Nel Hedayat, whose mother took her from war-torn Afghanistan when she was 6, has become one of the most dogged young journalists working today
Nelufar Hedayat’s mother moved her from their native country of Afghanistan to London when she was 6. She went back when she was 21, experiencing her culture with a set of new eyes for the BBC documentary Women, Weddings, War and Me. The documentary’s success allowed Hedayat to continue her broadcasting career, most recently with FUSION The Traffickers.
PEOPLE spoke to Nel about her life and how her identities as refugee, woman and journalist collide in 2016.
“The first time that I heard real life artillery fire, when I was in Libya during the Arab Spring, I had flashbacks that I didn’t know I was going to have,” Hedayat explains to PEOPLE. “I remembered the sounds of war.”
“My mom was a civil engineer, my dad was a professor of mathematics. My mom was the first of her entire generation in her family to get a university degree.” Then, in 1989, when she was a newborn, Hedayat’s life changed completely.
“My grandmother, my mother’s mother, died during the worst time in my life, basically, when my dad was conscripted into the army in 1989. The Russians have basically fallen. The Berlin Wall had come down, the USSR was failing, but it took quite some time for the effects of what was happening in the West to reach the ex-Soviet nations, of which Afghanistan was a satellite. And we were living in this hellhole, my mother’s hair was falling out from the stress, she had a newborn, and my father was missing, presumed dead — I didn’t see my dad until I was 7.
“My mom tells me — sometimes she’ll talk and sometimes she won’t — ‘When I heard about the raping and the mutilation of women,’ and when she heard about the absolute disregard for human life on the streets of Kabul, some kind of penny-drop moment happened and she thought, ‘How am I going to take my daughter back into that?’ “
Hedayat’s mother moved her to North London, and her father eventually joined them there. “When we came to London, he cleaned toilets in hotel rooms and my mother was a housewife. And I’m not ashamed of that — I say that with humongous pride and respect. I was born in one of the poorest, most corrupt nations on Earth — and that hasn’t changed in 20 years — but the resilience of the people of Syria, of Afghanistan, of Iraq, means that we will want to better ourselves. Nobody wants this. Nobody wants to leave their home; but when you’re thrown into it, you have to make some really difficult decisions, like, ‘Do you want to go back to somewhere where your daughter might be raped?’ “
Thinking about her mother making that decision, Hedayat says, “she’s a hero of mine. I don’t know how the hell she managed. She’s so ordinary in her extraordinariness nowadays, that it’s remarkable for me to imagine her having to do what she did 25 years ago.”
For the Hedayats, like for so many refugees: “The plan was never to leave Afghanistan. The plan was always to go back. And this is how it is for the millions of refugees currently in Greece and Italy and the Mediterranean. But there comes a point as a mother or a refugee where you say, ‘There’s no future here.’ “
Hedayat received a more or less traditional British upbringing, matriculating through the primary and secondary school systems. “I loved school! I’d never went to school properly before I went to the U.K. Trying to understand slang and gender politics … I found knickers very confusing. But I was having a blast.”
“And then 9/11 happened. And then it got really bad. I remember I was in food technology lessons and chairs would get thrown at me. And people would say all sorts of terrible things to me. Sept. 21 forced people to take a side. So, some of my friends, of the 10 or 15 that I’d grown up with, maybe nine became very religious. They started wearing hijabs again. And my mom had brought me up to be a very tolerant, temperate Muslim, so I wasn’t going to do that. So there was this polarization, but I wanted to be in both worlds.”
Hedayat got her chance to start broadcasting while at university, through the BBC. She returned to Afghanistan for the first time when she was 21, filming the experience for her first documentary for the channel.
“I put on a burqa for the first time making that documentary. I went and bought one for the first time. It was one of the saddest moments of my life. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I felt like I was nothing.”
Trying to live in both worlds, as it were, hasn’t been easy for Hedayat. Besides her own internal struggles — “When I’m in the U.K., I never feel more Afghan, and when I’m in Afghanistan, I never feel more British,” she notes — “I get more messages and tweets and Facebook messages from Muslims who hate me than non-Muslims who hate me,” she says. “Because I embody everything that ISIS hates.”
Her commitment to her work, and the various routes that it takes her down, though, is crystal clear. And with life as a refugee becoming a sad norm for huge swaths of the world’s population, Hedayat’s work is more important than ever, even as she sees the challenges in it: “You can’t stand there and tell the truth with a capital T; it’s too multifaceted. Because that’s the reality of the world today, nothing is as black and white as it seems.”