I could manage in Japanese.”
Just before completing high school, Rosa got a job as a reporter on J-Wave radio, thus launching her entertainment career. However, she decided to continue her education and went to Tokai University where she studied IT, and a drama school to study stage acting. “I thought a university degree would help me take care of my mother in the future and it also made me feel like a contributing member of society at last,” she explains.
For the past few years, Rosa has made guest appearances on TV and radio programs, done theater work, modeled and appeared in TV commercials. Her latest project is a weekly NHK program, "Chikyu (Earth) Document Mission," which she co-hosts with announcer Masaaki Horio and lawyer Kanae Doi. The program, which will run for one year, looks at environmental problems from various angles such as people, nature and food, and how they are all connected.
“It’s a good fit for me because I couldn’t afford to waste anything when I was growing up,” Rosa says. “It’s a pity that there is still a lot of waste in Japan. Most people take food and nature for granted. Since the program started in April, we have had good feedback from viewers. Some said they were surprised at the efforts of others; many said the program was a wake-up call for them on the environment and how even a small effort can make a difference in their own lives.”
Of all her work, Rosa says she finds acting in dramas the easiest, while being on TV variety programs the most challenging. “Early in my life, I learned how to hide my emotions and put on a different face, so that has helped me with acting. I especially enjoy doing live theater. On the other hand, with television variety programs, I am never quite sure how to act. My mother gives me lots of advice, usually critical, about my comments and mannerisms.”
When she is not working, Rosa enjoys archery as well as an occasional game of tennis. Always stylish on TV, Rosa says she prefers to dress casually and shops in the Ameyoko part of Tokyo. For eating out, she and her friends avoid glitzy places. “I like izakaya at night and the Tsukiji fish market for sushi in the morning or lunch,” she says, but admits she is not a skilled cook herself. “Ramen is about all I can make,” she laughs.
Japanese or Iranian?
Listening to Rosa speak, it is easy to forget she is Iranian and not Japanese. “That’s what happens when I go back to Iran,” she laughs. “People there think I have become Japanese. However, I have never forgotten that I am Iranian. My roots will always be there. It is interesting to compare Japanese and Iranian women. They do have some similarities. Yet, Iranian women don’t have as much freedom of choice to work as Japanese women, although that doesn’t mean Iranian women are weak. I would say that they have a ‘strong’ mentality but they are in a ‘weak’ position.”
Rosa’s dream is to open an orphanage in Iran, one of two reasons why she wrote her book. “So many children are in need of love, and not just in Iran; that applies to peaceful countries like Japan, too,” she explains. The second reason for writing the book was as a testament to her mother. “I wanted to let everyone know what she did for me and a book can remain a testament forever.”
She hopes the book will one day be translated into English, a language she is currently studying to add to her linguistic repertoire of Japanese, Persian, Tajik and Dari. Rosa has a lofty goal in mastering English. “One day, I want to win an Academy Award and stand on that stage and thank my mother in front of the whole world." After a pause, she adds: "And if I could meet Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, that would be cool, too.”
"Chikyu Document Mission" airs on BShi each Sunday at 9 p.m. and on NHK BS2 on Monday from 11 p.m.© Japan Today