Istanbul’s Historic Jewish Neighborhood, Kuzguncuk

March 27, 2017

Children’s Day: Celebrating Resilient Refugees

March 27, 2017

What the girl who left everything wants you to know

March 27, 2017

“There was no time to say goodbye or pack my favorite things. My dad came home and said we had to leave now to save our lives. So we left. We left everything.” 

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I met my friend, Rahma when she was a student of mine last year. As I wrote about previously, the association I taught at partnered with the U.S. and Turkish embassies. Local refugees were given scholarships to attend English language classes. I spent the year teaching and making relationships with courageous individuals, like Rahma. I had the privilege of hearing stories of intense trial and unbelievable tragedy.

Many of my students would show up to class early to talk, or stay after the lesson had ended. I felt honored that they would trust me enough, their American teacher, to disclose some of the hardest parts of their lives. In many ways I felt unequipped to share in their pain. What did I know of war, persecution or perilous circumstances?

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Rahma and I meet regularly for a coffee or a walk. She told me the association I previously taught at was no longer giving scholarships for English lessons. As native Arabic speakers, Rahma’s entire family relies on her English to help them live in Istanbul. Turkish is the mother tongue in this country but English is known by many natives. I told Rahma that I would give her one on one English lessons. The more we met, the more she shared about what brought her and her family to live in Istanbul. 

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It was the summer of 2014, and the terrorist group known by its Arabic acronym, Daesh (ISIL/Islamic State of Iraq) was creeping closer toward a takeover of Mosul. Rahma’s family knew they were in danger as ISIL’s advancements toward Mosul were coming earlier than predicted. The group made it known that Christians were to leave or be killed. Rahma’s father came home and said, “We must leave. Now.” Packing up and leaving in one day’s notice, the 17 year-old, didn’t even have enough time to say goodbye to her friends or collect her favorite things. Rahma, her parents, and three younger siblings fled to a church in Hawler, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. From there, they embarked on a 25 hour bus ride to Istanbul, Turkey, the city where I met my precious friend. 

It wasn’t even one month after they left Iraq, that Mosul was completely captured by ISIL. Rahma’s home was looted and burned. Her friends and their families also left their home country; an estimated 500,000 Mosul civilians ran for their lives.  She tells me all that matters is they remained strong in their Christian faith and their family is safe. Now considered refugees, they are awaiting resettlement with the UNHCR.

Rahma (in blue) with friends

Rahma (top middle) with friends.

Rahma’s mother and aunts.

Rahma (middle) with friends.

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I asked Rahma how she finds strength to get through, and without hesitation she answered, “Jesus. And I’m always writing. I write everything.” I told her that I also enjoy writing and we could incorporate her hobby into our English lesson. Keeping the practice of grammar in mind, I suggested we do a three part writing series, focusing on the past, present and future. I gave her a few guidelines but most of the assignment was up to her, to write freely. When she brought me the first paper, aimed to be focused on the past, I saw she had entitled it, “A Summary of My Life”. I read it over and over again, as the magnitude of each written word was almost too weighty for me to digest.

How could someone who had lost so much, have such a beautiful testimony of faith, strength and perseverance?

Understanding that these were exposed emotions and vulnerable details, I gently asked my friend if she would ever be open to sharing her story with others. Rahma told me she would be more than willing. That night, Rahma and her mother compiled a stack of photographs for me to share as well. Photos of them, their home and life in Iraq before, and the destruction after.

A picture of their living room before destruction.

Rahma & her family’s home after ISIL’s looting, shelling and burning.

I knew it was time for me to be a voice. It was obvious these resilient refugees long for others to know and understand; to share their pain. They want the world to be informed and ultimately, be moved to action. 

Although I feel utterly unqualified to share the stories of refugees, God has put me in a position and given me a heart to do so. “Speak up for those who have no voice, for the justice of all who are dispossessed.” Proverbs 31:8 

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A Summary of My Life by Rahma

“It’s enough for me to say that I had a beautiful life and simple dreams. I was working hard to achieve them. I was born in a small town near Mosul, and I know that it’s the prettiest town on Earth. I had my big family around me, and we were all living happily in our big house. My family gave me unlimited love and taught me how to love everyone and love life in this world. I had friends, but they were not only friends, they were brothers and sisters to me. Simply, they were my second family. I lived my happiest days with them and I never expected that they would be far away from me one day! I used to walk to school with my friends who were living close to me. Every morning walk was so happy because I knew it would be a beautiful day with my best friends.

We had a small church but in my heart it was the greatest church. I always left with happiness and a big smile on my face because my beautiful church was an example of Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” I had a big lovely family, a huge house, a great church, a perfect school and the best friends. This was my life until one day I woke up to a noise, adults were screaming, children were dying. Fear and panic were in everyone’s eyes. I heard my Father say, “We have to leave now to save our lives.” We immediately left everything and ran with broken hearts and tears streaming down our faces. I left my beautiful life, my unforgettable memories, my house, church, friends, and even my dreams.. 

We left our country and came to a foreign country. We don’t know anything about this country. We left everything behind us. We don’t have anything except our faith in Jesus Christ, and each other. We remember Christ’s words, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” We can’t do anything except pray and talk to Jesus in our hearts. I lost all my earthly friends but I still have one friend and I’ll never lose him. His name is Jesus, who is always with me in every step of life and never leaves me alone. We have been through so much but our belief in Jesus has never changed. We remember his words, “pray without ceasing”. Prayer is my only weapon and hope in my life.

We are waiting to travel to another country, hoping to start over. We are hoping the new country will give us a sense of the happiness and security that we miss. I pray that I’ll have a chance to continue my education and so I can achieve my dreams. 

My entire hope is in Jesus that he will provide a beautiful life for me and my family again. I know he will bring smiles from deep in our hearts and make us feel safe again. Every step, every breath, any time and any place he is giving us strength to overcome the obstacles we face in our lives. It has been so hard but I don’t feel alone because he says, “I’m with you always, to the very end of the age.”

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