Dorsa Derakhshani: From Iran to the USA (part 1)

by Macauley Peterson
3/8/2020 – Dorsa Derakhshani is an Iranian International Master who immigrated to the United States in 2017. She is a third-year student at Saint Louis University on a full chess scholarship, and plans to go to medical school. On this International Women's Day, the story of a young woman who made international headlines for her brave stance in favour of women's rights and personal freedom.

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A millennial trend

In the past few months we've witnessed a pair of high-profile Iranian chess figures leaving their country for freer pastures. First, Alireza Firouzja, a top rising start with great prospects made the jump to France, and since December plays under the FIDE flag. He faced the harsh reality of Iranian expectations in 2018 when we was forced to forfeit a game against an Israeli player (per Iranian sports dictum) in the Grenke Chess Open. When the Iranian Chess Federation forbid its players from participating in the World Blitz and Rapid Championship in Moscow, where they would likely face Israeli's, Firouzja had had enough.

Early in the new year, International Arbiter Shoreh Bayat faced intense media scrutiny in her native Iran, for wearing a loose-fitting Islamic headscarf, or hijab, while working in Shanghai at the Women's World Championship match. After the experience she decided it was unsafe to return home and has settled in the U.K. for now.

One of the first Iranian players to gain significant international media attention for similar reasons was IM Dorsa Derakhshani. In 2017, after being photographed in the Gibraltar Masters without a headscarf, Iranian media portrayed Derakhshani's behavior as a political statement. Only it wasn't — rather it was just Dorsa being herself.

"I do what I want and I have my own opinions that I share. I know very little about politics and if I wanted to speak as a political figure I would want to have solutions for the problems and because I don't have any, then it doesn't really make sense for me [to speak politically]," she told me in a phone interview.

Speaking to Tania Sachdev in Gibraltar 2017

"I was always respectful towards the [Iranian] federation's officials and I expected the same. If there was a problem I expected them to shoot me an email, send my father a text, something," Dorsa explained.

"Nobody did anything wrong. There was never disrespect towards any belief. I believe in freedom of choice, that's my belief and if somebody wants to practice their religion, they respect their country, perfect I'm all for it."

After the incident, she decided to forego any chance to play on the Iranian national team, and contemplated a move to the USA.

A long term plan

Dorsa has never been a fan of the traditional head covering. Already at age six, when asked to host a kids TV show in Iran she decided she would not to wear the hijab. Her parents were keen on her getting out of Iran already from a young age, and urged her to emigrate as a teenager. It wasn't a question of if, but when.

An aunt and cousin live in Dallas, Texas, and the family had a plan for them to adopt her before she was 16, but the idea was scrapped. Still, having family roots in the USA already later helped with the immigration process there.

Finding a country with a strong chess federation became a priority. In 2016, she moved to Spain with a plan to stay. Her mom told her to be mentally prepared not to return to Iran and to pack whatever she might not want to leave behind. She gained temporary residency in Spain while playing as much chess as possible to see if she wanted to play professionally or to go to college.

2016 interview (in Baku) with GM Alejandro Ramirez, who would later become Dorsa's coach

Dorsa eventually took the SAT (the main college entrance standaridized test in the USA) in December 2016 and was offered full scholarships from both the University of Texas, Dallas and Saint Louis University (SLU). She chose SLU because of its stronger biology department and proximity to Saint Louis Chess Club.

She entered the USA on an F1 visa, like all foreign students, and quickly found a good immigration lawyer who started the EB-1 process — applying for permanent residence. She received her employment and travel authorizations in February 2019 and her green card last June. She is seeking U.S. citizenship.

Now in her third year at SLU, Dorsa is a biology and clinical health science major with a minor in health care ethics. She plans to follow in the footsteps of her father, who is a doctor, and go on to medical school after graduation, with an eye towards possibly pursuing specialization as a surgeon.

Her parents, thankfully, haven't had suffered any repercussions back in Iran, although the Dallas aunt submitted her parents names to the US authorities, and they have now received an official invitation to apply for a green card as well.

Under the spotlight

Last summer, Dorsa travelled to Munich, where she gave a talk entitled "Take your freedom of choice seriously" as part of the TEDx Youth conference there. It was her first time doing a large public speaking presentation in front of an audience.

Speaking at TEDx Youth, Munich, July 2017

On the way to Munich she saw her brother younger brother Borna for three hours for first time in two and a half years. He was also condemned in Iran, while just 15 years old, for having the audacity to play in the same Gibraltar Masters tournament against Israeli grandmaster Alex Huzman, and subsequently moved to England to study.

But it wasn't until she reached Munich for the TED conference that she was able to reunite with mother for the first time since moving to the USA in 2017. Travel bans put in place under the Trump administration have made it difficult for her parents to visit the USA, but she hopes that situation will improve. Her mother has visited her brother in London on several occasions.

Then on the way back to Saint Louis, during a ten-hour stopover in Istanbul, Turkey, she saw her father, an aunt and her grandmother, who flew from Tehran just for this airport rendezvous.

"I miss my family every second of every day, and the pain of not knowing when I’ll see them next never goes away." But frequent video calls helps. "I don't really feel that the distance has grown us apart, it's actually made us stronger together. My mom has always been my best friend, and especially since my father is a doctor and I'm interested in medicine we have way more in common right now."

To be continued in Part 2...

Macauley served as the Editor in Chief of ChessBase News from July 2017 to March 2020. He is the producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast, and was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.


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