Samira Izadi was a Muslim girl living in Iran when, she says, the Virgin Mary appeared to her.
“I had a vision of a lady in white who came from behind a rock. I asked my mom who Mary was and she told me, ‘the mother of prophet Jesus.’ ”
At 6 years old, Izadi had no context for imagining Mary, the mother of the biblical Christ. She believes Mary appeared to deliver a message. It would be one of several during Izadi’s young life that directed her toward a dogma different than that which, in her homeland, she was required to observe.
While some of her assertions seem fantastic, Izadi is not a religious nut. She is well spoken, comprehensively educated and, evidence suggests, tolerant of others’ religious principles.
Perched at a table in her office at the Gaston Christian Center at Greenville and Royal, the bright-eyed 41-year-old — wearing sunshine yellow and a gold crucifix necklace — speaks matter-of-factly about the needs of our community’s refugees.
She rattles off statistics — Texas receives almost 6,000 refugees each year, more than any other state, from dozens of countries; Dallas is second only to Houston when it comes to receiving refugees; these refugees are freedom fighters and the faithful, persecuted on religious grounds, and Iraqis who have helped American soldiers; there is a vast concentration of refugees from Iran, Iraq, Bhutan, Cameroon, Congo, Colombia, Liberia, Afghanistan and other countries at nearby Vickery Meadow and in Lake Highlands — and she speaks frankly about barriers such as poverty, language, transportation and cultural issues that threaten their success in America.
Just as easily, she talks about the “seeds God planted in her heart” and jobs to which “God has called her.”
Today, she serves as executive director of the nonprofit she founded two years ago, Gateway of Grace, which serves Dallas/Fort Worth-area refugees.
Iraqi immigrant Mohammed (he asks that we withhold his last name) is an engineer and interpreter who held high-security-clearance positions with both American and Iraqi military. He fled to the United States after his parents began receiving threats — at times from intimidating masked mobster types — because of Mohammed’s work on projects aimed at obstructing Al Qaeda, he says. Pressure mounted when he refused to quit, and he soon fled, he says.
When Mohammed, his wife and twin toddlers arrived in Lake Highlands in 2012 on a special immigration visa, they were financially broke and distraught about leaving their parents behind, he says. Izadi was a stranger who reached out to him and, in a way, offered him a new family here.
“I was looking for a job — had nothing, everything had to be left in Iraq — when she first called me to say she had some furniture for me,” he recalls. “I thought at first she was trying to sell me something, but she wanted to give.”
Since then, he says, Gateway of Grace has helped his family in numerous ways and Izadi has become “like a sister.” She might not always have an immediate solution — like when Mohammed’s wife Sarah needed eight root canals at a cost of some $18,000 — but she will work for you until she finds one, he says.
“I don’t know how, but she found a very kind dentist to start the work. Even though he did it free, two of the teeth, he treated us so kind,” Mohammed marvels. He adds that the generosity fuels his desire to succeed and help others. He calls this sort of altruism “infectious”. He works the night shift as a security guard and is pursuing a master’s degree at University of Texas at Dallas. He says Izadi would not care for him crediting her with too much. “She does not want to be flattered,” he jokes. “She says she does not want to get an ego.”
Izadi’s journey from Shiite-run Iran to her desk at this Christian center in Lake Highlands was tough. She thanks divine assistance. By age 9, Izadi wanted not only to convert to Christianity, she says, but also to become a nun.
“I saw ‘Song of Bernadette’ [a movie about an appearance of the Virgin Mary to a nun] and I knew it was a calling.”
At the time, however, becoming anything other than a devout Muslim was unrealistic.
Even belonging to Iran’s minority branch of Islam meant trouble.
At age 15, Izadi married a 23-year-old Sunni Muslim. Though she was young, she says, this was not unheard-of in her culture.
In her country, Sunnis were persecuted; Shiite Muslims were in control and made life difficult for Sunnis, she explains.
She gave birth to two sons before age 20. Life as Sunnis was challenging but tolerable for about 10 years, until the government searched the family’s home and discovered banned literature.
They were not immediately arrested, she says, so they fled.
“There was no preparation. We just basically escaped with two kids. The four of us. We paid a driver to get us to the border … his car broke down. Then we walked through the night, through four feet of snow, to get to the border.”
From there, Izadi’s brother-in-law gave them money and helped them acquire Mexican passports. They made it to Mexico and, to help them travel to Europe, they hired smugglers, who stole their money and disappeared.
Stranded in Mexico City with no cash and no knowledge of the language, Izadi spotted a Persian rug shop. Inside, someone spoke her country’s language, Farsi.
“I started crying and ran to get my husband. They began talking and the man recognized him. His father had been my husband’s tenant. He was from our country. The chances of something like that, in the biggest city in the world, meeting someone who knows you …
“It was that, and, well, it is a long story, but it was there in Mexico, where we spent about a year, that I learned of the real presence of God.”
The family turned themselves in to immigration, applied for political asylum and landed in Dallas. “A cab driver took us to a Motel 6. We started calling to find a place to rent. Looking for jobs. It was the first time I ever saw a phone book. I called the Islamic Center, who referred me to another person. The people picked us up and delivered us to a fully furnished apartment. It was Christians who were helping refugees, members of Wilshire Baptist Church. They had prepared this place for another family that did not make it here.”
The Wilshire congregation embraced Izadi, who eventually split from her husband and remarried, and she converted, officially, to Christianity.
“Since age 9, when God planted a seed in my heart, I knew I wanted to be where Mary was. I loved Mary, and I loved the church. I did not know who Jesus was, but I would find that out.”
Christianity seemed natural. It also meant that she could never return home to Iran. “They kill Muslims who convert,” she says.
She still had to face the immigration court, and the odds were not on her side. The presiding judge, Dietrich Sims, was known for his exceedingly high denial rate — about 84 percent — in political asylum cases.
“My lawyer told me to pack up and go to Canada, that I did not stand a chance here. And denial here would hold in Canada, too, and I would be deported back to Mexico. But I said no. I have lost everything once. This church is my family. I do not want to lose them.”
She took her chances. Church officials George Mason and Mark Wingfield signed affidavits supporting her conversion claim. She had stacks of documentation proving her family’s persecution in Iran. Still, her attorney prepared her for failure.
“I remember arriving at the courtroom, and there was the church. Well, not all of them, but the court was filled with people from Wilshire Baptist. One of them rode the elevator with the prosecutor. When the judge asked the prosecutor to speak, he said he had no questions. He said he believed I should be granted political asylum.”
It was an emotional scene, she recounts. “Many of us, even some employees of the court, were in tears,” she says.
Izadi enrolled in Southern Methodist University, earned a Master of Divinity graduate degree from Perkins School of Theology and is working toward her Doctorate. She served as an Episcopal priest for two years.
But she could not shake the idea that her own journey and experiences with the Wilshire community provided a cornerstone for a distinct purpose.
After soul-searching, she started Gateway of Grace as a full-time ministry. It wasn’t easy. The model was different than other resettlement programs and she had no money, but like life’s other challenges, these were met with provisions.
Gateway of Grace partners with refugee resettlement services and recruits churches to “adopt” refugee families.
For example, Lake Highlands United Methodist, St. John’s Episcopal and Wilshire Baptist all are neighborhood churches that partner with Gateway to assist refugees. With the partner church, Gateway first provides furnished apartments, a contribution that proved pivotal to Izadi’s early acclimation, she recalls.
Gateway is not programmatic, she says; rather it works via relationships and assessing needs on a case-by-case basis.
Izadi works to mobilize churches, because they have resources and because church members often benefit, in a spiritual way, as much as the refugees, Izadi says. Some neighborhood churches have strong refugee programs, and they do not need Gateway, Izadi adds, “because they are already mobilized.”
While Gateway is a faith-based organization, they do not restrict services based on religion, race or nationality.
In fact, Mohammed, a refugee who says Gateway has assisted him immeasurably, is a practicing Muslim.
“At first I worried they would try to convert us. But they never preach. I took my family to the Christmas service. [Izadi] gave my children gifts. The way I see it, it is not about Muslims, Christians — the main idea is, God sent prophets to show us how to live. She is helping and asking nothing in return. Jewish, Muslim — it does not matter if you are living for God.”
Izadi feels sure about her religious beliefs, but says forcing them on others is counterproductive.
“They know we are Christian. We tell them why we do what we do. But we do not proselytize, because many refugees become refugees because of religion and the last thing they need is someone to force something on them. You don’t need to believe what we believe in order for us to love you. That is what we tell them. That is grace.”
To volunteer one does not need to be a church member with Gateway. Contact Gateway of Grace Ministries through gatewayofgrace.org or 469.324.8825.