It had been only a few miles, but in the short drive from our hotel to the rented room in which a family of five refugees was watching their middle child struggle to breathe, everything changed for me.
Gone were the buildings of glass and steel and the security guards outside luxury homes. Gone, too, were the cute little shawarma stalls marked by a small crowd of people waiting out front and blocking the sidewalk.
Here, in eastern Amman, Jordan, things were different. Traffic moved slowly, street traders stood lonely, and on every corner, there were dozens of men wearing faded suits and standing like aging trees after a winter storm. They looked weak, fragile, exhausted, and incapable of being anywhere other than here.
A series of turns brought us onto a dingy back street. Emaciated cats played among heaps of trash, moving with far more freedom than the next knot of refugees, whose tattered suits weighed them down as they stood in the dust.
Outside the car, it smelled of poverty. Inside the room, it smelled of death.
By the time we left, the family had food, blankets, and the promise of further support for their son, all thanks to the kindness and compassion of a group of local Christians. Considering the scale of the problems facing them, it wasn’t much more than a Band-Aid. But it was the best news the family had received in weeks.
The trip that took me first to Jordan and then on to Iraq earlier this year presented a series of experiences that caused me to question so much of what I’d come to believe. My perceptions of refugees, the nature of the Middle East conflict, what constitutes a full expression of generosity, and how Christianity can thrive in the harshest conditions—these were all comprehensively dismantled over the course of a few days.
For all that and more, I am profoundly grateful.
“That was the moment I believed. It was the start of my new life.”
It began when I met a woman I shall call Ameena. A former Muslim, she has family back in Baghdad, but when her husband became a Christian, life became both complicated and dangerous.
“I told him he should go back to believing in [Islam], but he said I should go and talk to the pastor at his church. I went there but couldn’t find the pastor. So I started to pray, saying, ‘God, please do something. I have to save my husband.’ I felt nothing. So I changed my prayer: ‘If my husband is right, then let me know.’ That was when I felt it—a great hand on my shoulder. I opened my eyes to see who had touched me, but nobody was there. That was the moment I believed. It was the start of my new life.
“After that, everything changed so quickly. I was free. There was no more fear, just peace. I saw Islam differently after this. There’s something in the Qur’an that forces people to act, and feeling free as a Christian was completely new. The love, the respect—I had never known them when I was a Muslim.”
While Ameena’s attempts to convert her husband back to Islam resulted in her own encounter with Jesus, her husband’s best friend was a vocal supporter of the Islamic State (ISIS). As rumors about the couple’s apostasy spread, the threats came in. Eventually they had to leave Iraq.
In Jordan, Ameena and her husband found a community of Christians who support them not only financially but spiritually as well. They have taught Ameena about living in community, about prayer, and about forgiveness.
“Last month my best friend back in Iraq was attacked, raped, and burned. She was a Christian. My husband had a friend who was a Christian, too, and they killed him as well. They sent us a picture of his body, his throat cut. The message said, ‘You will be next.’
“How do I respond? I feel angry for a couple of days, crying, not talking to anyone. Then I accept it and keep on praying. I pray to Jesus: I pray for their family, for the killer, that they might learn something about Jesus. Sometimes I pray for ISIS: ‘Jesus, just let them know who You are.’”
“Jesus turned me from a bad guy into a good guy. And now I’m not afraid of anything.”
It is easier than you would think to get into Iraq, especially if your point of entry is in the Kurdish-controlled area in the northeast. Americans and Brits like me are welcomed with the immigration equivalent of open arms: a two-second glance at the passport, zero questions, and a stamp approving entry.
Iraq is a beautiful country. As we drove from one city to the next—making a significant detour to avoid the ISIS-controlled area of Mosul—the views were staggering, and not at all like the dusty, low-horizoned sights I’d imagined. We shared mountain roads with goats, shepherds, and their dogs. From the high points, the land stretched out for miles, colored vibrant green as if someone had laid a thin grassy blanket over a crumpled selection of low rocks. And the plains of Nineveh looked more like an ocean.
Up there in a city bordered by mountains, I met another man who was not raised a Christian. Born a Muslim, Sherzad met Saddam Hussein once. Not every member of the Iraqi army was granted access, but Sherzad was special. He was, as he freely admits, a “bad guy,” and bad guys were encouraged by the regime.
Everything changed during the war, and a year after Hussein’s death, Sherzad left the army and took a job with a mobile phone company. But he was far from safe, as he discovered one day. “I was in north Baghdad when al-Qaida put me in the back of a car and kidnapped me. Every two hours they beat me with the butt of an AK-47. They knew my name, they knew that I was working as a civil engineer, and they wanted money.”
For four days the beatings continued, breaking his nose, smashing his kneecaps, and damaging his kidneys. And then something amazing happened.
“I don’t know if I was awake or sleeping, but I saw somebody come into the room I was in. He looked at me and spoke in Arabic, saying ‘Ana Isa …’ It means ‘I am Jesus.’ He said to me, ‘Go home.’ I asked Him, ‘Are You serious?’ But He said it again: ‘Go home.’ I looked and saw the guards starting to fight each other. One of them shot the other, and so I just opened the door, walked out to the street, and found a taxi to take me back home.”
When he saw his wife, Sherzad began to try to explain what had happened to him. “I know,” she interrupted. “I saw Jesus in my dreams. He told me He had saved you and that you would be coming home soon.”
After such a dramatic rescue, both Sherzad and his wife quickly converted to Christianity and were soon telling others about all that had happened to them. Not everyone believed—Sherzad’s bosses just laughed when he told them—but a little skepticism and ridicule was no match for their newfound faith.
“Jesus turned me from a bad guy into a good guy. And now I’m not afraid of anything. I love Jesus, and I want everyone to believe in Him. He’s the hope for everyone. If He can rescue and forgive me, if He can love and reach me, if He can reach through that rock and help me, then He can do it for anyone.”
“God created us for something more than being fat, dumb, and happy.”
I met others as well: evangelists whose lives are in such danger they must move every month; refugees who work as undercover pastors within the camps; a trauma counselor who serves Yazidi women and girls who’ve been rescued from ISIS. Every conversation left me astounded at the goodness of God, the courage of my fellow believers, and the power of taking prayerful risks for God.
But it was one of the last interviews that really spun me around. Luke was not a refugee, a former Muslim, or even an Iraqi. He was an American, and when he was graduating from college, he turned down the prospect of a lucrative business career in favor of pursuing a hunch that God was calling him on a different adventure working among persecuted Christians.
I met him when he was 11 years into his journey. In just over a decade, God had instilled in him a lifetime’s worth of wisdom.
“I’ve seen that ISIS is awful,” Luke said. “It’s terrorism taken to a whole new level. It’s evil, yet God’s kingdom is growing like never before in Iraq, and it’s the same in other countries, too. When people try to destroy the church, it grows exponentially. The church grows when we face adversity.
“So in a weird sort of way, it’s a blessing to face persecution. I’ve met thousands of Christians who have been persecuted for their faith, and I’ve seen a strength of faith that only comes out of having to rely on God, that only comes out of having to face persecution.
“Pastors are saying the same thing here—that Christians in Iraq were [complacent]. They were affluent, [with] no need for God; they were Christians more by identity than by relationship. But it’s when you lose everything that you turn to God and really start talking to Him. That might be when you’re persecuted or when you get cancer; that’s when God shows up.
“Living in Iraq, I look at the West and wonder if Satan’s tactic for keeping God out is by providing comfort, by giving so many riches that people feel like they do not need God. Satan knows what our weaknesses are. And that’s the capitalist dream, to stand on your own two feet and do it all on your own. There are good things about that, but it’s a twist on ‘You don’t really need God.’
“God’s kingdom is growing like never before in Iraq, and it’s the same in other countries, too. When people try to destroy the church, it grows exponentially.”
“I see it in the Old Testament. God is not OK with His people just getting by. He seems to move us out of our comfort zones and put us in situations where we have to rely on Him. It’s part of His relational nature. He created us for something more than being fat, dumb, and happy.”
I left soon after that conversation with Luke. The more I thought about the qualities displayed in the people I had met—Ameena’s forgiveness, Sherzad’s courage, and Luke’s willingness to strip away all that is superfluous in life and focus on what really matters—the more I came to realize that I’d been in the presence of some of the most mature Christians I had ever met. In their presence I felt small, like a little kid hoping for autographs outside the stadium.
It has already made an impact.
Sometimes we can feel like those refugees in Amman—too weak and frail to take on the problems around us, too weighed down by our own troubles to allow God to use us for the benefit of others. Yet this faith of ours is hard-wired for resilience. We are purpose-built to show grace and mercy to others, to speak honestly and boldly about what we believe, and to resist the temptation to live life on our own superficial terms.
As Corrie ten Boom said, “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.” And when we realize that, we’re on the way to knowing a little more about what it means for a Christian to grow up.
Photography by Craig Borlase