‘Every day, they face danger’: An Iranian Christian’s account of life in his home country, and his eventual escape to Canada

Migrants walk through a cornfield near the border between Serbia and Croatia in 2015. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 117.3 million people worldwide were been forced to flee their homes in 2023. Photo: Ajdin Kamber/Shutterstock
Migrants walk through a cornfield near the border between Serbia and Croatia in 2015. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 117.3 million people worldwide were been forced to flee their homes in 2023. Photo: Ajdin Kamber/Shutterstock
Published June 13, 2024

Cyrus Abdullahi (not his real name) became a Christian in his 20s. After a few initial visits to an underground church a friend invited him to in Tehran, he says he felt a hint of something when the group prayed for him the first time but didn’t believe it meant anything real. It wasn’t until several months later—when he had a life-changing dream—that he believed for the first time. But that belief would prove to be a problem for the same reason Abdullahi asked not to be identified by his real name: because apostasy from Islam—including converting to Christianity—carries the death penalty in Iran. As a result, that conversion led to a chain of gruelling events that eventually brought Abdullahi to Canada as a refugee. 

Abullahi’s story is remarkable—though there are many like his. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 117.3 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes. In April, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, invited Anglicans across the country to mark World Refugee Day June 20 with a Refugee Sunday church service in their parishes and dioceses on one of the weeks leading up to the day itself. Celebrating a Refugee Sunday, she said, is an opportunity to commemorate the world’s displaced people and “honour the work of those who ‘welcome the stranger.’”  

As Nicholls pointed out, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) offers a suite of information and resources for church groups interested in sponsoring refugees themselves. And from now through October, PWRDF is running its third annual Wild Ride campaign. Participants can sign up to “walk, cycle, roller blade, bake, read, knit, crochet, swim, kayak, canoe, dance and sing—or pretty much any activity you would like to undertake,” PWRDF says, raising money for its work to support refugees and displaced people. 

Thanks to help from Canadian refugee charities Northern Lights Canada and the Anglican United Refugee Alliance (AURA), along with the parish of St. Augustine of Canterbury in Toronto, Abdullahi is a permanent resident in Canada. But the journey to get here was far from straightforward. And, he says, there’s still much to work out before he’ll feel safe and settled.  

For now, however, Abdullahi wants to get his story out to Canadians, Anglicans and anyone in a position to help Iranian Christians who are still in the country. 

“Every day, every day, every day, they face danger. If you want to live here, okay. Be silent. Don’t tell anyone about the Bible, about Jesus. It’s like a cage.” 

As a young man, Abdullahi tells the Journal, he was living a terrible life, drinking, taking drugs and getting into bad relationships. 

“[I was] not following any rules because I felt nothing every day. I said, ‘I’m God, I can do everything I want.’”  

But months after he began visiting a secret church in a private home, he had a dream in which he found himself sitting alone in a white room with one small window, saying to himself that he wanted to be clean. When he did, a disembodied voice told him, “You are clean.” He asked again and received the same response, but the third time he asked, he got a different answer. He saw what he describes as something like a ball of fire rush into him, filling him with a feeling like electricity out to his limbs. 

When he woke up, he says, he left behind his old lifestyle, kept in touch with the underground church and started studying the Bible—contraband in Iran—in earnest.  

Abdullahi’s conversion was in 2011. So was his first arrest. 

First-time offenders who get arrested for converting to Christianity in Iran get sent to Islamic re-education classes. For Abdullahi, these didn’t stick—when he was released, he says, he laid low for a while, but retained his faith. Over time, he even returned to attending underground church meetings. 

But second time-arrests aren’t treated so gently. When Abdullahi got news in 2013 that state authorities had discovered his underground church group, he knew he had only a short time to get out of the country before they began tracking down the group’s members. So he headed straight for the airport and managed to board a flight for Indonesia, at the time one of a few countries Iranian citizens could travel to without a visa, before the authorities flagged him as someone to be prevented from leaving the country. 

Once there, he waited months for any news that it might be safe for him to return to Iran. He never wanted to leave in the first place, he says, and would have gone back if he could. But after two months with no sign that the Iranian authorities had released the arrested members of the house church—and having heard they came to the coffee shop where he had worked in Tehran to ask about Abdullahi himself—it became clear he would need another solution. 

With borrowed money, he boarded a fishing boat packed with 65 refugees and headed for Australia. The crossing was horrible, he says. And the boat arrived on Christmas Island—an Australian offshore territory with an immigrant detention facility—July 21, 2013, just two days after Australia implemented major changes to its policy for refugees arriving irregularly by boat. Refugees who had arrived before that were taken to different offshore processing facilities where their claims would be finalized and they would be eventually resettled to Australia. Abdullahi and his cohort were instead sent to a holding camp on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where Papua New Guinea had agreed to receive all refugees arriving in Australia by boat, with no chance they would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. 

Stephen Watt, co-founder of the refugee charity Northern Lights Canada has helped sponsor several refugees who have spent time on Manus Island, including Abdullahi as well as one of Northern Lights’ other cofounders, Jaivet Ealom, author of the book Escape from Manus Prison. The picture of the camp he has gotten from those who were sent there indicates that it is intentionally designed to be demoralizing, says Watt.  

 “They weren’t allowed to have money, so [they] would line up for cigarettes, line up to use the phone. It could be a two-hour wait. Line up for food. You spent all your days in lineups like a kind of automaton. So it was cleverly designed to basically destroy people’s free will and agency,” he says.   

Abdullahi lived under those conditions for six months before an attack on the camp by the local population on Manus Island made things worse. The attack was the culmination of several protests and rising tensions between the camp’s staff and guards, refugees and the Papua New Guineans. Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison told the press at the time that the disturbance was a result of migrants breaking out of the camp, but accounts from inside the camp, including that of Abdullahi himself, describe the Papua New Guinean residents and police breaking into the camp with weapons including rocks and knives. 

One asylum seeker was killed with a stone during the attack: Reza Barati, who Abdullahi says arrived with him in the first cohort of people to be stowed in the Manus Island camp, whose room was right next to his, and whom he considered a friend. As he recounts this story to the Anglican Journal’s reporter, Abdullahi takes a long pause after telling this part, covering his mouth with his hand and turning away. 

“No, no, it’s okay. I’m okay. It’s not from now, it’s 13 years ago,” he says. 

Several more of Abdullahi’s friends were among the 77 people reported injured in the incident. 

“I escaped my country to find a safe place. I come here and people came to kill us,” he says. 

Months later, Abdullahi connected over Facebook with his sister back in Iran, where she had gotten the news of the attacks on Manus and had become as hopeless about his situation there as she was about his odds back home. 

“She said, ‘If you want to die, come back to your country and die here,” says Abdullahi. At least that way, the family would have his body, she told him. “After a few days, I decided to go back. She was right.” 

After a long process of talking with Amnesty International, whose representatives, he says, were reluctant to let him go back to a situation where his life would be in danger, Abdullahi managed to arrange passage back to Iran in 2014.  

He was immediately detained and interrogated in the airport. 

Abdullahi describes praying, terrified, to Jesus for help. “You helped me everywhere. When I was on the ocean, when I was in another country, when I lost my money. Just help me.” 

At the same time, he says, he wondered if he really had only come home so his family would have his body. “Maybe it’s time to die,” he thought. 

Mercifully, it turned out his sister—a doctor working for the government—had enough influence to find him and get him released before the interrogators managed to get a confession out of him. 

Now free, Abdullahi knew police were likely watching for him to slip up and give them any information to convict him with. He found they had repeatedly visited his family to question them about his connection to the church. So he lay low for a year, staying at home, not working and only going out at night, until finally in 2015 he reconnected with a missionary group, 222 Ministries (now known as Transform Iran) and continued his spiritual formation, which he felt was important enough to be worth the risk. 

Abdullahi believed it was important to share his faith with others and so took a risk in telling a friend what he had come to believe. This friend, he says, reported him to the government and left him with an urgent need to flee the country once again 

He lived for eight years in Turkey, working for a local hotel even though, he says, the Turkish government repeatedly rejected his papers and told him to return to Iran. By 2022, the government had ordered him deported. 

At that time, a friend of Abdullahi’s who had come to Canada and now worked with Northern Lights brought his story to Watt. He had heard the Turkish government had ordered Abdullahi deported and asked Watt if there was anything Northern Lights could do. 

From there, Watt says he and Abdullahi’s friend began a cooperative effort between Northern Lights and AURA to get Abdullahi approved for refugee status in Canada. That involved finding him sponsors, tutoring him in English via WhatsApp calls and submitting government paperwork. AURA also enlisted the help of St. Augustine of Canterbury, an Anglican church in Toronto, to be the sponsorship agreement holder for Abdullahi’s case, a role that involves responsibility for holding the money raised by his sponsors in trust to fund his resettlement as well as helping with paperwork and settlement support. 

During this time, Abdullahi was living in the laundry room in the hotel where he worked in an effort to avoid being tracked down and deported by Turkish authorities. But when his temporary ID card expired in June 2022, he had to go to a government office to get it renewed. When he did, the worker at the counter asked him to wait a few minutes and then sent in police officers to arrest him. 

The Rev. Megan Jull is the incumbent at St. Augustine of Canterbury. She says her congregation had sponsored five or six refugees before Abdullahi and had a sense of what to expect. But the routine changed, she says, when she got news that he was in a removal centre awaiting deportation back to Iran.  

“The fear was that if he was deported back to Iran, he would be sentenced and likely executed,” Jull says. She contacted the local MP, Rob Oliphant, on behalf of the parish. 

Oliphant’s office said it would do what it could to help. At the same time, AURA hired a refugee lawyer and asked Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to call the prison and explain to the warden that Mehdi was being considered for residence in Canada. 

Even as Abdullahi languished in a detention facility—which he describes as riddled with illness, with only one doctor for a population of 1,700 inmates —his supporters in Canada were approaching the problem from every angle they could find. But getting him out of the detention centre still seemed far from certain. 

Then, suddenly, things started to move. A call from AURA to the prison on December 1 revealed that Mehdi had been released. There had been so many different efforts to make that happen, says Watt, that no one was even sure which one had done it. But Abdullahi was at the Canadian embassy within the week for the remaining tests and paperwork to be approved for transport. He was safe from then on, says Watt, because Turkish officials tend not to hinder someone once it’s clear the Canadian government is willing to stand up for them. 

“So that was kind of a miracle,” says Watt. “The Canadian embassy visa officer, actually, was astonished [he] had been released and said ‘I know three other guys in the same detention centre trying to get released. How did you do it?’” 

“Everybody was shocked,” says Abdullahi. “That’s why I say, if God wants to help you, wants to work for you, nobody can him.” 

By Christmas Eve, he was in Toronto and worshipping with parishioners at St. Augustine of Canterbury. Today, he has permanent resident status, staying in a home belonging to two of his sponsors and taking a course in English for academic purposes at a Toronto college. 

Still, Abdullahi says his first six months in Canada have been far from easy. Getting a job and finding his own home in Toronto amid cost-of-living and housing crises are causing him significant stress. And after years of detention, arrests and living on the run, he says, shaking the sense of constant danger takes time. He struggles with the isolation of being a new Canadian, and says he keeps thinking about what will happen to him if he’s not able to find steady employment and his own place to live before the money he and his sponsors raised runs out and the two who have lent him their house need their place back. 

“I’m just thinking maybe I can buy a tent,” he says.  

Watt says it won’t come to that. The real estate market in Toronto is tough, he acknowledges, but refugee sponsorship has come a long way in terms of safety nets and supports, he says. One option for Abdullahi would be to move out of Toronto entirely and work in hospitality—Abdullahi’s area of expertise—at a resort in Whistler, B.C. or Jasper, Alta., where Watt has connections. For now, he has money in the fund kept by St. Augustine and can expect student loans if he gets into a college hospitality program. He does have options, Watt says. 

In the midst of the process of settlement, Abdullabi has already turned his attention to finding ways to spread awareness of the situation he fled from, starting with his interview with the Anglican Journal and a planned speech at St. Augustine June 16 in advance of World Refugee Day.  

“As I said, my people are in danger. I don’t want to see them in jail, in detention centres.” Even if he hasn’t found a job and a place to live yet, he says, “My people can’t wait.”


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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