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An Interview with Gissou Nia


Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 18.A, Idea: Outliers & Outsiders (Part Fourteen)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: November 8, 2018

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 1,814

ISSN 2369-6885


Gissou Nia is the Strategy Director of Purpose. She discusses: family and personal background; interest in world politics; and religion as a force for good and religion as a force for bad.

Keywords: executive director, Gissou Nia, international relations, law, politics, Purpose, religion.

An Interview with Gissou Nia: Strategy Director, Purpose[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background and personal background – geography, culture, language, and religion or lack thereof?

Gissou Nia: I am Iranian. I am Iranian-American. I was born in the US. Usually, people of my age were born in Iran after the Revolution and made their way out during the Iran-Iraq War.

We wanted to move back to the country when I was young. But it was during the war. In the end, we decided it was best to stay in the US. My work has been focused on Iran and looking at the human rights situation in Iran.

I grew up in the US. I have since then lived in many places and live here. Nothing remarkable in terms of upbringing [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Nia: I went to law school because the people doing the most impactful human rights work were attorneys. I got my J.D. I worked in the Hague and worked war crimes and crimes against humanity trials for many years.

While there, there was a disputed election in Iran, in June 2009. I found myself unable to think about anything but the unfolding situation there. The fact that there was a peaceful protest and then there was the violent crackdown on those protestors, who were simply asking for their votes to count in an election – in free and fair elections.

That was the extent of those demands. Those demands were not taken seriously and were, instead, met with violence. That left an impression on me. Twitter was a new platform. It was the first example of people organizing on Twitter discussing what was happening on the ground in Farsi tweets and English tweets.

I was gaining a sense of what was happening on the ground. I realized the skills I gained in The Hague in terms of investigating human rights abuses, preparing an evidentiary case to established grave human rights violations.

All that could be really helpful in the Iran context. Because I spoke the language. It could be helpful in gathering the evidence and preparing dossiers, essentially, against perpetrators of human rights violations there.

That motivated me wanting to work in Iran-specific work. I did that for 6 years. More recently, I have been working on refugee and migrant issues. That came out of the Iran work.

In the sense that a lot of individuals I would interview, a lot of the Iranians I would interview about human right abuses that they were subjected to while in Iran had fled Iran and were living in Iraq, Turkey, and Malaysia, wherever Iranians do not need a visa.

It is where folks do not need to seek asylum or be in the UNHCR process to get refugee status and be resettled in a new country. Being in that experience, it really showed me the gaps in the refugee resettlement process.

The fact that so few people who are seeking protection are afforded that ability to be resettled elsewhere and to escape violence & persecution. That motivated me. That field experience with Iranian refugees made me want to look globally and holistically at the people and helping them find resettlement throughout the entire journey.

2. Jacobsen: You lived in Iran shortly but also travelled around the world quite a bit. Did the travel around the world influence the international, global perspective and interest in world politics?

Nia: For sure, there are different labels for it, like Third Culture Kid. When you’re a product of East and West, you are going to not view things as black and white. I think there is a growing sense of that among everybody, especially with the fact that more and more of us are digital native.

They will be exposed to the world based on what they see online. It is different than two decades ago, where there would be real barriers to exploring that. When you’re the product of different cultures and speaking different languages – and fluent in that in-between space or acting as a bridge between cultures; it is going to shape you, no matter what.

You will notice people are very similar regardless of where they come from. It sounds cliche, but there is so much more that we have in common than different. Unless you’re intimately familiar with it.

It can be hard to understand. Anybody who grows as a “Third Culture Kid” gets a very innate sense. In my particular case, I am the product of two governments that have for the duration of my life been hostile to one another.

That influences my perspective in terms of seeing people as separate from the government. That is not always the case in the way people view different countries and people within them.

Oftentimes, they see them synonymous with who the rulers are, or this somehow speaks to the character of the people. That is even less so in countries where the leaders are not democratically elected.

They are not seen as representative of the people because the people did not express the will to vote them in via the ballot box. We shouldn’t view the people of the country through what the leaders decide to do or not to do.

That has been impressed upon me because the two countries that I am a product of. Certainly, if everyone around the world viewed Americans as synonymous with Donald Trump, it would make one half of the population unhappy.

It is similar to no other country’s people wanting to be viewed that way.

3. Jacobsen: In terms of looking at these two governments, religion influences politics in different ways. Looking at these two countries that have different majority religious groups, and the different forms in which religion influences politics, what do you note in terms the ways religion can be a force for good in terms of politics as well as a force for bad?

Nia: That is an interesting question. Obviously, in the case of Iran, Iran is a theocracy, so religious platitudes are written into the law. Where, in the US, it is influenced by Judeo-Christian tradition but, of course, is secular. It is a secular democracy.

That feels different what is official policy versus what is done in practice. The thing that I think is distinct about the US, which I think we’re all aware of, is how it may differ culturally than states in Northern Europe, for example.

It appears to be relevant, in the US, if somebody who is running for office is a person of faith; whereas, I don’t know how relevant that is in Norway, for example. I do think there is a bit of a distinction there.

There is certainly much more that is ascribed to morality in the US, personal morality – how somebody conducts themselves in their personal lives. Personally, we are seeing this on display with the Kavanaugh hearings and what he is doing.

It wades into the criminal. So, that is a separate thing. But it speaks to how important that is to our evaluations of who should be in positions of power in this country. I think there is a deeply influential stream of religion, culturally, in terms of how we do politics here in the US.

So, that is not enshrined in the law. It is relevant. It is certainly relevant. As a force for good, in the work that I do with refugee and migrant populations, I think one huge target audience in our work has been communities of faith, actually.

Because, although, members of some of those communities in the US might, actually, vote for conservative candidates in office who, sometimes – it depends, are more often supporting policies that restrict the number of newcomers coming to the US.

Although, they might support those policies. These folks that are voting for those candidates for other reasons might be welcoming to refugees. They feel that their faith calls upon them to serve those who are in need of protection.

You see, certainly, among Catholics who believe in this right to work and freedom of movement philosophy and this idea of providing for one’s family. You see these strong currents. Some of the most activated audiences, engaged populations, and motivated to deeply help, have been those from a faith background.

I think religion can be harnessed as a force for good. But any time it is used for an exclusionary purpose or used to divide, I think that is where we run into trouble.

4. Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gissou.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1]  Strategy Director, Purpose.

[2] Individual Publication Date: November 8, 2018:; Full Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019:

Appendix II: Citation Style Listing

American Medical Association (AMA): Jacobsen S. An Interview with Gissou Nia [Online].November 2018; 18(A). Available from:

American Psychological Association (APA, 6th Edition, 2010): Jacobsen, S.D. (2018, November 8). An Interview with Gissou NiaRetrieved from

Brazilian National Standards (ABNT): JACOBSEN, S. An Interview with Gissou Nia. In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 18.A, November. 2018. <>.

Chicago/Turabian, Author-Date (16th Edition): Jacobsen, Scott. 2018. “An Interview with Gissou Nia.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 18.A.

Chicago/Turabian, Humanities (16th Edition): Jacobsen, Scott “An Interview with Gissou Nia.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 18.A (November 2018).

Harvard: Jacobsen, S. 2018, ‘An Interview with Gissou NiaIn-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 18.A. Available from: <>.

Harvard, Australian: Jacobsen, S. 2018, ‘An Interview with Gissou NiaIn-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 18.A.,

Modern Language Association (MLA, 7th Edition, 2009): Scott D. Jacobsen. “An Interview with Gissou Nia.” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal 18.A (2018):November. 2018. Web. <>.

Vancouver/ICMJE: Jacobsen S. An Interview with Gissou Nia [Internet]. (2018, November; 18(A). Available from:

License and Copyright


In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen, and In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal 2012-2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen, and In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  All interviewees co-copyright their interview material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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