Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Christian refugees from Iran trying to start new life in Modesto

Christmas night five years ago, Stephen Sadeghi began preaching to a group at a private residence in Iran’s capital city of Tehran.

Suddenly, soldiers burst into the home as part of a well-coordinated operation encompassing several other prayer meetings throughout the city. They arrested Sadeghi and 11 others like him. The crime?

Spreading Christianity in a Muslim nation. Sadeghi converted in 2003, after meeting another Iranian who had done the same and exuded an inner peace.

“I wanted what he had,” Sadeghi said in Farsi, through interpreter and benefactor Nora George of Modesto.

During the seven years before his arrest, he and others in Tehran’s Christian underground found a publisher in Lebanon to print Farsi-language versions of the King James Bible, the Old Testament and the Psalms. Then they used English connections to smuggle them into Iran, where he and the others distributed them and spread the word.

But that ended for Sadeghi in Iran the day in 2010 when the government cracked down on the underground Christian movement. Sadeghi spent the next two months in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Guards brought him out of solitary confinement – a small cell with no window or even a light bulb – only to torture him virtually every day, and it exacted a tremendous physical toll.

“Look at him,” George said. “He’s 35. He looks much older.”

Soon, Sadeghi himself was smuggled. His brother-in-law used his home as collateral for bail and went to jail for it. Meanwhile, other Christians helped Sadeghi, his wife, Rosita, and stepdaughter Parisa flee to a refugee camp in Turkey, where he met a Christian minister from the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The minister had relatives in Modesto, and they agreed to help the family settle here.

They arrived in March, their move to the United States orchestrated by the International Rescue Committee. Freedom, at last, to live as Christians without fear of arrest, prison and torture. New opportunity, a new life. Another child due in March. Except that it’s never quite that simple, as George points out.

While people across America implore politicians to stop the flow of refugees into this country, George sees a family here that put their lives at risk to be Christians and are struggling to survive in this country. Their Modesto connection evaporated when the quasi-sponsor needed to move elsewhere to find medical treatment for his son.

“We take being Christian for granted here,” said George, who grew up a Christian in Iran before migrating to the United States more than four decades ago. “We really do. Look what these people have gone through (for their faith). They need help.”

Of the family members, only 12-year-old Parisa – a fifth-grader and the Central Valley Christian Academy in Ceres – speaks more than a few words of English. George goes to her school nearly every day to mentor her as a volunteer.

They receive $845 a month in government assistance, but the rent is $825. They receive some food stamps. An accident a few weeks ago left them without a car but $1,000 still to pay on it. Their north Modesto apartment is bare bones, with a small kitchen table, a well-worn sofa and loveseat in the living room, and a few wall hangings including a cross. And IRC, the agency that brought them here, is billing them $82 a month to recover the air fare.

George pays their utilities, while other members of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Ceres contribute whatever they can to help out with cash here, gas cards there, food and some clothing donations. The church picks up Parisa’s school tuition.

“But that’s not a long-term answer,” George said. “It can’t be.”

Speaking only a couple of words of English, and with no transportation, finding work is a formidable task. Sadeghi worked as a carpenter and in an auto-body shop in Iran. He once repaired a guitar and then taught himself to play it. Now, he plays and sings traditional Christian hymns including “Alleluia” and “Amazing Grace,” while also writing Christian music. In Farsi.

He and his wife both want to take English language courses at Modesto Junior College, but haven’t been here long enough to establish residency, which makes the tuition more affordable. And without a television or the Internet, learning the language will be even more difficult, George said.

“What (Sadeghi) needs is a job, a chance,” she said. “He is not a stupid man. He is very talented.”

They are refugees in America, in Modesto. Sadeghi can live here knowing he won’t be imprisoned for spreading the gospel and worshiping Christ on Christmas or any other day of the year.

Likewise, building a future here also will require a leap of faith.