Iranian Arya Khoshnegah recalls his escape to the Leelanau School

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Photo by Gretchen Knoblock

The Leelanau School featured a special graduation speaker during its commencement ceremony on June 3. Alum Arya Khoshnegah, together with his sister Laila, left Iran as teenagers and enrolled at the private boarding school north of Glen Arbor, just before the 1979 revolution that changed the fortunes of their family and their country. Leelanau, which specializes in experiential learning and small class sizes in a beautiful setting, graduated 19 seniors who hail from 11 states. Distinguished alumni have included survivors of wars and natural disasters, children of statesmen and accomplished actors.

Here are excerpts from Khoshnegah’s June 3 graduation speech, which touch on the following themes still relevant today: immigration, refugees, kindness and giving back to those who help in times of need.

Compiled by Sun editor Norm Wheeler

“Good Morning everyone,

It is truly my honor to be asked to speak at your graduation and share my experience as an incoming student from Iran. But first let me just start out by saying “Class of 2017”, Congratulations! YOU DID IT!! My sincerest best wishes to each and every one of you!!

Well, 38 years ago today I was just starting on my new chapter of life just as you are today. Here we learned how to celebrate our uniqueness and use each other to excel for the better. We learned to trust and know the true meaning of teamwork. We learned that everyone learns in a different way. We learn and excel by encouragement and a positive approach, as everything is possible and nothing is impossible.

My story as an international student coming here to the U.S and to this place, the Leelanau School, is what I am about to share with you; how it all began for me then and how it is impacting me today and every day of my life. This is why I call this place home!

From my childhood it was my dream to come to America. We talked about it very often as a family. My parents planned our trip many years in advance, searching for the best schools and the best state where we could start our new lives. Our plan was for my sister and I to finish high school here first and then shortly after our parents would join us to make our new home here in the United States.

At that time my dad was close to his retirement, working as a chief financial officer of the National Oil Company in Iran. He worked directly with the king, the Shah, and his position provided him with some perks. One of these privileges was the assistance that was provided for him to move his family to the United States. My Dad loved America!! He spent his youth traveling the world and experiencing different cultures, and the one place that took his breath away was America. My Mom was your typical Mom – taking care of us kids and making sure that my sister Laila and me were doing good at school. She always showed up at our school plays and sports events. My parents lived a very modern lifestyle and kept us brisk on modernization.

When we came here my sister Laila was 16 and I was 14 years old. Laila was more comfortable than I was with her communication and understanding of English, especially the slang. Back in the old country one of her friends from school was American, which I think made it easier for her to adjust.

When we left the country, it wasn’t long before the Iranian revolution was in full swing. Shortly after we arrived we talked on the phone with our parents and they informed us that our plane was the last plane that left Iran before all travels in or out of Iran were cancelled. Six months later the king of Iran, the Shah, left and the revolution took place. With the start of the revolution, my parents travel plans of coming to the United States to join us, or for my sister and me to go back home for summer breaks, were sadly no longer a reality.

We didn’t get to see our Mom and Dad till we were in our 20s.

Although this seemed harsh for us to go through, in reality we were the lucky ones. Many kids from Iran in our age group didn’t get to live their lives due to the revolution. Things were pretty ugly back in the old country as the revolution was forcing its younger generation to fight in both wars that were going on, the revolution and as well as the 10 year war between Iran and Iraq. The new Supreme ruler Ayatollah Khomeini believed that the only way for the revolution to survive was to wipe out my existing generation. Scary!

So clearly our plan of going home to visit was no longer in play and neither was seeing our parents. We knew then that we couldn’t ever go back, and this made it extremely difficult for me to think of how I would survive. Each day was a challenge. On most nights my sister and I would meet after dinner outside of Pinebrook Dorm and we would cry together and try to keep each other upbeat and hope that somehow our Mom and Dad would make it out and we could reunite again as a family. Not long after, faculty members and many of our classmates invited us to their homes for weekend getaways or for the Christmas holidays. This was just enough for us to not feel the pain of separation from our parents as much.

During my second year at Leelanau, Laila was graduating and she was selected to go to Michigan State University. This was exciting, but at the same time depressing, as now we were going to be separated from each other, yet another family separation. But the opposite happened; I was surrounded by so much support from the Leelanau School community that everything felt normal. I became busy with sports and activities and not once did I feel left behind or alone. At Leelanau we were family — that was amazing as I reflect back.

In 1979 the revolution took a deeper turn as the U.S. embassy was taken over and that was the beginning of the hostage crisis in Iran. The tension was high, similar to what is going on today in our world. At that time the United States said all students from Iran that were on student visas were to be deported. Not truly understanding the reality of what was going on, I recall wanting to go home to protect my family from the revolution. Hearing stories and seeing on the news the killing and the executions of people in Iran made it more difficult for me to stay here, I was always wondering about the safety of my parents and if they were going to be alive the next day.

At that time there were two other international students from Iran. Each of us had the same concerns for our parents as well as getting deported. What was truly amazing was seeing every one, the students and the entire school, collectively come to our rescue. They petitioned for us to stay by writing to the state congressman as well as our President for reconsideration of the deportation of us students. During this time the reality of me having to be deported was becoming more serious. My English teachers Larry and Roo Smith went so far as to discuss the possibility of adopting me. The thought of their sacrifice to save me from returning to Iran was unreal, showing their true generosity and compassion.

Now almost every year my wife and I come back and visit this amazing place that I call home. I must have told her a thousand stories. I met my wife Mary Jane through one of my best friends here at Leelanau School. We have been married for 33 years — she is my soul mate! She is my best friend! She is my world … I had to travel across the world to the other side to find her, and it was love at first sight. Together we are the proud parents of two boys and two girls. We have 5 grandkids and one more on the way in early December.

After graduating from college and working in the corporate world for over 30 years, in 2015 Mary and I decided to make a new chapter by creating a family business, our lifelong dream. Today we own and operate 9 H&R Block offices in Michigan and Pennsylvania and a marina near Grand Rapids. We reside in South Lyon, pretty close to our kids and their families. So family gatherings are part of every weekend.

Today as I stand in front of you I am very lucky to have what I have, and none of this could have come to life if it wasn’t for how the Leelanau School impacted me. The Leelanau School taught me the most important tools of my life: perseverance, strength, tenacity, and compassion for all. These have shaped my character in all that I am: a husband, father, and grandfather. All of what I am sharing is a small portion of what makes our school different than any other school. This truly demonstrates why I call our school “HOME”! What makes it come to life is the people and the lifetime relationships that we have made with one another.

Thank you all for allowing me to share my experience. I wish you all the best … as the future is full of opportunity — Make it yours! You are the drivers of your destiny.

Thank You, everyone!”