Today, journalist and author Ferzanna Riley knows she is special, loved and valued. But it wasn't like that when she was growing up as a Pakistani Muslim in Lancashire, as Bryony Wood discovers
When Ferzanna Riley was three years old her family left Pakistan and moved to England.
“I spent my life desperately trying to balance both cultures,” Ferzanna explains. “Maintaining izzat – the respect for one’s family and traditions, while wanting to grasp every opportunity offered by British culture was almost impossible. As a spirited, probably even headstrong young girl I often found myself in deep trouble.”
Throughout her childhood, she was the frequent victim of physical, emotional and verbal abuse. This continued into her 20s when she was tricked into returning to Pakistan. For 14 weeks she was held a virtual prisoner and threatened with gang rape and murder unless she submitted to marrying a stranger.
In fear for her life and with nowhere left to turn, she cried out, pleading for ‘Something or Someone’ to help. “Ask me,” answered a voice – a voice very different from the evil ones that had always battled around her.
Was this the protector she needed?
For the first time in her life, she went down on her knees. Her prayers were miraculously answered and she managed to escape to England.
Over the next few years Ferzanna became increasingly lonely and, feeling particularly desperate one day, she ‘accidentally’ stumbled into a new coffee shop in town. Here, she met and made new friends who offered her the support and acceptance she needed.
The coffee shop was part of a church, and over the next few months she began to discover a faith quite different from the one she had been born into.
“It wasn't a sudden Damascus Road thing,” Ferzanna says. “I had many questions. All my life I’d been told I was bad, destined for hell. Now I was learning about God being my heavenly Father, quite a different character from the concept of ‘father’ I’d always known.
“God wanted a personal relationship with me and loved me. He’d sacrificed his life - on a cross to take away all my guilt and the wrong things I’d done.”
It took time to grasp the wonderful simplicity of the Gospel message – but finally Ferzanna was baptised a Christian in 1998.
Of course it hasn’t been easy putting such traumas behind her, but now, Ferzanna knows what it means to be free from condemnation.
“God has restored all that I have lost,” she says. “Ten times over.”
It’s a story of redemption and hope. Of inner healing and restoration. But a story not yet finished.
Four years after her baptism Ferzanna was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition. It needed life-saving surgery. Today she still has major health problems.
But she smiles: “Becoming a Christian doesn’t stop tough things happening, but now I know that God is my rock. My faith gives me my strength.”
It’s this faith that helps her live comfortably with both her Asian and British heritage. This faith also shapes her writing, for what shines through her recently published book Unbroken Spirit is an understanding and forgiveness for those who wronged her for so long.
“ I really believe God wanted me to write this book,” she says. “And now I’ve got the opportunity to help others in similar abusive situations.”
Through the success of her book and all the media coverage this is receiving, she’s becoming a leading campaigner against child abuse, particularly within ethnic minority communities. Now a director of a charity called Roshni (Urdu for ‘light’), Ferzanna is passionate to help highlight such issues.
But ultimately it’s her faith that has given her a new direction and the spiritual peace and happiness she once thought impossible.
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