Author Daniel Nayeri on Fleeing Iran After His Mom’s Conversion and How Storytelling Bridges Divides

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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 by many, including his classmates. 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” (podcast below).

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 was very well educated. She had her whole family, she owned land, she had a beautiful house. She had friends.”

She was also a woman deeply focused on spirituality and devoted to her Muslim faith, not just superficially, but as “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 the church, 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, and then we returned to Iran where she joined an underground church, and began her faith there.”

In Iran, however, it is a capital crime to convert to Christianity. Evangelizing and preaching to any Muslim is also prohibited. Mrs. Nayeri broke all those laws and soon “ran afoul” of her city’s secret police force, called 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 chose to stay behind.) The Nayeris wound up in a refugee camp in Italy, and eventually applied for and received asylum to the U.S., specifically Oklahoma, where their lives became starkly different—and poorer—than the relative 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.” She faced traumas in the U.S., and even violence due to an abusive new husband, but she never passed the negativity of those traumas on to her kids. Daniel said, “I greatly admire my mom for having done that, and I credit it to…her faith and to her understanding of God, and to her daily struggle and walk in that faith.”

Daniel began processing his own hardships through storytelling, though it took some time: “I think [stories are] something that you give to people…You have to offer yourself up, and that’s dangerous—or at least it feels dangerous, because it’s a very vulnerable thing to do.”

The fear of being vulnerable prompted Daniel to clam up when his friends’ parents would ask him questions about who he was and where he came from. He explained, “As I grew up a little bit and became more comfortable with telling our story…I would be there with my friends’ parents…and I would tell them a quick aspect of my background. I would say, ‘We came here because my mother converted to Christianity from Islam, and that’s a capital crime. And I can explain to you why that is. And I can explain to you what that meant for us. And what a refugee is, and how a refugee lives. We had to go first to the UAE, and then to a refugee camp in Italy, and then we applied for asylum and we got in to the United States.’ These were all things that I was able to deliver as a story, and I could see that just by deciding to share it with them, they were taking it in. And I was trusting that they would take it in. All of a sudden, we had something to share. The power of it was that we understood each other just a little bit more. That required everybody to take a step. It was not just on them to suddenly see something in me and take it in. It was also incumbent on me to say, ‘I’m going to take this risk. I’m not going to clam up. I’m going to reach out with this story.’…There has to be generosity and grace in both speaking and listening.”

In “Everything Sad is Untrue,” the schoolboy Daniel struggles to come to terms with living in this new country, where he isn’t always accepted. He also misses certain people in his homeland. But the now-adult Daniel notes that he ultimately comes to understand that neither life in Iran or in the U.S. is all good or all bad.

Daniel said, “I love where I come from. I love the stories of Iran, that’s where my father is. But also, I’m not welcomed there, but that’s because my mother is here. Here is a place of refuge. Here is also a place of challenge. Knuckleheads exist everywhere, but kind, generous, good people exist everywhere as well. So I wanted this kid who has experienced this separation – of his parents, from his country, from his family, from his stories, from his bedroom – to come and initially be grappling with that. Always comparing, ‘Is this better here, or is this better there?’…And finally, [he starts] to take a more complicated view of life, saying, ‘There are people here who have been so utterly generous and kind, and there are people there who I miss with all my heart.’ That’s part of his coming of age. That’s what he’s learning.”

Two of those “generous and kind” people to whom Daniel refers are Jim and Jean Dawson, the elderly Christian couple who sponsored and co-signed the Nayeris to come to America. Daniel recalled, “It’s hard to express to people just how big a deal it was…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 lady. She’s a 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 or it doesn’t work out, that’s going to wreck your entire credit. And by the way, they’re going to live in your house.’…Would you say yes or no to that?…I think a lot of people realize that they 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.”

Regarding the title of his book “Everything Sad is Untrue,” Daniel concluded, “There’s a section in the book that talks about your perception of the future and how that affects your experience of the present. So, if you think the future is going to be a redemptive place, a place where it will be possible to forgive all that has happened, then that’s something that will bear into your experience of the moment. And if you think in the end, in the future, it [will be] a whole lot of nothing, then that will also make that effect. So the title is from the perspective of this young boy who is experiencing a lot of difficulty and sadness. But [he is] looking past it to a moment where it will be untrue.”

(To listen to my full interview with Daniel Nayeri, click on the podcast link):

Daniel Nayeri interview – Christopher Closeup