Reza Karkah and his wife Leigh Riley are not what you’d expect from two people facing the prospect of life-long separation, with the threat imprisonment, torture and persecution if Reza is deported to Iran.
Nor are they what you’d expect from two people who have lived most of their lives on the streets, deep into drug addictions and petty crime.
As I open the door to meet them, I am greeted by wide smiles, hugs and bright eyes – a far cry from the hopelessness of Reza’s asylum bid and his previous life on the streets. They’ve come to meet me in London with their four-year-old daughter Bonnie, who appears to be enjoying the adventures of travelling down south from their Bradford home.
The more I talk with them, the more their joy for the Lord becomes apparent: “I want to make my decisions to please God,” says Reza, “not anyone else.” Leigh says they give thanks for everything they’ve gone through because it has led them here: “I think it made us very reliant on God. We realised there was nothing we could do, only rely on Him.”
The boldness of this statement isn’t lost on me. When you understand the difficulties they have faced over the years, their willingness to submit everything they have to God is truly astounding.
From fleeing the country to being thrown on the streets
Reza describes his upbringing in Iran as fairly normal: “I grew up in a loving family in a very religious-based community with other Shia Muslims.” Like everyone else, he attended mosque, fasted and prayed, and observed all the religious festivals. “That was the faith I grew up with,” he shrugs. “Islam was a part of me, it was very important. We didn’t have anything else in our community.”
Yet he admits he’s always been a bit of a ‘black sheep’. “I always had the long hair,” he says – and the mosque didn’t particularly like that.
During the height of the Iraq War, he was drafted for national service, but chose not to serve, instead “staying under the radar.” The punishment for not serving was cumulative: the longer you stayed out of national service, the more you owed the state.
“It was really tragic,” he concedes. “A lot of people died during that time.” In fact, his mother lost three of her children, and after Reza’s father died, he turned to smoking and alcohol, “getting into bad situations with my family,” he says.
It was in this context that Reza decided to flee Iran, fearing for his life. Once smuggled through Turkey, he eventually landed on UK soil in 2003.
After his first application for UK asylum was refused, he was thrown out onto the streets with no one to turn to for help.
Seeking support from the homeless community
With nowhere to go, Reza turned to the homeless community to offer him shelter and support, squatting in various abandoned buildings and vehicles to keep warm. But that community only took advantage of him, using him to shop lift and giving him drugs. Quickly, he became addicted: “I was taking more drugs just to block everything,” he says. “I used the drugs to help me forget what I was going through.”
Leigh’s own story is just as hard to hear. Born in Yorkshire, she also says she had a fairly normal childhood, but things took a turn when she was still young: “I was abused as a child,” she confides. “And when I got a bit older, I was groomed, as well. That made my relationship with my mum very difficult.” Wanting to get away from it all, she turned to friends who appeared to offer a way out.
“That was when I was introduced to cocaine,” she says, matter-of-factly. “And then heroin. Looking back, it’s just escaping everything you’ve been through.”
The years went by, says Leigh, “but I was on this destructive path. There was a point where it all came out and everybody that I knew didn’t want to know me anymore.”
With nowhere to go, Leigh also turned to the streets, finding a homeless community that would end up using her to steal and shop lift to make money. Eventually, she was arrested, spending short amounts of time in prison. “As bad as it sounds,” she says, “it was prison that offered me the most stability.” But as soon as she was out again, it was back to the ‘old ways’. “I remember feeling very lonely on that path because I had nobody around me that loved me and truly cared for me. Everybody that was on drugs around me wanted to take advantage of me and abuse me.”
Hope in the chaos
Things slowly began to change after they met. Having moved up to Bradford, it was six months later that Reza first met Leigh. Although they were stuck in a life on the streets, spiralling out of control with drug addiction and suicidal thoughts, Reza assures me that it was God that brought them together: “God gave us strength when we were together.”
“I was drawn to him,” says Leigh. “It was the first time I’d felt love. Even though we were on the streets, and we were in chaos, we clung to each other in the chaos.” At the beginning, they explain, they were still in a ‘drug life’ together, but meeting in a church soup kitchen, they had no idea how much their lives were about to change.
The church, which is the very one they are now heavily involved in, is right in the middle of where they were on the streets in Bradford. The church’s outreach programme often sent people out to the streets to feed the homeless. “They used to come and bring us food,” Reza smiles, “and at Christmas they’d bring us a parcel with socks and gloves.”
Not only that, says Leigh, but people from the church would regularly come out and pray with them, sharing the gospel message with them.
In fact, Reza was the one to encourage Leigh to keep going to the church, even if just to go and get food.
The danger of becoming a Christian
But Reza was still sceptical of the church’s outreach. “I didn’t want to suspect them,” he says, explaining how his upbringing had made him suspicious of Christians. “I didn’t want to lose my friendship with them, so I used to just agree with what they’d say. But deep down, I’d say Jesus can’t be God – there’s only one God. If I agree with this, it means I can’t see my family. And to not be able to see my family, that’s the last thing I want. If you’ve turned against Allah, that’s it.”
In his confusion, Reza turned to a local mosque for help.
No support from the Muslim community
Hoping to find more support from ‘people like him’, Reza reached out to other Muslims, attempting to go to mosque for prayers. But being homeless, he wasn’t allowed in. “I was homeless back then, with my dirty clothes,” he explains. “I went into the mosque, but this guy stopped me where you take your shoes off and told me, ‘we don’t do help’. I was broken then, thinking, ‘that can’t be happening’.”
This put Reza off going back to church, as well. “I remember what they’d do in Iran to Afghans,” he explains to me gently. “They’d torture them because they were different.” If the Muslim community were not willing to help ‘one of their own’, why should he expect support from Christians?
Bringing hope to the hopeless
But the church wasn’t willing to give up on Reza or on Leigh. “It was amazing,” he tells me, “God put people in my path, inviting me to the church. I went in, I lied to them because I just got what I wanted! But they never gave up on me. They always came and knocked on my heart.”
After a short spell in prison, Reza decided he’d start going to church. It didn’t take long before he invited Leigh along, although at first she seemed ashamed to be going: “I was always very willing to listen,” she says, “but I didn’t know anything about the Bible, even having been brought up in this country. He knew more about Jesus than me when I met him!”
The church persevered in its outreach to the couple. Eventually, it put Leigh in touch with an organisation that could provide them with housing, allowing Leigh to get a bedsit for them both. Little did they know that someone from the church used to look out over the block Leigh and Reza now lived in, praying for someone from that building to be saved and start attending the church.
It was around this time that the two of them decided they wanted to leave their drug addiction behind. “We spoke about wanting to get out of our addictions,” says Leigh, “we spoke about what it would be like to have a family. And we tried to get out of it, but we’d just fail.”
“We tried in our own strength,” adds Reza.
“We failed and failed,” Leigh continues, “and every time we did, Reza would say to me, ‘come to church’. He kept on at me, and then I came to a service with him one day. And I just remember being sat there, I didn’t understand it, but I just remember thinking this is all true. I didn’t understand it, but I knew it was true.”
That was the first shred of hope they had experienced together.
For Reza, the decision to give his life to Christ was more difficult. “Because Islam had always been a part of me,” he says, “it was a very important decision I needed to make, to leave Islam and to find my salvation in Christ. So, I struggled with this for quite some time and I prayed. And I made my decision and gave my life to Jesus. And that’s when things started getting colourful.”
In the middle of a cycle of trying and failing, the couple decided to go to church and seek help. “We just cried out to God,” says Leigh. “And after we’d cried out, we woke up the next morning and that’s the first time we really felt we had strength.”
From then on, they knew that their strength and hope would come from the help of the church. “We made sure we were really busy with the church, because we knew if we felt any weakness, we just had to go to church. Church would be where we would come out strong. God really used that church to strengthen us.”
Church support for asylum
Today, their lives look much different to the ones they left behind. Reza now helps in the church’s outreach to Iranian Muslims, translating the services into Farsi, meeting mid-week for Farsi Bible studies. Leigh takes their daughter Bonnie to toddler group with the church and has recently begun homeschooling her. Bonnie later tells me (unprompted!) how she enjoys praying with mummy and daddy and learning songs in Sunday school.
Their gratefulness for all the church has done for them is almost tangible. “They’re incredible,” says Leigh. “They crowded round us and just loved us. In a very short time, they got us married in the eyes of God – helping to put the whole wedding together. And then they baptised us, as well.”
It was the local church that also supported Reza’s second bid for asylum in 2016, providing evidence of his conversion to Christianity and his involvement in the church. However, the judge ruled that Reza had ‘fabricated’ his Christian faith.
A Home Office official concluded that Reza’s deportation and separation from Leigh and Bonnie might cause some distress but would “not be unduly harsh.”
“It made no sense,” says Leigh, “the fact that they wanted to separate us. Our strength came together.
“We’re having our freedoms taken off us bit by bit. But if he landed back in Iran, he’d be instantly killed. Reza’s own family has told him he can’t go back.”
Yet Reza refuses to be downcast.
“I have become a Christian not because of my lifestyle, but because I’ve found the truth,” he tells me, smiling. “This is what I’m living now, it’s my life. I follow Jesus every second of my life. I’m not following Jesus because of my case, or even just to come out of drug addiction. I follow Jesus because he’s shown me real life. This is important to me. For me, I praise God that I’ve got an eternal passport with him. This manmade passport – they might give it to me, they might not. If I get sent home to Iran, praise God. If I have one hour to evangelise to my people, I’ll do that. If I have one second, I’ll use that. That’s my passion for Jesus.”
Republished by permission of Christian Concern.