Since the civil war broke out in Syria four years ago and the Islamic State established its self-proclaimed caliphate, more than 11 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes in order to escape the violence, creating one of the most urgent humanitarian crises in recent memory. Many have been displaced internally, but millions of others have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Some 2 million people have fled across Turkey’s porous 500-mile long border with Syria, making it the front lines of the refugee crisis. According to the International Rescue Committee, Istanbul alone is home to more Syrian refugees than the rest of Europe combined.
In the middle of this chaos, Ibrahim, a former Muslim who left behind his home in Syria, is serving refugees in Istanbul and taking advantage of every opportunity to tell them about his faith in Jesus. “This is the best time for the Muslim refugees to hear the message,” Ibrahim says. “Their hearts are so soft.” He spends his days ministering to those who’ve been caught amid this massive forced migration, but he’s also waiting to be granted immigrant status so he can reunite with his wife, whom he hasn’t seen since 2013, in the United States. Since becoming a follower of Jesus in 2004, Ibrahim felt God was calling him to serve among his Muslim neighbors.
He just never knew what that would look like, until now.
Waking Up a Christian
Some of Ibrahim’s earliest memories are of his older brother taking him to worship at the mosque. As a Sunni Muslim growing up in Damascus, Syria, that was the norm. “We were not a fundamentalist family, but we were a restricted family, “ Ibrahim recalls. “We did everything Islam says.” As a kid he read books about Muhammad, Islamic theology, and, of course, the Qur’an. Despite immersing himself in the religion of his family, Ibrahim was never satisfied. “I didn’t feel like I was doing good things. I didn’t feel peace. I was doing it because I had to.”
During Ibrahim’s childhood, nearly everyone in his life was a devout Muslim. That changed when he attended a high school located in one of Damascus’s majority-Christian neighborhoods. For the first time, Ibrahim had friends who believed something different than what he’d been taught. Occasionally he attended church with his new friends, but, like many teenagers, he mainly went to meet girls. Sometimes he even read the Bible, but he wasn’t convinced. “We knew we were right and they were going to hell,” Ibrahim recounts.
Eventually Ibrahim began to wonder if any god exists at all. A Syrian writer who’d written a book against Islam befriended him and affirmed his doubts and frustrations with religion in general and Islam in particular. Still, peace eluded him. “Even though I didn’t believe in God, there was something I couldn’t escape from.”
This writer introduced Ibrahim to an American Christian who was new to Syria. The two became friends and started spending time together. Ibrahim could read English, but he struggled with speaking it well, so this Christian introduced him to a missionary who was trying to learn Arabic. They started meeting weekly, practicing their language skills, and developing a close friendship. When religion came up in conversation, Ibrahim expressed his doubts. The missionary drew him the Bridge to Life diagram and explained the teachings of Jesus. “It was so simple, but for me it was like a flashlight,” he says. “I knew about Jesus, but I didn’t know about [grace].”
Ibrahim wanted to know more. He started attending a weekly Bible study and often spent 13 hours a day reading books about Christianity. “I felt like there was something different about Jesus,” he says. “I started to admire him.”
At the beginning of one Bible study, Ibrahim asked if he could say the opening prayer, something he’d never done before. “God, forgive me, but I don’t know you,” he prayed. “I really want to know you. Please help me.”
For the next three nights, Ibrahim could barely sleep. He contemplated the meaning of his life and knew something was changing. On the third morning, Ibrahim recalls, “I woke up believing that Jesus went to the cross for me. He was my Savior.”
Falling in Love Among the Muslims
Despite the fact that Syria is home to some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, converting from Islam to Christianity can be dangerous. Converts are often kicked out of their homes, rejected by their communities, or even killed. Rather than immediately tell his family and risk estrangement, Ibrahim hoped they’d notice a change in his life and that would allow him to tell them about Jesus. When Ibrahim’s brother, who’d been studying medicine abroad, came home and found a Bible in Ibrahim’s room, his family was furious. Eventually they came to terms with his decision, though, even if they never agreed with it. As his faith grew, Ibrahim wanted to tell others about the peace he’d found in Jesus. “God wants me to be among the Muslims,” he says.
Early in 2011, pro-democracy protests influenced by the Arab Spring erupted in Deraa, a city about 70 miles south of Damascus. When government forces killed several demonstrators, thousands of people around the country took to the streets calling for President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. The violence escalated and spread quickly. Right before the war began, Noor, a Muslim woman, began attending Ibrahim’s Bible study. Noor was an Iraqi refugee whose life had been destroyed by war. Her father was killed in the Iraq-Iran War during the 1980s, and she lived through the Gulf War only to watch her country get torn apart a decade later by the American-led invasion following 9/11. In 2006, she fled to Jordan and eventually settled in Syria, where she thought she’d found peace. Like Ibrahim, she was captivated by the stories of this man named Jesus, and converted from Islam.
As the civil war engulfed Syria, Ibrahim and Noor fell in love, got baptized together, and then married. At first Damascus was safe, but the violence inched closer to the nation’s capital. “After we got married, it started getting worse and worse,” Ibrahim remembers. They worried about mortars falling from the sky and which roads were safe to travel on. Civilians were being killed by the thousands. These were the nightmares Noor thought she’d left behind in Iraq.
In 2013, a little more than a year into marriage, Noor received a call from the United Nations saying the visa she’d applied for three years earlier had been approved. She would now be allowed to relocate to the United States. Knowing how much Noor longed to live in a place where she didn’t have to fear for her life, Ibrahim encouraged her to move, and they used connections with an American church to get her settled.
Until he could be with his wife in the United States, Ibrahim knew God was calling him to continue to live among Muslims in this crisis and tell them about Jesus. He traveled to a neighboring country where nearly 650,000 Syrian refugees—roughly equivalent to the population of Washington, D.C.—had gone to escape the war.
In countries near Syria, refugees often live in urban areas, while others are placed in desert camps. Life in the camps is more about surviving than flourishing. Space is limited, so families are forced to cram into small tents or makeshift shelters. Simple tasks like retrieving clean water can take hours. Electricity is inconsistent at best.
Ibrahim found a ministry that provided aid to refugees living in cities outside the camps. Many of these people lack basic necessities for survival, and he saw this as an opportunity to serve his neighbors. Ibrahim, along with other Christians, would visit refugees in their homes and bring them blankets, mattresses, pillows, heaters, fans, and clothes. If the family seemed interested, the Christians told them about Jesus. “It’s so difficult and so hard,” Ibrahim confesses. “But God is using this time to bring many people to him.”
Taking the Gospel to Turkey
In August, after serving with this ministry for nearly two years, Ibrahim received a call from the secret police. “I knew my days in [the country] were finished,” he says. “In the Arab world, when the secret police call you, it’s bad.” His crimes: evangelizing the refugees, and being a Christian who had converted from a Muslim family. For four days Ibrahim was held captive, moved around from jail to jail. “I wasn’t scared,” he says. “I felt like God was with me. I was in jail because I was serving God, so there was nothing to be afraid of.”
While interrogating Ibrahim, one of the officers compared him to ISIS, saying Ibrahim was poisoning the minds of vulnerable people with lies just like ISIS does. “You cannot compare me to ISIS,” Ibrahim told the officer. “The ideas in their head lead them to kill. The ideas in my head lead me to love you.”
The secret police banished Ibrahim and stuck him on a plane to Turkey. Ibrahim visited a refugee center in Istanbul and providentially found a ministry in need of a translator who could help communicate with the Syrians. He now shows up every day to translate, provide aid, and share about Jesus. Just a day before we talked, Ibrahim witnessed refugees getting baptized.
Opportunity to Love
Eager to see his wife, Ibrahim is praying his visa will be approved so he can move to the United States. The application process is lengthy and tedious, involving interviews, medical checks, and an abundance of paperwork. When he asks how long he has to wait, he’s given a frustrating response: “Maybe a week, maybe months, maybe more.” With the November 13 attack in Paris stoking suspicion of Syrians trying to come to America, Ibrahim fears it might be even longer before he can see his wife again.
Whether he is in Syria, Turkey, or the United States, Ibrahim believes God has called him to minister to Muslims who’ve been caught in the middle of the violence and hatred of war. Since he was once a Muslim himself, he’s found that people are more willing to hear his story. Ibrahim hopes his fellow Christians in the West will share his vision and see this crisis as an opportunity to practice the love of Christ.
“I understand why you’re afraid, but that fear is not from God,” he says. “You don’t have to be afraid. You have to show love. If we don’t, we’re giving the win to ISIS.”