Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 20, 2013

Iranian student hopes stories will keep her in U.S.

BY NATHAN PAYNE
npayne@record-eagle.com

---- — INTERLOCHEN — Nayereh Doosti isn't simply a writer, she's a storyteller. Words have been her escape for nearly a decade.

The 18-year-old Iranian writer's words were her outlet while her family struggled through the aftermath of a horrific car wreck that left her youngest sister incapable of caring for herself. They're the same words that paved a path that brought her to the United States last October to attend the Leelanua School.

And they're the words she hopes will help keep her in the country long enough to attend college.

It was a little more than a year ago that the young storyteller sent out applications to boarding schools across the United States from her home in Shiraz, Iran. She made the submissions in secret, knowing that the expense of an American boarding school would be nearly impossible for her middle-class family to confront. She knew a plane ticket alone likely would be a stretch.

"I always wanted to get a better education," she said. "The U.S. is where you can get the best education."

She already had been writing under the tutelage of a well-known Iranian writer. She had quickly become an accomplished writer in her native language, Farsi.

But something in her application caught the eye of administrators at the Leelanau School. Despite stretching deadlines for admission and making special allowances for Doosti to get through the process of acquiring a student visa, administrators offered her a scholarship worth more than $50,000.

"It's just the right thing to do," said Norm Wheeler, a teacher for the school. "We're very small and we don't have any money but what we're in business for is to help kids one at a time. We just sort of opened a door and gave her a bed."

Doosti always loved reading, but plunged deeper into the escape literature provided her after her youngest sister, Nika, suffered severe brain damage during a car wreck nine years ago. Doosti's parents were consumed for years with a quest to find the best treatments for their daughter who was an infant when the family's car smashed into a truck during a road trip.

She witnessed her father suffer a broken leg, her older sister lose a hand and her mother suffer severe injuries to her face. But it was her youngest sister who was hurt beyond repair.

She won't talk much about the events that led her to grow up much faster than the average teenager, but Doosti wrote about the experiences during her work with the Front Street Writer's group. Wheeler calls the non-fiction short story titled "A Thousand Paper Cranes" an "amazing story."

It wasn't until after getting correspondence that said she was accepted to the school and offering her a full scholarship that she told her parents.

"No one knew," Doosti said. "I told my parents about my want when I got my acceptance letter and my scholarship."

Following breaking the news to her parents — and convincing them to allow her to travel around the world to attend a foreign boarding school — Doosti and her father had to travel to the U.S. embassy in Turkmenistan to apply for a student visa.

There are no U.S. embassies in Iran and it's pretty difficult for Iranians to get permission to travel to the United States, she said.

But after an in-person interview with State Department officials at the embassy, Doosti was granted a single-entry student visa. The visa was enough to get her to school in Glen Arbor, but means if she leaves the United States, she'll have to re-apply if she wants to come back.

That limitation helped cement her determination to stay in the United States long enough to attend college.

Wheeler helped get Doosti admission to Interlochen Arts Academy for an interim year studying creative writing while she applies to universities. But the cost of the school threatens to send her home before she has a chance to gain university admission, he said.

"She can't get any money from home, they just don't have it," he said.

The academy waived all but about $10,000 of the admission cost. And Wheeler, a leader with a Leelanau County writer's group the Beach Bards, helped gather the first $2,500 payment to help get Doosti into the school.

Each step along her journey, Doosti has faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Yet she faces each one calmly.

"She doesn't see it as as big of a deal as some of us do," Wheeler said. "It's just so unusual that someone that young would have made that journey. On top of that, the story itself about her determination ..."

Doosti shrugs off the possibility of having to go home, of having to abandon her education in the United States. Yet her expression betrays the pain that accompanies the thought.

"If I go back home, there's going to be a big gap in my education," she said. "If I can get into college, I'm happy. If not, the world's not going to end."

Wheeler and a group of supporters in Glen Arbor have determined to do what they can to help Doosti stay in the U.S. and get to college.

They will collect donations through the Beach Bards and will host a Persian dinner in late November at the Leelanau School where Doosti will read some of her work to an audience.

"I think that she is an extremely talented writer," Wheeler said. "I just have a hunch she will keep writing for her whole life. She's going to be somebody whose voice is compelling and people are going to know about her."

If you want to help, you can mail donations to the Beach Bards via Wheeler at 6377 Echo Valley Road, Empire, MI 49630 or call him for more information at 631-3823.