Leela

US Residency est. 1971 | US Citizenship est. 1981

I was born in Arak, a small town in Iran to the south of Tehran. When I was 12, my father had a heart attack in our home and my neighbor, who happened to be a dentist, was the nearest medical professional available. She saved my father’s life that day, and from then on, I knew I wanted to be a dentist.

I came to the US when I was 15 with a 9th grade education and very limited English. Because students in Iran begin advanced math before high school, my American high school assumed I was further along that I really was. I was mistakenly enrolled into 12th grade, so when I applied to colleges, I basically had the equivalent of a 10th grade education. But I got into Ohio State and somehow managed to stay on track for dental school.

By the time I graduated from college in 1978 though, the Iranian revolution was already underway. My parents were still in Iran with one of my sisters and no one could get money out of the country. Dental school wasn’t really an option at that point.

So instead I worked in a research lab washing test tubes for $3.25 an hour to support myself while I went to dental hygiene school — I hadn’t given up on my dream. Then the hostage crisis happened. It was as if I had become a leper overnight. I would sit down for lunch in the cafeteria and the other students would get up and leave. I just kept my head down and kept saving to apply to dental school. The only thing that gave me solace were my few American friends at the time; they made me feel like I belonged.

During this time my dad had finally gotten approved for his green card. He was trying to get permission from the government of Iran to leave the country and pick up his documents in Syria. He died in December of ’81 waiting for approval to leave Iran. I got accepted to dental school in January of ’82.

Those were some really dark times, but life slowly did get better. I went on to graduate from dental school and open my own dental practice in Boston. I met my husband and shortly after had two beautiful children. I worked full time and every Saturday for 23 years to grow my practice and pay off my student debt. I didn’t mind it though, I loved what I did. When we moved to New York City in ’03, I decided to start teaching to give back to my profession and my community. I became an assistant professor at the NYU College of Dentistry. Teaching has become my passion. I am currently teaching at the UCSF School of Dentistry.

Over 30 years, I have had the pleasure of treating thousands of patients in Massachusetts and New York. I have also had the honor of teaching a generation of future dentists at NYU and UCSF. I am proud to have shared my life’s work with this country.

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