- Lisa Starbird
Circle of Advisors Profile: Jason Rezaian
Jason Rezaian is a husband, a son, a brother, an author and a journalist for The Washington Post in Washington DC. He is on our Circle of Advisors and is a friend to Bread & Roses. Jason considers his wife Yegi, his mom Mary and his brother Ali all his heroes.
His connection to Bread & Roses
Bread & Roses Executive Director Dave Perron was Jason’s first grade teacher, and unlike most teachers, Dave stayed in Jason’s life as a friend and mentor. Jason lives in DC now but grew up in Marin County and always drops in when he is in town.
Jason has shared both his time and treasure helping Bread & Roses to raise money because he has a unique understanding about our mission. At one of our fundraising benefits, Jason gave a compelling speech about his personal experience of isolation that he lived through.
Dave shared what Jason was going through with the Bread & Roses staff following along in real time. The first time that the team met Jason was in 2016 in the office. There was an element of heart opening for everyone, as he was now free and we knew only pieces of his story.
Jason was a certified press correspondent for the Washington Post who wrote stories about the hopes of the Iranian people. He wrote about the cultural life, the foodie scene and life in Iran. His last story was about baseball.
Jason was imprisoned and put in solitary confinement at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. He was told he didn’t have a right to a lawyer, that no one was coming for him and that people believed he died in a car accident. He had broken no law and they never had any real case. As it turned out he was being used as political leverage and as Reporters Without Borders stated he was “a victim of a power struggle between different government factions.”
Let me share just a little bit of his story...
On July 22, 2014, Jason and his wife Yeganeh were leaving their home in Iran headed to a surprise party for her mom’s birthday. They took the elevator to the basement to catch their taxi. When the elevator doors opened, there was a guy with a gun pointed at them with other men blocking the way out. After some intense scuffling, the man with the gun and his cohorts took them back upstairs to their apartment. Most of the men had surgical masks to hide their identities and several were filming everything.
The men ransacked their home ripping through and destroying everything, even cutting open tea bags in their search. More people showed up filling the apartment. When they confiscated all of their electronic equipment and put it on the table the men asked for all codes to access the devices. Jason thought, “I have absolutely nothing to hide,” so did what they were told.
After a torturous hour and a half, the group led them to an unmarked van and proceeded to give them blindfolds and handcuffed Jason. They were not told why they were being arrested but assumed they would be let out soon and that it would blow over. After that Jason and Yegi were separated.
Jason was led blindfolded to a room where he could hear that there were many people around him. After a few minutes a male voice addressed him saying “Do you know why you are here, Mr. Jason?”
“You are head of the American CIA station in Tehran, tell us everything.”
“There’s nothing to tell. You’ve made a mistake. This is all wrong, I’m just a journalist.”
“You’re a spy. We have all of the proof. And you just need to tell us everything.”
(From Chapters 1 & 2 of Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison by Jason Rezaian)
What followed was an 18-month nightmare for Jason, his family, friends and colleagues and no one was sure that he would make it out because many did not.
Although he did not know it at the time, while Jason was in prison there were several international campaigns working for his release. Finally after a year and a half of being jailed and in isolation, on January 16, 2016, it was announced that Jason Rezaian had been released from Iran along with three other United States prisoners.
Jason’s memoir is gripping, informative and at times humorous. It is a powerful reminder of the risk that journalists take every day to serve the public.
John F. Kerry, the 68th U.S. Secretary of State, helped with the details of his release and said “Jason paid a deep price in defense of journalism and his story proves that not everyone who defends freedom carries a gun, some carry a pen.”
You can read more about his experience in isolation and captivity in Iran in his book, Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison, which was published in January 2019.
Jason recently shared some additional reflections with Bread & Roses Program Associate/Events Producer Lisa Starbird by phone from Washington.
LS: What are some things you learned from being in prison?
JR: “Before prison I understood the need for human connection, what I didn’t understand was the devastating effect of being DENIED human connection. Anybody who has been subjected to isolation for a prolonged period of time and not by choice, has a set of feelings that comes from being isolated that I would never wish on anybody else.”
LS: What made you want to go into San Quentin State Prison on behalf of Bread & Roses?
JR: “After being released in Iran I knew that I wanted to go inside San Quentin. Growing up in San Rafael, San Quentin was always there. It was something we knew as a big imposing scary place. I never imagined being inside.
I often had nightmares from my (Evin) experience. We went to Alcatraz for a tour and after seeing the cells and taking the audio tour it was a flashback to being in prison. After the Alcatraz tour, I didn’t know how it would feel psychologically for me. I wasn’t sure if that would be the case going into San Quentin… and it wasn’t like that at all. It was meaningful to meet and talk with the men and have a dialogue that was beyond judgment. I could give that to them.”
LS: You had an opportunity to go into San Quentin and speak with a group of inmates. Can you describe how it felt for you?
JR: “The San Quentin connection was one of my top two or three things that I have experienced in the four years since I’ve been back. It was one of the essential moments for me and I will never forget it. It was special to be able to be on the other side and connect with people in the middle of what they were going through and be able to say, “You can come out the other side of this.”
Every visit is a HOPE BOMB. Now that’s a bomb I can get behind. It’s about giving them a platform for HOPE, and letting them know that they are not forgotten.”
LS: What makes you passionate about our Bread & Roses mission?
JR: “Bread & Roses has the greatest mission imaginable. It’s appropriate that Bread & Roses acknowledges the lonely and isolated; it exists to help them feel connected or reconnected to others.
At its core, it helps people feel like they should be alive and that their lives matter.
We do the things that we can to add to the world, not take away from it.
B&R provides such a unique service. The legacy of the organization is built on a solid foundation and will continue because of its mission of bringing joy, hope and healing to those who are isolated.”
By Lisa Starbird, Event Producer/ Program Associate
1) The Rezaian Family: Jason, Yegi, Jason’s mom Mary and brother Ali. Photo Courtesy of Jason Rezaian.
2) (l-r) Dave Perron, Michael Pritchard, Jason Rezaian, Barry Zito at 2016 Spring Benefit Concert. Photo by Ken Friedman.
3) Jason with his book Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison, available on Amazon. Photo Courtesy of Jason Rezaian.
4) Jason speaking at the 2016 Spring Benefit Concert at Terrapin Crossroads. Photo by Ken Friedman.
5) Jason Rezaian shares why the work of Bread & Roses matters. Video by Peter Merts.