Marie Claire ran a profile on Sonia in May 2020.
See the online version for more photos and a Spanish translation.
Sonia Nassery Cole: a woman on a mission
Her life reads like a film plot: a diplomat’s daughter turned war refugee turned filmmaker sets out to save her country and give a voice to the refugees
Sonia Nassery was a teenage refugee from Afghanistan when she arrived at the White House for her meeting with then president Ronald Reagan. She had written to him, pleading for help for Afghans suffering under the Soviet occupation, and he invited her to visit Washington. As she waited, Chief of Staff James Baker told her to keep it brief. “You have four-and-a-half minutes”, he said.
In the Oval Office, Reagan looked at the skinny, dark-haired girl and asked if her mother had written the letter. No, she said. I wrote it. Impressed, the president asked her to join him for tea. “I don’t have time”, she said.
“Really?” the president asked. “Where are you going after our meeting?”
She told him: “Oh, no, Mr. President. It’s because I was told I had just four-and-a-half minutes.”
Reagan called for tea and they talked.
When Sonia left the White House half an hour later, she had been given a mission by the president that would become her life’s work. Along the way, she made three movies, wrote a book, married, raised a son and established a foundation that helped raise millions of dollars in relief for her country.
Sonia Nassery Cole, the daughter of an Afghan diplomat father and a mother who was a teacher, grew up in Kabul in the 1960s, a rare period when life in the city wasn’t all that different from any world capital. Her father took her to Clint Eastwood movies, she followed the latest fashions and exceled in school.
In December 1979, her childhood came to an end. Soviet troops invaded, turning her country into a hot spot during the Cold War. A place of misery and death for its citizens, and a training camp for future terrorists.
Sonia fled the country, crossing the desert to the border of Pakistan. From there, she went to Germany and finally arrived in America as a refugee, where she applied for political asylum.
Her family though, stayed behind.
In total, the journey lasted one week, from leaving her country to arriving in the U.S., but the trauma she experienced on that escape stays with her to this day. After more than 35 years, Sonia still is unwilling or unable to talk about it. She’s never discussed it, even with family and close friends.
Sonia is thinking about writing a memoir. As a first step, she is telling the story to her son.
“I know what happened to me and I know how it damaged me. But I also know how it helped me because it made me strong. It made me a fighter.”
In New York, Sonia landed a job at the United Nations, where she did a little bit of everything — making coffee, copying, filing, even some translating.
Then one day, at home in her tiny studio apartment, she was struggling to get a picture on her small black-and-white TV, holding the antennas just so until the snow cleared and she was looking at images of her country. She saw a woman walking barefoot in the snow, holding a child in each arm, with a third clutching her skirt as they tried to reach Pakistan and escape the war. Standing by the set, gripping the antennas, she cried.
Finally, she sat down and wrote a nine-page letter to president Reagan.
“Dear Mr. President, my name is Sonia Nassery, and I just saw a documentary on TV about the war in Afghanistan, my country. What is happening over there is genocide. You are the president of the United States and you must do something about it. Can you please call me immediately? We need to talk, and we need to fix this situation.” She was 17 years old and had the audacity of every teenager.
“In the letter, I gave a phone number, saying it was from my office. I actually didn’t have an office, not even a desk or a phone.”
So Sonia explained to the receptionist that she was expecting a call from president Reagan. Sonia asked her to find her wherever she was as soon as the call came.
“She looked at me, this beautiful Jamaican woman, patted my back, and smiled and said: ‘Honey, you miss your family, don’t you? Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine’.”
I said, “No, seriously, the president is going to call me.”
A few days later, Sonia was filing some papers and she was leaning under a desk when she heard her name over the intercom. “Sonia, the White House is calling.”
“I hit my head hard on the desk and ran to the phone still a little dizzy”, Sonia said. “The voice on the phone said he was Chief of Staff.”
“President Reagan read your letter, and was very touched by it”, the man said. “Could you meet him next Tuesday, at 11 am, in the Oval Office?”
In her meeting with the president in the Oval Office, Reagan told Sonia he was troubled by the news from Afghanistan. The Soviets were leaving bombs disguised as toys where children could find them. Children were maimed or killed, and when their parents took the wounded kids to hospitals in Pakistan or Iran, their fathers were also taken out of the fight. Reagan was convinced, he said, that Afghan fighters could win if they just had a little help.
That’s when Reagan asked Sonia for a favor. He wanted her to go back to Afghanistan and return with some of the children who had been wounded by the Soviet mines. With the White House’s help, she travelled to the Pakistani border and returned with a group of children. She brought them to the Capitol, where they testified before the Senate and helped Reagan win approval to send arms to the Afghan fighters.
The war would last for some years, unitl the Soviets were expelled in 1989. The defeat was a contributing factor to the weakening and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union.
A few years later, when she was 19, now living in San Francisco, Sonia met Christopher H. Cole and it was love at first sight. They met in the elevator of the Transamerica Building.
“I was timid and had never been with a boy before, dating or anything like that before. I practically ran out of the elevator and I went inside this telephone booth, in the building’s lobby, to hide. I stayed there for a few minutes, waiting for him to go away.”
When she came out, he was there, waiting for her. Two breakfasts and one lunch later, they married.
One year after that, their son was born and they named him Christopher after his father. Sonia and her husband Christopher H. Cole stayed together 22 years before divorcing.
In 1987, already married for a few years, Sonia organized her first fundraising event, called A Night for Afghanistan. Her contact with Ronald Reagan facilitated her entrance into conservative circles. For her event, she had the support of vice president George H. W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, John McCain, Nancy Reagan, and Hollywood stars. It was a success, raising millions of dollars as the first of many fundraises she would organize.
In 2002, not long after 9/11, Sonia created the Afghanistan World Foundation, a non-governmental organization that focuses on promoting education, economic development, health care and improving conditions and providing opportunities for Afghan women and children.
After decades of war and occupation, Afghanistan was devastated: 70% of the schools were destroyed, as well as hospitals, museums, roads, bridges. Women were barred from going to school and working. Today Afghanistan is considered one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman: 87% are illiterate, 90% experience domestic violence, more than 70% of them face forced marriage. “Nobody is listening to the cry of Afghan women”, says Sonia.
“Sometimes I think about how the world works. We are living in a worldwide crisis with the coronavirus pandemic and we are afraid. Maybe there is a lesson there.”
During a trip to her native country in 2004, Sonia came across a nine-year-old boy selling newspapers and calendars to support a family of seven. Something compelled her to follow and shoot a day in the life of this boy. It brought her back to her dream of being a filmmaker, and to see that film could be an instrument of her activism.
“I studied writing, directing, producing, acting in Los Angeles for over 11 years. I was preparing myself to be what I am today”, says Sonia. Her short movie The Bread Winner came out in 2007. Her son Chris, a writer, producer and film director, co-produced this short and his mother’s two feature films.
The Black Tulip was her first feature movie, launched in 2010. It was the first feature film shot in Afghanistan in 30 years.
The Kite Runner, for example, an American production based on the book of the same name, was filmed entirely in China due to the danger of shooting in Afghanistan, where it was set.
Based on true events, The Black Tulip tells the story of a Kabul family that decides to open a restaurant called The Poet’s Corner, where artists and writers could express themselves using the permanently open mic. In 2001/2002, when the film is set, Afghanistan sees an apparent moment of freedom from the oppressive regime that banned music, TV, and any literature that was not the Quran. But the Mansouri family soon realized that the cultural opening wasn’t real, or was for only a short interval, The Taliban was still there, enforcing their law with violence and terror.
Sonia wrote, produced and directed the film and also played the lead role of Farishta Mansouri, the matriarch of the family that runs the cafe. That wasn’t the original plan.
A few months earlier, when Sonia was in Kabul working on the preproduction and casting of the movie, she had met an Afghan actress in the lobby of the hotel where they were staying.
The beautiful woman caught Sonia’s attention: she was well dressed and wore peep-toed shoes that showed her toes, with red nail polish, a very daring in Muslim culture. Sonia invited the actress, Zarifa Jahon, to star in her movie.
When Sonia returned to Kabul to start shooting, she couldn’t get in touch with the actress. It was unusual since they had been talking and exchanging messages frequently since the casting.
Eventually, she said, after many attempts, someone answered her phone and delivered devastating news: the Taliban, knowing about the movie, had kidnapped her and amputated her feet as a punishment and a warning.
It was a message to Sonia and anyone else working on the film if the production continued in Afghanistan. That was just the beginning of the obstacles and dangers she had to face while filming: death threats, extortion, bombs. Part of the team, frightened, abandoned filming and returned to the United States. She couldn’t even trust the local security team: a Taliban sympathizer could be among them. The feeling of fear was constant.
The movie premiered in Kabul on September 23, 2010, at the Ariana Cinema. It was the first anti-Taliban movie to be shown in the theater.
Sonia relates in her book about the making of the movie, Will I survive tomorrow?.
“The threatening phone calls started pouring in, telling me that I would be shot in the head if I got up on the stage after the first screening. Opening the doors of the theater that the Taliban had sealed several years earlier, during their reign of terror, was a personal triumph for me, as a woman, and as a victory against the Taliban.”
She attended the opening, made a public speech and talked with the press. The Black Tulip was selected as Afghanistan’s official entry for the Academy Award of 2011 and won Best Film award in the Boston film Festival, Salento Film Festival, and Beverly Hills Festival.
“When I went to Afghanistan to do The Black Tulip, I realized that I was not that girl that left the country many years before. At one point, I’ve looked straight in the mirror and these words out loud came out of my mouth: ‘Nice to meet you’.”
Sonia’s second movie, shot mostly in Turkey, is I am You.
It tells the story of Massoud, a young man who decides to flee Afghanistan after extremists murder his father. His destination, after a difficult, frightening journey through Iran, Turkey and Greece, is Germany.
It tells a story that has dominated the news these past few years, of all the families fleeing Syria, Africa and Afghanistan, trying desperately to get to Europe. But it does so from the perspective of the refugees themselves – at the mercy of people smugglers, aid workers and overwhelmed bureaucrats, clinging to dangerous rafts for the treacherous water crossing – dealing with pain and deprivation and death at every step.
Sonia is seeking a distributor for the film, which had its first screenings last year. “It is difficult because I don’t have a movie star in it”, she says. “The stars of my movie are the refugees and nobody gives a damn about it.”
More than 70 million people around the world are displaced from their homes by crisis – the highest number ever recorded. At the same time, many countries, including the United States, have responded with policies that shut their doors to refugees and asylum seekers looking for a safe haven.
Sonia Nassery Cole loves her adopted country, America. She considers herself a true New Yorker. But, asked if she would go back to live in Kabul if things were different there, she answers yes without hesitation: “No place can replace your homeland. Everybody speaks your language, you eat the food you love and that you were raised eating.”
“Refugees leave their country because they have no choice”, she said. “I really, truly want, through my work, to make people open their hearts towards people who are more vulnerable and need our love and our support.”
And that has been her life’s mission, since at least the age of 17.
“President Reagan said something to me, when I was in that first meeting in the Oval Office, that I would never forget: ‘It takes just one person to change the world. Do you want to be this person?’ The answer was yes, of course.”
Photo: Getty Images