I’ve heard it said that at 2 a.m., God hears whatever comes out of your heart.
I often found myself awake at this hour, praying fervently. Every night I prayed, desperately trying to get close to him, to satisfy him. I wanted him to be pleased with me. I wanted to go to paradise.
I wanted to make Allah happy.
My prayer ritual was very important. If something went wrong in my day, I instantly thought Allah had cursed me because I had missed prayer that morning. Every member of my family was this devout. We prayed. We fasted. When I was a little girl, my mom would even pay me money to memorize and recite the Quran. And I dutifully performed these actions, thinking they would bring me near Allah.
Growing up Muslim in a tiny Muslim country, I didn’t know the difference between someone who was devout or fanatical. About five minutes from my school stood a Russian Orthodox Church — until my fellow Muslims burned it down. I remember walking by the church as it was burning and it made me happy — I even clapped. They deserved it for not following Allah. Christians made me angry and I hated them. “Don’t you know you’re going to hell?” I thought whenever I saw one. I was really solid in my Islamic faith and believed Jesus was only a prophet.
For most parents in my country, having an education for their daughter is just another tool for finding an educated husband. They know they have to get married, and going to university would further ensure their chances of having an educated man from a better bloodline. Not for me; I never agreed with that part of my culture. Education was very important to me. Between classes, guys would walk right up to me, check me out and even measure my height to see if I was “suitable” enough for them. It annoyed me and I often made mean remarks to them. It happened so much that my mom called to tell me I had to start being nicer to these boys, otherwise she worried I would never get married.
“Mom, am I some kind of object?” I would ask. She flatly replied, “This is the way it is. It’s our culture.”
Though I excelled in many subjects, my focus was English. There was always this feeling I had to leave my country and do something greater than walk the typical path of merely getting married. Learning English was the route for my departure. One time during finals, my friends and I saw an advertisement for a free camp to practice English. I knew that I had to be there. The camp was a lot of fun. There were a bunch of Americans, and they were so sweet and loving. My English wasn’t very good, but that didn’t seem to matter to them. After this camp was finished, they told us about another free English camp that was away in the mountains. Since it is not typical behavior for females to go alone somewhere like the mountains, we had to convince our parents to allow it. Once permission was granted, we were excited for another opportunity to be around English speakers and practice the language.
It was there in the mountains that the Americans shared about Jesus. My initial reaction was, “ehhhh, no thank you.” Because these people were so nice, I respected them and what they believed, but I didn’t want to talk to them about Jesus or their faith. We were divided into groups on the last day of camp. My group was assigned to a guy named Gary and his wife, Kris. Gary had a notepad with him, and he looked at each of us and asked, “How can I be praying for you?” He wrote our names and next to them our requests. He wrote every single thing down. It was shocking and something I had never experienced in Islam. No one had ever asked to pray for me this way and I just felt loved — by a stranger from the opposite side of the world. It went through me. I felt loved that night — it was different.
There was an older girl in our group who saw how we reacted and wanted to steer us back toward Islam. She told my friend and me, “They were very sweet and nice, but you know that Islam is the way. Don’t stray from Allah.” After she said this, I acknowledged that she was right; I had to hold on to what I believed and that Islam was the truth.
But then the Americans left and I started having dreams.
One dream in particular felt really heavy. It was Judgment Day and I was neither in Heaven nor on Earth. There was an Egyptian woman on my right side and a man with his wife and young son to my left. The woman leaned across me and asked the man, “Is it your time now to talk to God?” With a solemn face, the man looked at her and responded, “Yes, but it is too late for me. I didn’t believe in Jesus.” When I awoke, I kept wondering why the man said Jesus. Why Jesus? Dreams about Jesus continued, but I remained steadfast in my Muslim faith. I believed that it was evil that was trying to reach me in my dreams, because I was a good Muslim girl. Evil was just disguising itself as Jesus. But then, real-life things started to happen as well.
One day I felt the urge to go back to where I first met my American friends. It was an ordinary house from the outside, but little did I know it functioned as a church. When I went to the house, only one little old Russian lady was there. Once inside, I felt this overwhelming sense of peace and sat down next to the Russian lady. She looked into my eyes and asked if I was a Christian. Of course I said, “Oh no, no. I’m a Muslim.” Undeterred, she looked at me kindly and responded, “I’m praying for you.” This prompted me to come back.
My second time at the church, there was a group of young Russians singing praise songs. A guy named Igor welcomed me in, and encouraged me to sing, too. It felt so cool and fun — something I had never done before, as it is forbidden to worship Allah with songs. Afterward, Igor gave me an English Bible, which I hid from my family. Originally I justified using it as a way to practice my translating skills. It was pretty difficult for me at first, especially the bigger words in Genesis. I was given another Bible when I went back to the church, except this time it was just the New Testament and it was in Russian, a language I could understand.
Shortly thereafter, my two older brothers found one of my Bibles. They were furious and demanded to know why I had it. I tried to pass it off as nothing and told them it was just a gift, a souvenir from one of my friends. This made no difference to them and they ordered me to get rid of it. Though I pleaded with them, they didn’t listen; they said if I didn’t get rid of my Bible they would burn it. There was an American exchange student I knew, and since I assumed all Americans were Christians, I asked her to keep it. Inside I wrote a note explaining everything that had happened. I didn’t learn until much later that not every American is a Christian and that the Bible I gave her actually inspired her to start going to church and following Jesus.
Since my brothers found my English Bible, I tried to hide my Russian Bible in a better spot. I later met a few more exchange students, and one of them gave me a cross. Having this cross in my possession scared me — I thought someone would find it and I would be killed. So I gave the cross to my American friend, Seth. In turn, he listened to my story and recommended me as a translator for English speakers in the country. He didn’t tell them anything about my faith, but instead I was hired based on my English abilities. As I was working there, I started to learn more about Jesus and the Bible.
Unfortunately, my brothers found the Russian Bible, too. What happened next was unforgettable. After they found my Bible, they punched me, threw me to the ground and beat me.
One of my brothers put a knife to my neck and said, “If you don’t come back to Islam, know that this knife will go over your throat.”
It was unbelievable — these were my brothers! They decided that the only way to save my soul was to hang me. Their plan was to gather all the prominent figures from our mosque and tell them that I betrayed them and no longer belonged to their family. If I didn’t go back to Islam by that evening they said they would hang me after Morning Prayer. Hysterical, I went to my backyard. I thought, “This is it. This is my last night. I’m going to die tomorrow.” Then I started praying to Jesus. Confused, I said, “Jesus, I didn’t desire to follow you. Why are you doing this to me? Why is this my last night? Do something. Do something, if you are true.”
As I was praying, I could hear my mother calling out to me. She sounded so sweet and sincere, and she asked me to come inside for dinner. Once inside, my brothers didn’t say anything at all, and they behaved as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. It was a miracle. Never in my life had I experienced a miracle because of Allah, but that night I did because of Jesus. Later, as I was lying in bed, I thought about all the hardships I had recently been through because of Jesus, but in my heart I felt so much love and peace through him.
The juxtaposition prompted me to make a choice — I must choose between Allah and Jesus.
I decided that I should follow Islam again. Aloud I declared I would love Jesus, but I would choose to continue practicing Islam. As I was declaring this to myself, I had a vision of Jesus on the Cross; he was weeping for me. His face and body were indistinct, but his voice was clear. He said, “You are forgetting me, but I am the way.” At that moment, I got up and said, “You know what? I don’t know much about you, but I am going to give my life to you.” That was the night I gave my life to Jesus.
One night I wanted to watch a movie, so I bought “The Passion of the Christ.” I asked my dad if he wanted to watch it with me, and he agreed. No one else was home at the time. We were both crying at the end of the movie. As tears rolled down my father’s cheeks, he turned to me and said, “You know, I believe in Jesus.” Suddenly, so much of my life made sense. My dad was never like the other dads — he was nice. He would help with the dishes. He defended me. He was just different. My cousins were jealous that I had a kind father. My mother was jealous of his affection toward me. When my brothers tried to make me wear a hijab, my dad stepped in and said I would never wear it. So many of his actions revealed that he was unlike most Muslim men. He truly loved me.
My brothers continued to threaten and beat me, their handprints visible on my body. While I was in school, they would text me these horrible messages, calling me awful names. Finally I couldn’t handle it anymore and decided I needed to tell my dad about it. My dad kept saying he was sorry for what was happening, and sorry that he wasn’t there for me. He knew I couldn’t stay in that environment, and he decided the best thing was for me to leave the country. He asked if I knew of any work or study programs abroad. There was one in particular that I had heard of, and it was in America. Whatever the cost, my dad said he would get me there.
My mother expected me to come back home after three months, since that was the length of the program. However, my dad had a different attitude about it. He seemed so stressed out, and just before I left he tearfully looked me in the eyes and said, “If you go, make sure you never come back. Because if you come back, you’ll get married and be forced to obey your husband, and I won’t be able to protect you. Don’t tell your mom. Just go, and don’t come back.”
Brokenhearted, I left. I left my home. I left my culture. I left my family. I left my faith.
I left the only life I knew.
My work program was based in Miami. Before I left, one of my American friends called around to the local Miami churches and found a pastor who would help get me settled when I arrived. Thank God he did. It turned out that my “work” program that I had gone through so much grief to achieve was, in fact, a human trafficking ring. Within 20 minutes of my arrival, men were there yelling at me, trying to force me into prostitution. By the grace of God, this pastor was with me and protected me from them. The next day I was on an airplane to Indiana.
I lived in Indiana with a couple of friends for a year. To me, they are my “American dad” and “American mom” and some of the kindest, most loving people I know. After a year with them, I moved to Colorado to attend Bible school, which opened up a job opportunity in Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz led to Sacramento, which led to Corona, where I acquired a job working for Muslims. My job in Corona didn’t work out, but it was there that I met a girl who became like a sister to me. I moved in with her, which brought me to Riverside and Sandals Church, where she worshipped. It seems as though the only roots I have grown in life are in Christ; all other ones get pulled up.
I miss my own family back home so much and don’t know if I will ever see them again. Every day I pray for them, and I hope we can soon be reunited. In my heart I know God has an incredible plan for their lives, as he has shown me through my own. God has protected me, guided me, and led me down such an incredible path. I don’t know what the next part of my journey is, but I do know that God is going to be with me every step of the way.