With a brightly colored manicure and a head of thick ink-black curls, Samira Izadi Page cuts a striking figure amidst the steel and sprawl of Dallas, her adopted home. A refugee from Iran, Samira emanates intensity but also lightness, with an easy smile and an infectious laugh that draws friends, family, and even strangers toward her.
Samira is the founder, executive director, and heart and soul of , an outreach ministry with an ambitious dual mission: to make life easier for the thousands of refugee families who stream into the city each year, and to bridge the gap between those people and the Dallas residents who might see them as outsiders.
"We want to remove the fears that some in the community may have about refugees and offer a platform for providing the new families with a support system," says Samira, 45. "We hope that these new relationships become lifelong friendships."
An Inspired Mission
With her then husband and their two young sons, Samira arrived in the Lone Star State in 1999 after a harrowing journey from Iran through Turkey and eventually to Mexico. Their new life in Dallas came together quickly: Before the sun set on their first day there, a member of the Wilshire Baptist Church had set the family up in a fully furnished apartment. Soon this church community became like a second family to Samira. "The way they reached out really changed my life and inspired my work," she says.
Samira knows the reception she and her family received wasn't typical. In fact, over the past several years immigration has become an increasingly divisive political issue worldwide, and in the U.S. refugees have been treated with caution, from the 31 governors who ordered their states to stop welcoming Syrian refugees to President Trump's enactment of a temporary freeze on all refugee admissions.
Dallas is one of the major cities for refugee resettlement in the U.S., receiving more individuals than most other metropolitan areas in the country, and it has its fair share of fear of refugees. But Samira sensed a unique opportunity to give help to those who needed it—and change hearts and minds in the process.
As she and her family got settled in America, Samira converted from Islam to Christianity—a religion to which she had long felt drawn—and entered seminary, eventually receiving a doctorate of ministry and becoming an ordained Episcopal priest. But the closer she got to earning her collar, the more she realized her calling was in the community, not the pulpit.
Her ministry, she decided, would organize groups of Christian volunteers to "adopt" refugee families, not only helping them with practical matters like finding housing and securing jobs but also giving them a sense of belonging through shared meals and outings to places like the zoo and the arboretum. At the same time, she'd encourage her volunteers to empathize with the families they met, most of whom were Muslim. Central to her mission was that Gateway of Grace would spread the Gospel by modeling behavior she saw as consistent with Christian values. With that idea in mind, Samira started Gateway of Grace in November 2010 over a Thanksgiving dinner she hosted for a handful of refugees.
By 2013, Gateway of Grace had grown big enough that Refugee Services of Texas asked the organization to start teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Gateway of Grace's headquarters in Northeast Dallas, where the classes were taught, morphed into a kind of community center, offering child care for the kids of ESL students as well as school supplies, toiletries, and baked goods for each family.
The organization now mobilizes volunteers from some 90 Dallas-area churches, and Samira estimates that it serves 2,000 refugees each year. "We try to meet refugees' practical, emotional, and spiritual needs," she says. "We do ministry in a very holistic way."
Mary Middleton, a 63-year-old Dallas resident, can attest to how personal change can come through helping refugees. After Mary heard Samira speak about her work, she was moved to act. She and her husband, Randy Spence, volunteered with Gateway of Grace and embraced a family from Afghanistan, delivering donated furniture, throwing them a baby shower, and sharing many cups of tea. "I felt my compassion deepening," Mary says. "They are fleeing the same things that might make us afraid."
A Day in the Life
On a sunny day in September, Samira and a volunteer set out to deliver an electronic keyboard to two young Iranian sisters who had been playing at Gateway of Grace's Wednesday-night worship services. "When you give them something like that, it offers them a sense of normalcy and purpose," Samira says.
At the home, one of the young sisters welcomed the visitors inside and offered them a seat on a couch across from her grandmother. In a mix of English and Farsi translated by Samira, grandmother and granddaughter told the story of how they had arrived in Dallas, including the years-long process of applying for refugee status with the United Nations and being extensively screened by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Eventually they'd gotten word that they were headed to Dallas. There, early on, they met an Iranian Christian neighbor who mentioned Gateway of Grace, and they soon found their American community there.
The sisters, 19 and 22 years old, had gotten jobs at Starbucks and were planning to apply to college. Their mother had a job too, but it was difficult factory work that started very early each morning. Their grandmother spent her time at home, largely alone, reading the Bible and looking out a window at a place where she'd never expected to live.
As the group talked, mostly in English, the grandmother interjected some words in Farsi, her eyes big and glassy. Samira nodded and began to tear up, reaching for a tissue. One of the young women offered a partial translation: "My grandmother says it's good that we have Samira."
Spoken from the Heart
As Samira addresses Christian conferences and workshops full of potential volunteers, there's a story she likes to tell from the early days of Gateway of Grace.
In 2010, she was scheduled to pick up a refugee family from the airport. Shortly before she arrived, she learned that the family was from Iraq, a country she had grown up hating because of atrocities she'd witnessed during the Iran-Iraq war.
"I didn't know if I would be able to welcome this family," says Samira. But as the group approached the car, an older woman opened her arms to embrace Samira. "She said, 'Hello, my sister,'" Samira remembers. "At that moment, all of my anger and hatred vanished, and I felt such powerful love for her."
This kind of transformational love lies at the heart of Gateway of Grace's mission. "We've had extremely apprehensive people come and serve and fall in love with these refugees," Samira says. "It's amazing to be a part of that."
For Samira, the work and the mission make perfect sense. "The Bible is one big refugee story," she says. The hard part, as she learned that day at the airport, is putting Biblical teachings into action. All of us, she believes, need to ask ourselves, "Who are we called to be as human beings, as people of faith? Samira has her answer: "We are called to serve."
To support Gateway of Grace, the largest refugee outreach in North Texas, go to .