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13 August 2021
Establishing a new life and identity in Australia
Words Maryam and Ryan
I was born into a religious family in Iran, where following Sharia laws and rules was fundamental to how we lived. Every member of the family had to follow those rules. We had to pray five times a day, and the girls and women had to cover their heads – including at home with close family members and relatives.
Even though the age at which girls start following Islamic rituals is nine, my family forced me to start at seven. I even have a photo of myself at four, wearing a full hijab. When I asked my mum why I had to wear it, she told me that girls must always be fully covered. At that stage, I didn’t even realise that there were different genders.
I had to attend classes, prayer times, gatherings and other practices. These were all in Arabic, a language I didn’t understand [the native language of Iran is Farsi]. Our home was busy, with people coming and going, praying and crying in Arabic. It was such an unhappy and unpleasant environment, sad and depressing for me, and I just wanted to run away.
Despite all this, I always wanted to know who God really was, who I was talking to five times a day and whether anyone heard my prayers. I also wanted to know why prayer had to be in Arabic because I just couldn’t connect emotionally with God in a language not my own. I wanted to be sure that I loved God and he loved me back, and I wasn’t sure at all.
I tried to follow all the rituals, but I never felt satisfied in my heart. This religion was not a religion of love, compassion and equality between men and women. I was looking for freedom, love and grace.
At around 11 years of age, I read the chapter about Mary [Maryam in Arabic] in the Koran and read about Jesus Christ and the miracles he performed. A light came into my life and there was hope in my heart. I felt at peace and even decided to call myself Maryam. My family was not happy about this, but that is the name they call me.
I met Ryan in 2006, and we got married.
Thankfully, Ryan was open-minded and was leaning towards Christianity. This made it easier for me to start researching Christianity. A seed of faith and the love of Jesus started growing in me.
In 2012, we were invited to attend home churches by a Christian friend. We were able to listen to God’s Word and increase our faith. It was very dangerous though – the locations changed each time, and we only found out where we were meeting at the last minute. We risked arrest, imprisonment, violence and even death.
When it was just too dangerous, and the meetings stopped, we decided to leave our country and go to Australia. I believe that Jesus made this possible for us and I am grateful that we could reach freedom and have peace in our lives.
When we arrived in Australia, we didn’t have an income and were struggling financially. We went to The Salvation Army’s Asylum Seekers and Refugee Service in Melbourne and met Major Colin Elkington. He was welcoming and kind, we talked about our interest in Jesus, and the Salvos Doorways program [emergency relief] gave us food.
We completed the Christianity Explained course and became members of the Salvos in Brunswick. In 2015, Major Colin and some others started a Farsi-speaking Salvos church, and we started going there. I am grateful that I can praise God in my own language, can connect with him, and help others to do so, too.
I believe and feel that God is always in my heart, and he hears my prayers. I am so happy to be here and definitely happy that my children do not have to experience what I went through.
I was born in the small religious town of Kashan, Iran, where we Kurdish were in the minority. I lived my childhood in fear and stress of the war between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988) and the destruction that resulted.
The religious community I was raised in followed its teachings and practices strictly and harshly. I had no part in choosing that religion for myself, but, like everyone, I had to follow it. In this religion, I was always afraid of being punished and not forgiven. And the God of that religion was not a kind and compassionate God. He would punish you for any mistakes you made – he had no mercy or grace.
I am a peaceful and calm person. And I respect people’s and nations’ beliefs. But I couldn’t make any connection with the religion of Islam. It didn’t make sense to me. I have always believed that there is a God, and he is there and is willing to listen. And I believed in a different God, not the God of Islam.
I was always curious to learn about different religions and meet people with different beliefs. I wanted to understand their differences and whether they also felt guilty or had more peace and happiness than us. I wanted to know whether there was any love or care in their lives and compassion for others.
The minority of Christians I saw were happier and had peace in their lives. They were kind and caring. I wanted to know why. Was it their religion, their God, their teachings? Was their God and ours different? Why would one God preach violence and power, and the other peace and getting along with others? These questions were always in my head.
When I was 20, I entered Iran’s compulsory military service. I met two young Armenian Christians and became friends. I started to ask questions about their faith and belief. They explained that their God is Jesus Christ and that he is God, not just a prophet. And he died on a cross to forgive people’s sins and to show his love for them. And he teaches love, not violence. As they were sharing their faith, slowly but surely my understanding and knowledge grew.
The usual military service was two years, but because I didn’t go to prayers and spent time hanging out with people from minority religions, they [authorities] made life difficult for me and extended my service by six months.
I met Maryam in 2006. We had similar thoughts around religion, although I didn’t tell her very strict family, or those around them, my point of view. I became more and more interested in becoming a Christian and living a life of love and having peace.
We left Iran in 2012 and initially spent three months on Christmas Island. After several months in Adelaide, we arrived in Melbourne where we came into contact with the Salvos and Major Colin. He helped me understand more about Christianity, and I became a Christian. I am now conducting Christianity classes on Zoom for Iranians who come to the Salvos asking about Christianity.
I have studied English for a few years and completed certificates in barbering and hairdressing. I now work and our children go to school and daycare. We also changed our names when we became Christians. All my extended family is now in Australia. They attend the Salvos and have changed their names, too.
Our God, and our country Australia, is now our identity