The gems within each of us
Already at a young age, Caroline Samandari-Avanzo’s family experienced gross human rights violations under the Iranian regime during the 1980s and 1990s. The resilience of her parents inspired her to pursue a career in human rights with various NGOs (in Paris, New Delhi and Geneva) and the United Nations. In 2019 she decided it was time for her to have a different type of impact. She left the UN and founded Gemmes, a non-profit organization, dedicated to supporting youth to develop their potential and to contribute actively and positively to the betterment of society.
You started your career in law which quickly led you to the field of human rights. What sparked your interest in human rights?
My interest in human rights was sparked at a very young age, although I didn’t know at the time that I actually wanted to work in this field. When I was 3, my maternal grandfather (a well-known and loved medical doctor) was assassinated in Iran because of his religious beliefs. He was a member of the Bahá’í community. When I was 13, it was the turn of my paternal uncle to be summarily hanged by the authorities in Teheran solely because of his Faith and convictions. I have observed and was inspired by how my parents managed to turn these tragic family events into new opportunities to work towards a better world. This included their contribution towards the respect of human rights for all.
Gemmes focuses on youth between the age of 12 and 24. When you were at that age, what has challenged and formed you?
I remember having taken on quite some responsibilities as of a very young age. After the dramatic events surrounding the execution of my uncle, I assisted my parents in some of their activities towards social change and the creation of a more just and united world. I was treated like an adult, not even realising how young I was to be working on things such as accounting and editing. By the age of 17, I started shaping projects of my own in the area of arts and social change. Even getting married happened young, at the age of 19. As a law student, I met with French Governement officials to talk about the human rights situation in Iran. The persecution faced by the Bahá’í community in Iran and their non-violent response to it have most likely shaped me. It also made me want to take “the burden of the world” on my shoulders from the age of 3 onwards. It was a bit too young! But now, at the age of 42, as mother of two wonderful children Olivier (17) and Clara (13), I am slowly learning how to be at peace with the fact that I cannot change things that are outside of my control. I am also finally realising how important it is to bring more lightness in my life.
At which point did the desire emerge to make the shift to Gemmes?
When I was at the United Nations, I contributed to a number of important human rights reports, some of which made news headlines and/or arrived on the table of the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly or even the Security Council. Once my dad asked me how the impact of all these reports could be made more lasting. I gave him a series of answers off the top of my head. But this question stayed at the back of my mind. In 2019, when I saw how the human rights situation kept worsening in one of the countries that I had written so many reports about, I felt it was time for me to make a more drastic career change. All the NGO’s and United Nations’ human rights reports are really important and should continue to be written. However, at a personal level, I wanted to work much more upstream, before situations turn so bad that human beings end up torturing and killing each-other. I decided to move to the field of education and create a space, which would help nurture all the gems, which I believe every youth possesses inside. My husband Pierre has been a great support for me in this process. I strongly believe that it is by making long-lasting impact in the hearts of children and youth – including realising that we are all part of a single human family – that we will be able to address most of the problems that humanity is facing today.
Who or what is your source for inspiration?
My main source of inspiration comes from the Bahá’í writings. I want to share one quote from Bahá’u’lláh, which I find particularly uplifting:
« Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit there from. »
In five years from now, what would have to have happened to make you look back on this decision with satisfaction?
My greatest source of satisfaction in five years time would be to having developed Gemmes into a solid team of staff members, animators, collaborators and partners all united by a common vision. Secondly, having made a real difference in the life of some youth having attended our workshops or having had access to our audio-visual material and educational kits (SPARKS). Finally, having created inspiring spaces for educators (parents, teachers, etc) allowing them to develop a new and more positive vision about youth and their potential.
What is your advice for anyone who would want to find their purpose and/or make a career change?
Realise that you are most certainly capable of engaging in professional activities well beyond anything you might think. Then, remove all the ‘labels’ that you or your surrounding has given you, so that you can dig deep into yourself to find the richness of all the gems that are present. Thirdly, if you are planning a radical career change, it is very helpful to have a good support system such as a coach, a close friend, a relative, a mentor, anyone who can accompany you in the process. Finally, and most importantly, try to find an activity that can bring you real and long-lasting joy and satisfaction, despite all the challenges that we are all bound to face in any type of career.
« Remove all the ‘labels’ that you or your surrounding has given you, so that you can dig deep into yourself to find the richness of all the gems that are present. »