OLD SAYBROOK - Maryam Elahi's life on Main Street in Old Saybrook is idyllic-from the window of the home she bought 13 years ago as a fix-er-upper, she can view North Cove while she works at home. Classical music plays in the background while her two loyal spaniels lie at her feet. With her gym friends, her former college faculty friends and colleagues, and her train commute friends, she's built roots here. Now a new job as president of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut cements those local ties.
But this Norman Rockwell vision is worlds away from the life she lived and observed in the world's conflict zones working first as an international human rights attorney with Amnesty International and later, as director of the International Women's Program at Open Society, a George Soros foundation in New York City, from 1997 to July 2013.
Working first for Amnesty International from 1990 to '97, Maryam served as advocacy director for the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. In this role, she went on trial observer missions in conflict zones extending from Egypt to Belfast to Kuwait and Kurdistan.
"When you work on human rights issues, you only see the dark side of the human soul. You're always looking to shine a light, to find a light. It's a blessing and a curse to really be able to make a difference and save them from an execution or torture; [the success] spurs you even harder to work for the next one," says Maryam.
So even though she traveled about 70 percent of each year and worked around the clock, when she saved even one person, it motivated her to continue-and the one she remembers most vividly was Patrick Kane in Northern Ireland.
"During The Troubles, there were lots of poor young Catholic guys that would be thrown into prison after a violent incident," explains Maryam.
Kane was a young Catholic man with an IQ of a 13 year-old who had gone to the stadium to watch an IRA funeral march. As it passed, two Ulster plainclothes policemen in the crowd interrupted the march by shooting in the air. Some IRA militants in the crowd in turn grabbed and shot the Ulster men.
For this action, many young men in the crowd were rounded up and taken to prison in order to punish the community. Unfortunately for Kane, who was wearing clothes similar to that of the killers, he was convicted of murder. The government helicopter's film showed he had been standing in the crowd and, according to the judge, just the fact that he was standing in the crowd proved that he had intent to commit a crime.
For years, his parents pressed his innocence and his case with Amnesty International and other groups. Then came the historic trip of President Bill Clinton to Ireland. Maryam decided to press Kane's case in her meeting with the national security advisor before the trip. The trip came and went, but a few months later, she walked into the Amnesty office and was told to call the Kanes in Belfast because Patrick had been released.
"It was just magical. And his parents said that he now wanted to work for peace," says Maryam.
Maryam arrived in the U.S. from Iran with her parents and one suitcase just days before the shah's regime fell. Fluent in Persian, French, Spanish, and English, Maryam was accepted to Williams College, at which she majored in biology with plans to be a scientist like her father.
But while doing scientific research one summer at Children's Hospital in Boston, she walked into a lecture given by Dr. Jonathan Fine about the disappearances in Guatemala and Chile. That lecture changed the path of her life. Fighting for human rights became the focus of her career.
For 10 years, from 1997 to 2007, while working for the Open Society Foundation on international women's rights issues, she founded Trinity College's human right program, the first ever at a U.S. college.
"My closest friends in Connecticut continue to be on the faculty of Trinity College. We meet weekly for lunch in Middletown and love to talk about politics," says Maryam.
For Maryam, running the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, an organization that awarded nearly
$3.3 million in grants and scholarships in 44 towns in 2012, is an exciting challenge.
"The community foundation puts its arms around the community and helps deliver compassion and connectedness all around. So, while we support initiatives to end homelessness [and] support women who have survived domestic violence, people suffering from mental illness, [and] children's trips to museums and the symphony, we also help generous people create funds to support their passions," says Maryam. "I had been involved with a few organizations like the Shoreline Soup Kitchen for some years, but now feel my personal and professional worlds have come closer than ever before.
And for Maryam, working now in New London rather than New York City or some foreign land allows her to "stop the train that was taking away my life. I needed to pause, look at the sunset, spend more time with friends, and be more involved with my community."
With energy and intelligence in equal measure, expect Maryam to put her imprint on whatever she chooses to pursue.