Sami Hassan’s Kurdish father has been gone for some time now. But his father’s commands still ring in Sami’s ears.
Don’t ever eat with the Christians.
These worshippers of a false god will only defile you, Sami, a proper Muslim boy.
“This warning from my father always stuck in my heart as a young man,” Sami shares. “As did the messages we learned on Fridays in the Mosque—always warning us about the Westerners, the Christians. Not to be like them, to be tainted by them. I hated women who were not covered. I mocked them openly in the streets, calling them filthy names. But the Christians I met and knew: they were kind. They helped me, prayed for me, and became my friend. They showed me Jesus’ love.”
In the summer of 1990, 19-year old Sami stepped into the Baghdad home of his fellow Iraqi Republican Guard soldier and new friend, Hetham. Hetham’s mom hugged her son warmly, then she turned to hug Sami just as warmly. It was the first time in his life that a woman had ever hugged him that way.
“This is what it feels like for a real mom to hug her boy,” Sami thought.
“Come, sit down and eat!” she invited.
But his father’s words and the warnings from Friday prayers and sermons rang in his ears. “I was determined not to eat anything with the Christians,” he remembers. Here he was, hanging out for a weekend leave with the only Iraqi Christian in his platoon.
Hetham was the guy none of the other soldiers would eat with. But somehow, Sami’s heart sympathized with him. Himself a member of the Kurdish people, a Sunnah Muslim, and somewhat of an outcast among the majority Shia in his platoon, Sami stood up for Hetham—even eating meals with him at the base. Unwittingly, he had made a friend. A Christian friend.
As he stepped into Hetham’s home, his mom showed incredible kindness to Sami. She served them delicious meals that were clean, halal. How could he return her kindness with refusal?
As a new volunteer to the Iraqi Republic Guard from the remote Kurdish town of Kirkuk, Sami had never seen Baghdad. It was the main reason he had come for the weekend. As Hethan’s mom sent the boys off to see the city, she made sure to dress Sami in proper street clothes so that he would “look handsome.” And when he returned, all his clothes were laundered and folded as if Sami were her own son. His boots were freshly polished.
Still, Sami did not hide his disdain from Hethan’s mother. Over one of her meals, he opened up to her that he hated the Christian people. This Christian mama simply shone God’s light into his darkened understanding. Without offense, “she simply told me about Jesus and his mother Mary. Through her love and her kindness she gave me a different picture about the Christian people,” remembers Sami.
It was the first time he’d ever had a taste of the gospel message: eating with the Christians. The ones who expressed love and sincere affection. The ones who treated him as a son, folded his clothes, polished his boots, and sent him back to the base with a basket of goodies. It was one of the last peaceful weekends Sami would know in a long time. That summer of 1990.
“One night, at about 2 a.m., they put us on a helicopter and flew us out of Bagdad,” Sami recounts. His platoon was told that the country was “under attack” with no mention made about where they were headed. The moment before his platoon jumped with their parachutes, they were instructed that they were invading Kuwait.
The orders were simple. They were handed a small ration of bread and told not to eat at anyone’s home. Not to communicate with the people. And to shoot anyone who comes toward you until ground forces arrive.
Dropped into the pitch black sky over Jahara, Kuwait, Sami’s parachute came to a sudden halt, caught in the antenna of a roof-top porch. He could see the bright strafing of bullets and gunfights everywhere. Women were screaming. Mayhem ensuing.
Then the door to the rooftop opened and he could hear the man of the house coming. Behind him were the voices of young children which suddenly paralyzed Sami’s urge to shoot and prompted a startling but peaceful verbal exchange with the family. They made a pact for mutual protection and served him a meal.
Thus began a three month occupation where Sami witnessed atrocities done in the name of his religion that disturbed him deeply. It angered him. “I saw really bad stuff,” he recalls, “killing and raping and looting for no reason. At that moment I felt so upset and angry about my religion, about Islam.”
He still followed the schedule of daily prayers to Allah, but in his heart he questioned the cruel and senseless violation of human life—of fellow Muslims. Attacks on innocent women, on children, on their fathers–all done in the name of his religion by those who prayed alongside him.
When he was finally given leave for seven days to go back home to Kirkuk and see his family, including his father and mother and more than a dozen brothers and sisters, he defected and ran to join the Peshmerga: the “freedom fighters” of Iraqi Kurdistan.
But not before asking his dad many questions about what he had seen in Kuwait. “When I asked, ‘how this can be done in the name of Islam?’ he didn’t have a real answer from the Koran.” Sami stuffed the searching questions and disappointments of his heart and trained with the Peshmerga for three years. He married within his Kurdish connections and started a family, always watching his back because he was a defector from the Guard.
It was now the mid-90’s, under Saddam Hussein and his notorious treatment of the Kurdish people. Sami’s pursuit for freedom for his family began to intensify and began an odyssey that took years to unfold. Deciding to risk it all, he headed for the Turkish border by way of Iran without so much as a legal document—not to mention a passport. His goal was to relocate his family to Europe whatever it would take.
Today his body bears the scars of that first journey. Caught at the Turkish border, he spent three months in an Iranian prison where he was constantly beaten while trying to defend the teenage boys in his group from gang rapes. His heart was sickened. His face still shows the pain of those memories. “I saw the same people who prayed on Fridays in the jail, raping the boys.”
Finally, Iran released him and deported him to Kurdistan where he was reunited with his family. He could barely walk in the door on his own two feet. His heart, however, was resolute. The drive to free his family; the hope for a better life; the quest for just treatment of people: nobody could take these from Sami.
He asked his father again, ‘how can our religion, our god Allah, allow the raping of boys?’ Without an answer to satisfy his soul, he says, “At that time I decided to stop practicing Islam. I stopped praying as a Muslim.”
Weeks later Sami regained his health and headed again for the Turkish border by way of Iran. This time, he made it and landed in Van, Turkey, where he was homeless, sleeping on the streets and stealing food to survive.
Then one day, a young Turkish man approached him directly and spoke to him in broken Arabic. “Hi, how are you?” he asked. Before long, the young Turkish man learned Sami’s story and even cried with him. The new friend rented a hotel room, sponsored his application for United Nations refugee status, helped him obtain legal papers, and found him a job as a mechanic. After weeks of helping Sami, he finally invited Sami to dinner—at his mom’s house. And she was holding a Bible Study.
“Never in my life had I seen a Bible.” Sami remembers. “I was afraid to open it and bring down judgment on my family for seven generations!”
Again, Sami did not hide his disdain for the Christian way of worship. They held hands. They closed their eyes. They prayed with their shoes on. They prayed for other people. “How could God accept these kinds of prayers?” he would mock. Outloud. Still, he attended the Bible study and made attempts to defend Islam.
One night the group set him in a chair and prayed for Sami’s refugee status at the UN. “The day after they prayed, I received my UN refugee status with approval to go to the USA with my family.” He remained entrenched, and stubbornly refused to believe in their prayers.
Again they set him in a chair and prayed over his clandestine mission to Iraq, to collect his wife and two children. As he sat there with unbelief raging in his heart, he felt a shaking in his body and brushed it aside. They sent him off with detailed instructions on how to call out to the God of Jesus for help when he was in trouble.
Three weeks later Sami, along with his wife Beyan, and daughters Malala and Shene, secretly crossed the Turkish border. “It was the first time I prayed like a Christian,” he says. He brought his family to meet the Bible Study group and learned that they had been praying and fasting every day since he left.
“Why do these people pray for things and it happens?” he struggled to understand. “Why can Christians pray for each other and Islam can’t pray for each other.” He asked a lot of questions about Jesus while the voices from his father and his Fridays in the mosque contradicted everything he was hearing.
In the year 2000, Sami flew to America, to Houston, TX, with his wife and daughters. The Bible Study group prayed for him at the airport and set him up to connect with an Arabic speaking church. As he attended the church and Bible Study in Houston, his heart wrestled with the voices of his earthly father and his Islamic upbringing for months. Until one day.
“One day I was praying for God to open my eyes and show me the right way. I heard a voice three times saying, ‘Today is your day.’” It was his Father’s voice. He walked into the church to find the Pastor and others kneeling and praying for him. He knelt among them and broke, watching all the sins of his life flash before his eyes like a video. Again, he could hear his Father’s voice saying repeatedly, “For that I forgive you. For that I forgive you.” Over and over again the voice kept assuring, “I forgive you.”
“I gave my life to the Lord and promised God, ‘I will live for you all my life! Because You are the One who can forgive me!’” Eighteen months later his wife, Beyan, knelt and prayed to become God’s child.
After moving from Houston to Amarillo, Sami was praying and asking God, “What do you want from me?” He felt God speak to him, “Sami, your family first.” He had a brother in Portland, OR, and moved his family there in 2003.
“Now my goal is for all Muslim people to hear the gospel at least one time in his life. He’ll never be able to say nobody told him about God. This is my goal!” he says emphatically.
Today Sami goes everywhere he can to share about God’s love. He shares his testimony anywhere they ask him. He leads teams with the Westside Jesus Church to minister to the Kurdish refugee camps, and he helps produce videos with the satellite television ministry to the Arabic speaking world called Redeeming the Nations (rtnm.org).
When people ask him, “how did you find the Lord?” He is lightning quick to respond. “I didn’t find the Lord. He found me! I was in the garbage. But God sent someone into my life and it changed my life.”
Ask Sami today, what is the best way to share the gospel with a Muslim?
“Just show them Jesus’ love,” he says. “I come to the Lord through someone who didn’t just tell me about Jesus, he first showed me his love. He showed me that they are good people. He helped me where I needed it most. Then he invited me to his home for a meal and it changed my life.”
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Editorial disclaimer: This article represents the true story of Sami Hassan and the writing of Naomi Inman. It is a private guest submission and not an official editorial from Oregon Faith Report.