On Sunday, when former Ellicott City resident Kayvon Asemani walks across the stage to pick up his business degree from the prestigious Wharton School, his older brother, Arman, and younger sister, Leila, will be in the audience cheering him on. They’ll be joined by an eclectic group of community members who rallied around the siblings after a family tragedy and remain important figures in Asemani’s life.
But the person who will matter the most to the graduate is his mother. Though Samira Salmassi’s body will remain in the hospital bed where she has spent the past 13 years in a vegetative state, her second son is confident he’ll be able to feel her spirit. Kayvon’s father, Ghafour "Billy" Asemani, wouldn’t be welcome at the celebration even if he could attend; he’s serving a 30-year prison sentence for the attempted murder of Salmassi, his former wife.
“I graduate on Mother’s Day,” Kayvon Asemani said. “That’s a big deal. I want my mother to know that even though I lost her, I still made it.”
That conclusion — that he has made it — would be difficult to dispute.
Asemani recently made Forbes magazine’s list of the top 100 business school graduates of 2018. At age 22, he has already delivered two independently organized TEDx Talks, one on them in Norway. He’s also performed three of his original raps to 1,400 people attending a conference of young leaders held at United Nations headquarters in New York. After fielding several tempting employment offers, he accepted a job at Facebook’s California headquarters that begins in June.
Asemani’s friends say he possesses a seemingly endless supply of energy that he uses to achieve the goals he sets for himself — the more difficult, the better.
Clare Ogle was Asemani’s house mother at the Milton Hershey School, the Pennsylvania boarding school that Asemani and his siblings attended after their mother was attacked. She and her husband, Will, have kept in touch with Asemani and have become part of his extended family.
“Right outside our office is a desk where students can sit while they’re waiting to talk to us,” Ogle said.“It pretty quickly became Kayvon’s desk. He would sit there and work his tail off. He wasn’t the No. 1 student in his class because he was the smartest. He was the No. 1 student because he worked the hardest. The chair is probably still warm because of all the time Kayvon spent sitting in it.”
But Asemani’s story isn’t just the tale of one remarkable individual. It’s also the story about how the community rallied around three frightened and heartbroken children, from the Ogles to the then-24-year-old cousin who worked three jobs to support the youngsters to Peter Bulgarino, the father of Kayvon’s childhood friend who helped the children gain admittance to the Hershey School.
“Everybody was there for us, except for some of the people who technically were of our blood,” Asemani said. “It was the people in the community who got me the opportunities that saved my life.”
That support explains why Asemani lives his life in public to an extent that’s unusual even for someone of the generation that grew up on social media. To his chagrin, the slight young man with the big smile long ago hit the limit on the number of Facebook friends any one person can have — 5,000.
“I have 300 unread texts on my phone right now,” he said during a recent campus visit during finals week. “I’ve developed a following that cares about what I do, and I want to use that as a platform to make a positive impact. I don’t know when I’m going to find the time to answer all these texts, but I will.”
It’s his way of repaying the kindness shown to him by near-strangers when he was a child.
His parents were immigrants who came to the United States in the mid-1980s after the Iranian revolution and met as college students in Kentucky.
“Everyone who ever met my mom described her as radiant,” Asemani said. “She was considerate and compassionate, and she had a smile for everyone. She loved her kids more than anything.”
His father, in contrast, is a brilliant man who, according to federal prosecutors, used his gifts to break the law. Court records show that Kayvon’s father, Ghafour Asemani, began serving a 30-month prison sentence in 2000 after he was convicted of criminal health care fraud for practicing dentistry without a license. According to news reports, Asemani’s former patients filed multiple civil suits against him for botched dental procedures that ranged from removing three good teeth to a root canal bungled so badly that the patient bled for two weeks.
Salmassi divorced her husband in 2001 while he was imprisoned, court records show, but their son said she welcomed him back home when he was paroled. The reunion was tragically short-lived; in 2005, when Kayvon was 9 years old, he was awakened at around 3 a.m. by his father loudly berating his mother.
“He would get mad when she talked to another man, even her boss or my teacher,” Kayvon Asemani said.
“He had tape-recorded her telephone conversations. He played them back to her and smacked her with the tape recorder. Then he took my mother into the bathroom. My brother Arman was 12, and he tried to stand in my father’s path, but my father pushed him out of the way. What he did in the bathroom, nobody really knows, but we think he choked her.”
According to a statement of facts read during the sentencing hearing, Ghafour Asemani put his hands at "various times over Samira’s mouth, nose and neck area.”
Ghafour Asemani ordered his children to get into the car, drove them to Virginia, and left them with relatives. “I’ll be back,” Kayvon Asemani remembers his father saying. “I’m going to grab breakfast.” Instead, he drove to a police station and confessed. Investigators found Salmassi lying barely alive on her bathroom floor.
“I didn’t learn what happened until the next morning,” Asemani said. “I came down for breakfast and opened the newspaper. There was a picture of my father and the headline said, ‘I killed my wife.’ He thought she had died.”
The crime ignited what Kayvon later described as “a family feud about who was going to take care of the kids.” For the second time in a matter of weeks, Asemani said, the children were abandoned. Relatives arranged a play date in Baltimore at the home of one of Arman’s friends. They dropped the youngsters off and never returned.
For a time, the three lived with their 24-year-old cousin in a one-bedroom apartment in Ellicott City, who worked three jobs and applied for food stamps to make ends meet. The alternative that Kayvon Asemani imagines is even more grim. “It was that or we would have been split up and sent to orphanages,” he said.
When Bulgarino learned of the children’s plight from his son, Nick, he had an immediate, visceral reaction: he had to do everything in his power to prevent them from being separated.
“I know what that’s like,” he said. “My mother died when I was 7 years old, and I was split up from my two sisters. My wife, Cindy and I knew we couldn’t let that happen to these kids.”
The Bulgarinos knew that the children’s living situation with their cousin wasn’t tenable long-term. The couple began making plans to take the three youngsters into their home, when Peter Bulgarino had a brainstorm — he himself had lived and studied for several years at the Milton Hershey School, and it had turned his life around. He thought it might have the same potential for the Asemani children. When the family agreed, he worked to get them admitted.
“Peter really fought for us,” Asemani said. “I’m still amazed that he looked out for us like that. When we got into the Milton Hershey School, my cousin and uncle told me, ‘Don’t mess this up. This is your chance.’ ”
All three youngsters thrived. Arman Asemani, now 25, is a senior information technology auditor for the Vanguard Group investment firm. Leila Asemani, 20, is a sophomore at Loyola University Maryland.
Bulgarino has remained in their lives ever as a mentor and friend. “They’re basically part of my extended family,” he said. “Every Father’s Day I get a call from them saying, ‘You saved our lives. We wouldn’t have been where we are today without you.’”
The Asemanis’ friends say their achievements would be notable even without the obstacles the three have faced.
Adam Grant, a professor of psychology and management at Wharton, was struck by Kayvon Asemani’s self-deprecating humor. When Asemani admitted his own mistakes in front of his classmates, Grant said, other students followed his lead and opened up about their own shortcomings, resulting in the candid and in-depth classroom discussions that teachers live for.
“If I could clone Kayvon and put one of him in every classroom,” Grant said, “I would.”
In addition, Grant said, Asemani consistently championed campus underdogs.
“Kayvon has incredible empathy,” Grant said. “Unlike most students, he doesn’t just advocate for his own group. He steps up for everyone.”
In 2016, Grant said, the university found itself in the midst of an ugly racial furor after several black freshmen were added to a social media account that included a “daily lynching” calendar.
“Kayvon immediately jumped in and stood up for the black community,” Grant said. “He mobilized all kinds of student and staff support to make sure those students had all the help they needed.”
So when Grant co-authored a book on overcoming adversity with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, he told Sandberg about his star pupil. She included an interview with Asemani in “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.”
Sandberg notes that helping children identify strengths is critical after traumatic events and credits Asemani’s mother with having instilled in her children the inner fortitude that allowed them to persevere. The book quotes Kayvon as saying, “Although I lost my mother, I never lost her faith in me.”
Sandberg concludes: “She had taught her son that he mattered.”
So on Sunday, when the young man with 5,000 Facebook friends puts on his cap and gown, there’s one person in particular with whom he’ll be eager to share his success.
“Don’t worry, Mommy,” he says he wishes he could tell her. “You’ve been in my life the whole time. You taught me that I could use my personality and energy to make a positive impact on the world.
“I’m trying to live a life that will make you proud.”