Nelufar “Nel” Hedayat is a correspondent for FUSION. In 2016, she hosted the network’s award-winning series, The Traffickers, which followed illegal trades of precious minerals, counterfeit drugs, endangered species and even of people around the globe. Most recently, she reported on the domestic crisis and human rights issues surrounding the shocking maternal mortality rates in the U.S. for another FUSION documentary, The Naked Truth: Death by Delivery.
Having fled war-torn Afghanistan as a child herself, Nel’s work has often focused on cultural upheaval experienced by women, children and families in conflict-ridden societies. The unique way the series covered a bold range of subjects with incredible depth of research and investigative efforts netted the team a raft of awards and nominations.
These included the International Affairs Award at the Association of International Broadcasters 2017 and Best Investigation at the Asian Media Awards 2017 and also the coveted Reporter/Correspondent Gracie Award (the Alliance for Women in Media) and Journalist of the Year at the Asian Media Awards. Individual episodes, including Killed for a Horn and Fake Pharma, were finalists for numerous awards, including the Livingston Awards and the Edward J. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting at the Scripps Howard Awards 2017.
As a result of her reporting in Organs for Sale, Nel was invited to the Vatican — to the Summit of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, to report on her findings — and as a signatory on the Resolution on Organ Trafficking, which has recently been ratified by the Council of Europe. In 2015, she was nominated for Journalist of the Year at the British Asian Media Awards, following her Unreported World report, Vaccination Wars, which was also nominated in the Best Investigation category.
In that eye-opening expose’, she met with healthcare workers risking their lives to vaccinate children against polio in Pakistan, despite the Taliban actively targeting and killing them. In her first Unreported World episode, Vietnam’s Dog Snatchers, she investigated how dog thieves were making millions in the highly lucrative and illegal dog meat trade by stealing thousands of pets from families.
In the six years Nel worked for the BBC, she presented, co-produced and wrote documentaries for television and radio, including the award-winning Women, Weddings, War and Me, Shot for Going to School, and Music, Money & Hip Hop Honeys. She also presented and hosted the flagship live news program, Newsround. which was aimed at younger audiences, winning an award for her short film air on the show, The Kids of Kabul.
Here, Nel — who speaks English, Farsi, Hindi and Dari — talks about her new TV series, Food Exposed with Nelufar Hedayat.
Hi Nel, thanks for the interview.
It’s my pleasure, Kam.
What interested you in the subject of food after having focused on so many life and death issues? Are you a foodie?
It’s not so much that I wanted to become a food blogger or chef of sorts, but more that I kept bumping into the issue. I found myself doing a lot of research in my own time after work about it. And when I started to realize that a lot of what I was focusing on in The Traffickers was corporate greed, the blurred lines between legal and illegal exploitation and corruption seemed to cross over into the industrial food complex so effortlessly that it naturally piqued my curiosity.
What are some of the topics you’ll be exploring on the series?
I took a deep dive. From the water needed to sustain life and how much of it is privately owned at source; to the ever-growing problem of antibiotic use in so much of our meat and dairy industry, to the need to take a more nuanced look at the palm oil and fishing industries, we really tried to tackle the big issues.
What message do you hope viewers will take away from Food Exposed?
I don’t really want to advocate for anything. I never really do. My work and travels have truly shown me that it’s so easy to sit there and have clean lines and definitions of things. Good, bad, right and wrong are so difficult to qualify or even identify sometimes that I wouldn’t want to tell people what to do at all.
What I do want to change is the one-sided noise that the big corporations and massive industry giants feed us. This narrative of buy as much as you can, eat more than you enjoy and worry not about where your food comes from is toxic. Multimillion dollar, well connected, well-coordinated lobbying groups in the US control so much of the message and conversation around food that counter-narratives are very important.
You were born in Afghanistan. Do you still feel a connection to the country?
Afghanistan is my motherland, as Britain is my homeland. One bore me, the other made me. I listen to Afghan news and connect with the diaspora as often as I can, and I travel to Kabul, where I was born, often.
Whom do you blame for its decades of violence, and what do you think is the best path to a permanent peace in the war-torn region?
Do you have space for 20,000 words? I blame almost everyone for the current violence, death, destruction and loss of life in my motherland. Half-assed fraternization by Western powers who seem only interested when the Taliban or ISIS needs to be swatted; a government that has big dreams and little realization of those dreams and remains one of the most supported in the world; and neighbors that make you look longingly at your enemies; to name just a few.
The idea of permanent peace is so far away from what is achievable in Afghanistan within my lifetime that I find it whimsical. I think the current U.S. administration, and I cannot believe I’m saying this, is perhaps making a better go of it than the previous one ever did. Where Obama was inertia, Mr. Trump’s administration seems to be doing something. Dropping the “Mother of All Bombs” is not really what I have in mind, but putting more resources, dedicating more person-power and calling out the Pakistani meddling is a good place to start. Where it ends up is anyone’s guess, much like the rest of the Trump agenda.
Have you ever considered moving back there to run for office or to spearhead a non-violence movement, a la Ghandi and Dr. King? Or do you think it would be a thankless task, and you’d just end up shot in the face like Malala was for standing up for women’s rights in Pakistan?
Run for office? You’re off your rocker, Kam. I have no such aspirations and I really don’t think I’d be good at it. I’m a storyteller. I live and breathe reading, telling and capturing stories of people and places, and that’s what I hope to do for as long as I can. Also, the mere fact that you have put my name next to Martin L. King and Mahatma Gandhi is making me anxious. They are nothing short of super-humans much like Malala Yousafzai. Me? I still like Boomeranging pictures of my cat.
You’re being modest. You made a documentary about Malala called Shot for Going to School. What do you think of her?
Malala was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. When I met her, she had a transcendent aura of purpose and mission. She’s a total badass who took on the tyranny and hatefulness of the Taliban in Pakistan to fight for her right, as a girl, to education.
What do you see as the answer to the school shootings in America?
School shootings in America are, ostensibly, young men with extremely easy access to weapons of war who, for whatever reason, murder their friends and colleagues and often themselves. In a strange, macabre and eerie way, the two achieve the same end: terrorizing children and disrupting their basic human right.
The optics are interesting, too. One, we look at with disdain and horror, outraged that an education is denied to young people who fear for their lives as they enter the school gates every day not knowing if this might be the day an assault rifle is pulled on them. The other, we call Taliban extremism.
You’ve traveled all over the world. Where would you like to settle down?
Settle down is a strange concept for me. I was a refugee for so long and so early in my life. And the last decade of my career has taken me to so many places around the world that being in one permanently feels odd. Having said that, when people ask I tell them I was born in Kabul — but London Town has adopted me. I’m a Londoner through and through, so perhaps I’ll settle there one day.
You have an award-winning TV series called The Traffickers. What black markets were you most surprised to uncover?
The gold episode and sex trafficking were most illuminating for me. The illegal market in gold, because it truly is impossible to guarantee that the gold on your finger, around your neck or in your smartphone isn’t covered in blood, violence and death since, when melted down, the gold sheds these things.
The sex trafficking episode because, in a way, it altered and shaped my feminism. I started the journey firmly on the “legalize and regulate” side of the debate, thinking that once sex becomes work and not illegal then we can better look after the women and men in the business. But, after nearly a month on the road and really digging deep, I flipped. People often point to Amsterdam as a bastion of success when it comes to regulated prostitution, working for the people in sex work. I found the opposite. Lover boys, traffickers and pimps just found ways around the system, and they will always find a way around any regulation put in place. Trafficking in persons is a power game. Women are broken with unspeakable violence and then used. Make it illegal and they’ll just use Airbnb or go online in other ways.
What was the last book you read?
Postcapitalism by Paul Mason. He’s a former colleague of mine. I used to sit opposite him in the Channel 4 newsroom.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
Being on a hot and smelly bus on the Jalalabad Pass, hidden under my mum’s burkha, seeing only its mustard color, as we went from Kabul to Peshawar.
Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
What is your favorite dish to cook?
Oh, now we’re talking! I love cooking Afghan food, because most of it is vegan anyway. This is where my culture and heritage really kick in. Cooking Afghan food is a group mission. Back home, women would gather together, chatting, singing and gossiping as they prepared dishes that can take days to prepare and hours to cook. My favorite to cook at home with my mum and two sisters is Aashak; little dumplings with the green bits of leek, steamed, then drizzled with a chickpea sauce, garlic yogurt and dried mint. Yummy!
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
That depends on the day. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes I can eyeball myself for minutes and see a stranger. Sometimes beautiful, often haggard. Mostly though, a wondering soul with little shape and more thought bubble than person.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Ahem. That would be telling.
If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
For the world to be vegan. Step one of my “Grand Plan.”
Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
Nah. I’m not that original.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Binge on documentaries. Watch as much as you can. Whenever you see one that you want to have made, wait for the credits and take down the name of the company that made it, along with the execs. Now pester them. Email, call, tweet and DM them until you get into a room with them. Then dazzle them with all the fantastic original ideas you have.
How do you want to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered as someone who tried, who went out there to get the story from the horse’s mouth. And as a tolerant person, respectful of all the myriad of beautiful ways humanity expresses itself.
Finally, what’s in your wallet?
One hundred and twenty dollars from my trip to New York City, seven British pounds, expense receipts unclaimed for about a year, coffee shop loyalty cards, and passport photos.
Thanks again for the time, Nel, and best of luck with Food Exposed.