As stories in the news reported refugees streaming out of Afghanistan, most of us watched and prayed for their safety. The Rev. Dr. Samira Izadi Page sprang into action.
Just days after the U.S. exited Afghanistan, she helped settle 20 Afghan refugees in North Texas and expects more to arrive soon. Page (M.Div. ’10, D.Min. ’16) has been ministering to refugees arriving in North Texas for almost two decades, as executive director and founder of Gateway of Grace, a nondenominational nonprofit that connects more than 90 Dallas congregations with refugee families in the area.
Spurring her passion for this work is her deep faith – and her own experiences as a refugee.
Page was was born and raised in Iran in a nominally Muslim family. At age 6, she had a vision of the Virgin Mary. And at age 9, she saw the film Song of Bernadette. After the vision, “I knew I wanted to be where Mary was, but I had no idea where that was,” she said. After seeing the movie, “I knew my life belonged to the church.”
Living in Iran, she had no opportunities to pursue her new faith. Then her husband, a Sunni Muslim, was persecuted in the Shia-dominated country. Fearing for his life, the family fled in 1999.
“We had two kids, and we walked through four feet of snow for two nights,” she said. “God was amazingly present every step of the way.” They traveled through Turkey to Mexico; after a year in Mexico, they crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S., nearly drowning.
“Again, God was very much present,” she said. “We applied for asylum and connected with a church the first day we were in the U.S.”
In Dallas, she experienced a generous Texas welcome from a local Baptist church that provided a fully furnished apartment for her family. Page was baptized in that church, but later looked to other denominations when she decided to pursue ordination. She applied to Perkins and was admitted, even though she had no transcripts of her previous academic work.
After graduation, she was ordained in the Episcopal church and founded Gateway of Grace. The nonprofit works to mobilize churches to help refugee families settle into apartments with furniture and groceries. The ministry also provides help as they apply for Social Security cards and other needed documentation; learn English and tap into other services as needed. Funding from the U.S. government provides some funding for newly arriving refugees; volunteers and donations provide the rest.
“We are coming alongside refugees and building relationships,” Page said. “We are with our families for the long term. We try to get them from a situation of desperation to flourishing.”
Christian faith is presented to the refugees, but Gateway of Grace does not proselytize.
“We remember that many of these refugees have been oppressed and lost everything in the name of religion,” she said. “We don’t ask them, ‘Are you saved?’ We start by meeting their needs and helping them regain the human dignity they’ve lost. As we love them unconditionally – as we break bread with them, gain mutual trust. If they ask, we share with them. But we don’t go in with the agenda. We make the name of Christ and love of God known to them through our actions.”
When she started Gateway of Grace, Page added, she never anticipated that it would become the largest mission of its kind in North Texas. Or that mission could help unify Christians during a divisive time.
“We have partner churches from all denominations – conservative, liberal – but they gather together to serve refugees,” she said. “We may have all sorts of differences, but where we can come alongside each, that is where Christ is manifested most powerfully.”
Prepared by Perkins
Page says her Perkins education was “everything” in helping prepare her for this work. She would welcome interns or volunteers from Perkins who would like to see faith in action.
She was reminded of the value of her Perkins education recently when Gateway of Grace started a new church plant for Farsi-speaking refugees. It began with a small Bible study, expanded to dinners with worship and music, and now is a fledgling church. Just a few weeks ago, the new church baptized two adults from Iran. They weren’t converted in a “come to Jesus” conversation, Page added; instead, “They saw how we genuinely loved them.”
Starting the new church brought back memories of a class Page took at Perkins with former faculty member Elaine Heath.
“As a student, I did a project on how to start a worshipping community,” she said. “I didn’t think about it until recently, but that’s exactly how we started this new church. It was incredible to see how that project was actualized successfully. I had forgotten where I had learned it!” Page sees refugees as a fertile mission field for American Christians. She wrote about that in a recently published book, which she co-edited with Bread for the World CEO Eugene Cho, Transforming Evangelism with Immigrant Communities.
“Right now, it’s extremely dangerous and costly to send missionaries to other countries,” she said. “So here’s an opportunity. They’re coming here. What’s our response going to be? What does God want for these refugees? God is opening the door for them in this country.
“A secular person does not look at [the refugee situation] with the view of the abundance of God’s resources and God’s grace. A Christian looks and says, ‘God can provide and God will provide.’ There is no shortage of resources with God, or in this country. It’s the matter of whether we have the Christian mindset of God’s abundance – or the mindset of scarcity.”
Sometimes the hours are long, and the needs can seem endless. What keeps Page keep going?
“This is my response to the grace of God in my own life,” she said. “I look at what Christ has done for me. How can I not love those for whom Christ has died and loved?”