In 1978, when she was six years old, Shiva Sarram’s life in Tehran was torn apart. “My mother said we had to pack our bags right away and get out. She didn’t know if we were ever coming back,” Sarram says now, sipping tea on a wintry afternoon in New Canaan. “The food was in the fridge, toys on the floor, our beds weren’t made and we had to head for the airport.”
The Iran-Iraq war had started, with frequent air raids and bombing over Tehran. Sarram says she and her brother, who was four, “would go to bed at night, not knowing if we’d wake up the next day.” To make matters more threatening, Islamist militants were fomenting a violent revolution in Tehran. Her father, a nuclear scientist (“He was working on energy, not weapons,” she emphasizes), was in danger. “When we got to the airport, it was terrifying,” she says. (Think of the end of Argo.) “I told myself if I got out I needed to do something to help end this kind of violence.”
The family made it to Vienna, home of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and three years later to the United States, where young Shiva went to high school on Philadelphia’s Main Line, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and started a two-decades career as a Wall Street analyst before deciding it was time to give back. “We left Tehran so fast there was never closure,” Sarram says. But now, since she identifies so personally with children caught up in wars and violence, she has the time and the means to do something about it.
Last year she founded the nonprofit Blossom Hill Foundation in New Canaan to help end a cycle of violence against children around the world. “My two children are now the ages that my brother and I were when we left Iran,” she says. “That brought everything home to me. It was time to do something.”
By a broad count, there are one billion children touched by war around the world: some are forced to be young soldiers or sex slaves, others have simply been born in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as the young girls in Afghanistan who had acid thrown in their faces because they went to school. The Blossom Hill Foundation can address only a tiny part of this need, but it concentrates on funding programs that actually engage children. “We know there are a lot of other great programs out there that help children in these areas, that give them food and water,” Sarram says. “But that’s temporary. We want to fund programs that will actively help end the cycle of violence.”
So far, Blossom Hill has funded six programs around the world (in Afghanistan, Colombia, Congo, Palestine, Rwanda and Somalia), awarding its grant money directly to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) already in the field. “We try not to reinvent the wheel,” she says. “We just want to find and fund the best wheels.”
Sarram, who has worked in philanthropy for many years, designed Blossom Hill to be focused and lean. There are only two paid staffers, for example. “We’re new and small,” Sarram says, ”but in five years we want to be the most recognized and impactful grant-making foundation serving children in conflict zones.”