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Fellows Friday with Nassim Assefi

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Practicing physician Nassim Assefi gets a kick out of saving lives and celebrating life. Working on her second novel and first film, she continues to be a powerful voice in global health policy while organizing a TEDx event in Seattle. Learn her thoughts on the importance of courage, education and salsa dancing in this Fellows Friday interview.

You work in so many different capacities, you seem to be everywhere at once. What are the most important projects you’re working on right now?

I have four main projects at the moment. I’m working as a primary care doctor in a community health clinic where most of the patients are uninsured or considered “urban vulnerables.” My second focus is finishing my second novel, entitled Say I Am You. I continue to be engaged with global women’s health, especially maternal mortality reduction in Afghanistan, and that takes the form of producing a documentary film and doing applied public health research. Last but certainly not least is curating a TEDx in Seattle.

What is it about each one of these projects that compels you?

Though I’ve veered from the conventional paths of clinical medicine and medical academia to do global health work and artistic projects, I know that I will always want to be a part-time practicing physician. I’ve found no experience to be as immediately gratifying as helping a person heal, and I continue to find it anthropologically and scientifically fascinating.

Writing novels is my way of making sense of emotionally complex experiences — for example, grief in my first novel, and the unjust distribution of privilege in my current book — and sharing them with the world. My novels are typically set outside of the US, often in a Muslim country, and it brings me great satisfaction to express my creativity while trying to create a narrative bridge to a misunderstood part of the world for Westerners.

Global women’s health work feeds the activist part of me and the global citizen. Though taking care of patients in one-on-one encounters is instantly rewarding, public health projects have the opportunity to impact far greater numbers of lives. As a clinician, maybe I will save a thousand lives during my career in the US, but working at a national, systems level in a country like Afghanistan, it is possible to improve the lives of an entire country, close to 30 million people. Doing public health projects abroad allows me to travel in a meaningful way, express the international parts of me that don’t always feel at home in the States, and engage with social justice.

TED is all about awakening every corner of my mind and connecting to kindred spirits who are actively trying to make the world a better place. There’s a generalist in me who loves to flirt with a multiplicity of subjects. There’s also a part of me who loves to connect and celebrate others, so it is a great joy to do this in curating a TEDx, while sharing the marvelous TED experience with my hometown Seattle community.

You’ve had an incredible variety of experiences, all over the world. Can you give us a brief timeline of your life?

I was born in Tehrangeles, [laughs] otherwise known as L.A., because there are so many Iranians there. I moved to Seattle when I was eight, which makes it thirty years that I’ve been based here. But I’ve tried leaving Seattle for many of those years. Much to the chagrin of my parents, a part of my soul belongs to the Middle East so I’ve had some periods in my life where I’ve sworn off living in North America.

Read more of this interview with Nassim Assefi after the jump >>

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Both of my parents are educators, and as the eldest child to these Iranian immigrants, I absorbed all their hopes and dreams of a better life in the US and raced through school. I started taking university courses at age 13, and graduated from Wellesley College at age 18. After college graduation, I began a tradition of taking frequent sabbaticals. In 1991-92, I returned to Iran to do my first women’s health/public health project — a study of family planning practices in rural villages — and also spent a few months volunteering in a family planning clinic in Paris.

I returned to Seattle to attend University of Washington Medical School, taking a year off in 1995-96 to explore doing basic science research working in cancer immunology at the National Institutes of Health in D.C. In 1997, I took another 6 months off — I spent a couple months at a writer’s retreat called Hedgebrook, where I would write the entire first draft of my novel, learned Spanish and helped set up a clinic for battered women and children in Guatemala, and studied acupuncture, meditation, and qi gong in Tibet and China.

From 1997-2000, I did an internal medicine residency with a women’s health focus in Boston at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and then returned to Seattle to work at Harborview Hospital and be a faculty member at the University of Washington Medical School in the departments of OB/GYN and Internal Medicine.

In 2003, my life was changed by a trip to Afghanistan. I had seen vast social inequities as a doctor who took care of immigrants and refugees at an urban, county hospital, and as someone who had volunteered in many short-term medical missions in low-income countries in Central America and the Middle East, but the scale of poverty and accompanying mortality was other-worldly for me in Afghanistan. And yet it was deeply personal, so close to my country of origin. Those women who were dying of childbirth, those girls who hadn’t been allowed to go to school could have been my relatives. I was very happy doing women’s health academia in Seattle, and thought I would stay there for the rest of my life, but after going to Afghanistan for the first time, I decided to move there and try to make a dent in women’s health and education there.

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ABOVE:Nassim (right) working with a traditional birth attendant in Herat, Afghanistan

In 2006, I needed a break from the intensity of Afghanistan and moved to Havana to write and pursue my dream of one day being in a salsa band (I studied percussion and voice). In 2007, I briefly returned to the States for a book tour, and then moved to Turkey for 2 years to continue being a writer and be closer to my roots in the Middle East — and be able to easily travel to Afghanistan. In July of 2009, I was part of the inaugural class of TED Global Fellows, and shortly after, I moved back to Seattle.

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ABOVE:Nassim on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba (Photo: Jack Laws)

You’ve said that you are “obsessed with understanding courage,” and are particularly interested in courageous women. If you could give a message about courage to the young girls of the world, what would it be?

Go to school. Education is the most effective ticket out of poverty and oppression. In some countries, such as Afghanistan, it takes tremendous courage to go to school and stay in school when you are female because you might have acid thrown in your face or be poisoned or have your school set on fire. Having an education will give girls (and boys) real tools and a kind of inner scaffolding that will propel the results of their courageous acts even further.

Do you have a similar message for girls with more privileged backgrounds?

In a context where we take our good education for granted, I would say the same things to girls and boys: “Find your passion and don’t be afraid to pursue it, whatever it may be.”

It is frankly empowering to figure out who you are, what values are most important to you, and what unique contribution you have to give to the world. If you can identify those three things and are able to pursue your unique path of meaning while taking care of yourself — for it’s important not to burn out and to stay healthy physically and psychologically — you are likely to find happiness.

What has the TED Fellowship meant to you?

TED has given me a global intellectual and activist community, something I have longed for, ever since I can remember. My unconventional path and globally nomadic life has been starved for peers, and I have found them at TED.

Also, TED has been a source of inspiration, cascading ideas, and mentorship. Just before attending TEDGlobal’09, I was working in Afghanistan, helping to evaluate the national midwifery training program. I had this wacky idea of making a documentary film about why Afghanistan is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman and how the international humanitarian community has responded to that challenge. At the time, I knew nothing about filmmaking. I wasn’t even a movie buff. But I came to the conclusion that film was probably the most effective medium for telling the story of maternal mortality in the context of war and poverty, and showing how it could be reduced with the right investments.

At TED Global I met filmmakers such as Deb Scranton and Shamim Sarif, who gave me invaluable advice about how to proceed and made me believe that it was possible for me to make this film. And they offered to help. This is just one of several examples where my projects were transformed by the people I met at TED.

Through the generosity of Ruth Ann Harnisch and Renee Freedman, the TED Fellowship has offered us life coaching, which has been an invaluable experience for me. As a result, I’m happier than I’ve ever been, living in balance, and feeling authentically connected to and energized by everything I’m doing.

How did you first get interested in Cuban music and salsa dance? Why are you so passionate about them?

I went to Costa Rica with my two younger sisters in the summer of 1995. We traveled to the Caribbean coast, on black and white volcanic sand beaches in a town called Puerto Viejo. I heard salsa music for the first time in a bungalow bar on a night of a full moon. I fell in love with it.

I was hooked from that time on. Salsa dancing became my therapy in a life quite dominated by cerebral work. It anchored me in my body, shut off my brain, and was an instantaneous IV shot of joy. So I never stopped. I began teaching salsa dancing in Kabul—it was a convenient way to exercise in a country where exercising was difficult, and it was an excellent way to shed the stress of working in a post-conflict zone.

I must add that dancing has been a useful life lesson for me as I’ve learned how to follow. As a doctor, teacher, and activist, I was very often in the leadership position, and it took me a few years of salsa dancing to learn how to follow well. So, salsa has been useful on a variety of levels, but mostly, it’s about experiencing joy.

What are your future plans?

I will continue to work as a clinician, whether in the States or as a volunteer in a kind of Doctors Without Borders setting. I plan to publish my novel, Say I Am You, which is about reconciling privilege and humanitarianism in modern-day Afghanistan, by the spring of 2012. I’m hoping my documentary film will also be completed by that time. I am beginning a small research project as part of a repeat maternal mortality survey in Afghanistan.

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ABOVE:Nassim (center) with International Medical Corps-sponsored Health Clinic in Bamiyan, Afghanistan

Esther Duflo’s TED’10 talk has inspired me to try and measure what aspects of our maternal mortality prevention programs have been most effective.

A lot of my time will be spent working on TEDxRainier, which will happen on 10-10-10 (a play on the digital theme, bits and bytes). The theme of our TEDx is “Seattle’s Signature in the World” — those homegrown ideas, organizations, products and people that have had global impact or are so innovative that they deserve to be exported. Organizing the TEDx in my thirtieth year of being based in Seattle is a real homecoming for me, a weaving together of so many different strands in my life.

TEDxRainier is also about bringing together disparate communities in Seattle — from the techies to the global health people, the environmental activists to the literary authors, and beyond. It’s about sharing the joys of TED with Seattle, and celebrating Seattle’s achievements with a global stage. I’m seduced by the power of ideas, by the rational optimism that spreads virally at TED, and the communal commitment to leave the earth and its creatures in better shape than we found it.