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Mother’s love helped actress overcome war, poverty and bullying to find fame in Japan

by Magdalena Osumi

Orphaned at the age of 4, Sahel Rosa celebrates her birthday every Oct. 21 and Oct. 23, although she will never know for sure on what date she came into this world. The sole survivor of an Iraqi air raid that leveled her small town in western Iran in 1989, there are no blood relatives left to ask.

Four days after the town was wiped off the map, a volunteer nurse, Flora Jasmine, discovered Sahel buried in the rubble of the home the child had shared with her parents and 10 older siblings and took her to an orphanage. From there, Flora hoped Sahel would be taken in by adoptive parents.

Years later, Sahel appeared on a state TV commercial asking for people to foster orphans of the Iran-Iraq War — an ad that Flora happened to see. Having lost contact, the young woman, by then a psychology master’s graduate, began to visit Sahel regularly.

Left: Sahel during her days in the orphanage in Iran. Right: Sahel has her photo taken at a studio on the day she left the institution. 
Left: Sahel during her days in the orphanage in Iran. Right: Sahel has her photo taken at a studio on the day she left the institution.  | COURTESY OF SAHEL ROSA

“My dream was to have a mother,” Sahel recalls with a smile. “And I guess the moment (Flora) found me became the turning point in my life. If it hadn’t been her, or if I hadn’t called her madar (“mother” in Persian) that day she came to see me — the thing that apparently stuck in her mind and touched her heart — my life would have been different.”

Against the wishes of her family, Flora decided to adopt Sahel. The decision helped stretch Flora’s strained relationship with her conservative parents beyond breaking point, and the family disowned her, leaving Flora with no choice but to move to Japan and build a new family with her Japanese fiance and their new adopted daughter.

Family of two: Sahel at Flora Jasmine
Family of two: Sahel at Flora Jasmine’s apartment in Tehran, soon after the adoption. | COURTESY OF SAHEL ROSA

Fast-forwarding more than 20 years, Sahel’s name was top of Yahoo Japan’s search rankings for two days after she appeared at a televised event in Tokyo celebrating the Japanese buzzwords of 2013. On the show, she pulled off a convincing impression of newscaster Christel Takigawa’s now-famous enunciation of “o-mo-te-na-shi” — “hospitality” — in a speech to the International Olympic Committee that helped Tokyo clinch the 2020 games. The 28-year-old has carved out a career here as a model, TV personality and actress, a remarkable journey documented in her 2009 autobiography, “From the War Zone to (the Life of) an Actress.”

New arrival: Sahel waits for Flora to finish work at a Persian rug shop in Tokyo.
New arrival: Sahel waits for Flora to finish work at a Persian rug shop in Tokyo. | COURTESY OF SAHEL ROSA

But Japan hasn’t always been hospitable to Sahel and her adoptive mother. Within three weeks of their arrival, Flora’s fiance broke off the relationship and threw the pair out of his house, leaving them homeless in an unfamiliar land.

Sahel has only dim recollections of that difficult period. She does remember that Flora would always prioritize her daughter’s needs over her own, being deeply committed to ensuring that Sahel had an opportunity to realize her dreams — even when it meant surviving two days on a can of tuna.

Luckily, Flora had managed to find a job in a bottle factory before the pair were made homeless, enabling Sahel to continue her education in Japan. In another stroke of good fortune, a worker in the school canteen — concerned by the way Sahel wolfed down lunch, which was her only proper meal of the day — helped Flora track down an apartment, agreed to be rent guarantor and found her a better job, making Persian rugs.

Difficult time: Sahel faced bullying during her junior high school years.
Difficult time: Sahel faced bullying during her junior high school years. | COURTESY OF SAHEL ROSA

Having survived war in Iran and homelessness in Tokyo, Sahel’s biggest test was still to come, at one of the schools Flora had worked so hard to enable her to attend. Bullied throughout junior high school for being poor and looking different, Sahel says she received no support from teachers and began to feel increasingly isolated. It was at this point that she considered suicide.

“Some people can be hurt with just words, which happens because too many people don’t understand the pain they are inflicting on others,” she says. “People used to living in peace take for granted the fact they have parents, a home and a chance to get an education, and they don’t consider what others might feel.”

Sahel believes children need to be made more aware of the situation facing those worse off than themselves as a first step toward reducing bullying and accepting difference.

“Children should be taught to express themselves, their own thoughts, and to have their own identities as individuals,” she adds.

Tehran to Tokyo: Sahel
Tehran to Tokyo: Sahel’s remarkable journey from war-torn western Iran to fame in Japan is documented in her 2009 autobiography, ‘From the War Zone to (the Life of) an Actress.’ | YOSHIAKI MIURA

As an Iranian brought up in Japan, Sahel too had to grapple with issues of identity.

“Deep inside I have a sense of belonging to Japan,” she says proudly. “Although I have an Iranian passport, I grew up here and perceive both of my cultural identities — Japanese and Iranian — as one.”

In some ways, her relationship with Japan is clearer than that with the country of her birth — a place that until a while ago, she says, “didn’t feel like home to me.”

“It’s my mother’s homeland, so I’ve always tried to hold positive feelings (toward Iran), but she lives here now, and in Iran there’s no one waiting for me,” she says, adding she had only a vague image of the country until she visited twice last year.

Whereas Sahel’s image of the country was born of the vicious Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the Japanese image of the country is largely shaped by media coverage of Iran’s present-day problems — and those of Iraq, with which it is often confused — and crimes often linked to Iranians in Japan. A lot of Japanese people believe Iran must be a terrifying place where people wander about carrying guns as if they are still involved in a war, and where crooks sell drugs or forged telephone cards on every street corner, Sahel jokes.

“Many people I’ve met in my life have told me they had a negative image of Iran, but many also told me that through my work, I’ve helped them change it,” she explains. “Iranians will always put others first — such as by offering accommodation to travelers” or treating guests to the best even if they don’t have enough for themselves, she continues. “I believe Iranians may have the most hospitable culture in the world.”

Their turn: Children in the orphanage where Sahel spent some of her early years celebrate the birthdays of a selected group of kids at a once-a-year party.
Their turn: Children in the orphanage where Sahel spent some of her early years celebrate the birthdays of a selected group of kids at a once-a-year party. | COURTESY OF SAHEL ROSA

During a visit last year to Iran and the orphanage where she spent years of her childhood, “I thought that I wouldn’t remember, but my feet did,” she says, describing a feeling of being drawn into the building and repelled at the same time.

She says that if someone had asked her a year ago whether she would ever consider going back to Iran, even to visit, if her mother — her only link to the country — was no longer around, “I would have said no.”

Now, however, Sahel dreams of establishing a foster home offering other children hope for a better future, care for their emotional needs and help finding a direction in life.

“When I was in the orphanage, there were too few caregivers to look after all the kids, which made me wonder whether they were able to notice me, or whether their eyes even saw me,” she says.

Sahel supports children in an orphanage in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, one of more than 500 institutions of its type in Japan, and says she hopes that the Japanese become more aware of the situation and offer more of a helping hand to those in need in their own country.

“When the caregivers from the orphanage where I grew up asked me to become someone they could look up to, I realized what makes my life worth living,” she explains. “Through hard work, you can do something positive for other children, something beneficial for their lives — that’s what support is all about. I would like to help each and every child realize their lives have meaning and help them find that meaning.”

A scream: Sahel appears regularly on NHK, TV Asahi and Tokyo FM radio, as well as on stage and the big screen.
A scream: Sahel appears regularly on NHK, TV Asahi and Tokyo FM radio, as well as on stage and the big screen. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

In Sahel’s life, Flora has been the pillar of support and guiding light she wishes every child could have had.

“My mother has taught me not to get mad or hate people, always telling me to take a look at everything from all sides. She has taught me about morality, which is so valuable,” she says confidently, and “she’s taught me to take life one day at a time, since we never know if tomorrow will come.”

Flora, a Tehran University graduate, left behind a promising academic future when she moved to Japan. Since then, she has worked for years weaving rugs to provide her daughter with the chance of a better life.

Sahel has found success, but Flora still refuses to accept offers of help, saying that she doesn’t want to be in anyone’s debt.

Although Sahel would like to support her mother, “she won’t let me,” she says. “She always tells me, ‘What makes me happy is not the money but to see you back home with a smile on your face — to see you’ve succeeded, appearing on stage or in a film.’ ”

Flora stood by Sahel when she decided to enroll in an acting course, believing it would help Sahel find ways to mask her fragility and protect herself from emotional harm.

Sahel, who now appears regularly on NHK, TV Asahi and Tokyo FM radio, as well as on stage and the big screen, has set herself a clear, if ambitious, goal.

“Someday I hope to get an Academy Award,” she says, aware that her dream could sound too grand — or even ridiculous. “I’ve been working hard for it, and I can’t imagine my life without acting. No matter how old I get, I believe someday it will happen.”

But there’s more to her dream than meets the eye.

“I’d like to dedicate the award to my mother,” she says, referring to Flora. “Many people ask me who I’d like to play, but the role I hope to win the award for would be a portrayal of a woman offering motherly love — like my mother. If I ever make it, I would hope it brings me one step closer to her.”

Sahel Rosa requested that her and her mother’s family name not be published. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • 愛憎

    I learned about Sahel while watching 世界番付 recently. She sounds like a wonderful person, and Flora sounds amazing. What a beautiful story. I hope that they both continue to be happy!