All children want to fit in with their peers, but that was a larger-than-usual challenge for Daniel Nayeri. As an Iranian refugee who was resettled in Oklahoma with his mother and sister, the youngster felt scared and nervous because he was seen as an outsider. Having come from a culture with a rich tradition of storytelling, Daniel came to see stories as a way to connect with others. Several decades later, he integrated the Persian myths from his childhood with details of his own life growing up - including his mother's conversion to Christianity, which led them to flee Iran - and turned them into the Christopher Award-winning young adult novel Everything Sad Is Untrue: (A True Story). We discussed it recently on Christopher Closeup.
Daniel noted that women are often viewed as being repressed in Iran, but his mother had a good life there. "She had a medical practice, she was a doctor," he explained. "She had her whole family, she had a beautiful house, she had friends." She was also a woman devoted to her Muslim faith and "a scholar of its texts." That's why what came next was such a surprise.
The family traveled to the United Kingdom for his mother's sister's wedding. "During that time," Daniel recalled, "my mom came into contact with Christianity, with the Bible, reading it and seeing those distinctions [with Islam] that, for her, were distinctions that made a difference. So her conversion happened there. Then we returned to Iran where she joined an underground church."
In Iran, however, it is a capital crime to convert to Christianity. Due to her evangelization efforts, Mrs. Nayeri soon "ran afoul" of her city's secret police force, The Committee. Her life, and her family's life, were threatened, so she, Daniel (then age five), and his sister escaped from the country. (Daniel's father stayed behind.) The Nayeris wound up in a refugee camp in Italy, and eventually received asylum in Oklahoma, where their lives became starkly different - and poorer - than the comfort they experienced in Iran. Because Mrs. Nayeri's medical license wasn't recognized in the U.S., she was forced to work low-paying jobs to earn money.
Despite the hardships his mother's conversion brought on, Daniel never resented his mother's choice. Once she accepted Jesus, he observed, "there's something here that she sincerely saw the value in, greater than money, prestige, safety, stability, family, and everything else." Daniel is also grateful for the "generous and kind" people who helped them, including Jim and Jean Dawson, the elderly Christian couple who sponsored and co-signed the Nayeris to come to America.
Daniel recalled, "This was sacrificial love. Imagine someone coming to you, a clerical individual, saying, 'Look, in our files for finding homes for refugees across the planet, there's this single mom, and she has two kids under the age of 10. She doesn't yet speak English, but she's quite smart, so we hope she will. And if you co-sign for them, they'll fly here. They are absolutely endangered and quite traumatized. And if for some reason, things go sour, that's going to wreck your entire credit. And they're going to live in your house.' . . . Would you say yes or no to that? I think a lot of people would say, 'It's not for us right now.' For some reason, [the Dawsons said yes]. I think that level of sacrifice has always been something that touched me, in so far as it clearly saved us."
This essay is this week's "Light One Candle" column written by Tony
Rossi, Director of Communications, The Christophers; it is one of a
series of weekly columns that deal with a variety of topics and current