For more than a year, Ahmed made a daily pilgrimage to the muted calm of Zagreb Cathedral. Beneath the soaring stone pillars and colored light filtering through stained glass, Ahmed would take a seat in a polished wooden pew, and spend hours pouring out his heart’s desire to God.
What Ahmed wanted, more than anything, was for God to protect his young wife, Zahra, and their two sons, who remained in hiding in Iraq. They waited for Ahmed to receive political asylum in Europe and reunion visas, so they could join him, leaving behind war and threats forever.
Although Ahmed had been raised in a different religion, the Catholic cathedral in Croatia’s capital was a special, holy place for him. Ahmed felt he could talk to God there, and that God was listening.
A country divided
Ahmed and Zahra hadn’t always lived in fear. Before the destabilization of Iraq, people from various sects of the country’s majority religion lived side by side in peace. These sects claim to be members of the same religion, but disagree on certain things, and often clash.
Ahmed was an architect who traveled the country to work on infrastructure projects like roads and bridges. When he was relocated to Zahra’s town for work, he noticed the beautiful 17-year-old on the street. He asked people about her – what was she like? Who were her family?
Eventually, he got her phone number.
Zahra also noticed Ahmed, and returned his interest. Zahra was from the same religion as Ahmed, but had grown up in a family that belonged to a different sect. When they fell in love, that didn’t seem to matter.
Through a coworker, Ahmed proposed. They were married in 2004.
As the country slid further into turmoil, hostility and suspicion increased between the two main religious sects. The very atmosphere was charged.
On more than one occasion, someone approached Ahmed on the street, asking if his wife was from the other sect. People did the same thing with Zahra. The interest in their mixed sect marriage felt sinister.
In 2008, the previously distant fighting between extremist groups and government troops neared their town. Many people fled.
Ahmed’s boss told him, “I’m sending you a car. Take your family and leave tonight.” Ahmed and Zahra grabbed some clothes and traveled to Baghdad, just before the militant groups invaded the area and confiscated all the empty houses. The young couple’s house and everything they owned was taken.
In the capital, a more diverse, larger city, they hoped to live anonymously and escape questions about their religion.
During the next eight years, they continued on with their lives. They had two sons. But the rising tension between the sects inevitably followed them to Baghdad. At the boys’ school, people knew their parents belonged to different sects. Other children or teachers confronted the boys about their parents’ religion.
The tensions followed the boys home, where they fought with each other. One would say he was with their mother while the other said he was with their father. Ahmed and Zahra did not want religion to tear their family apart. They decided they must leave Iraq altogether.
Long road to a new home
In 2015, Ahmed traveled to Europe for asylum. Their plan was that wherever he received residency, Zahra and the boys would later join him.
Ahmed made it to Finland where he stayed for over a year. But his asylum was rejected there under the Dublin Agreement, in which European countries agree to return asylum seekers to the first country where their fingerprints have been taken by the government. Ahmed’s were taken in Croatia, so he was sent to Zagreb. He spent another year separated from his family, working through the Croatian asylum process.
While he waited, he lived in a large hotel that the government had turned into a temporary residence for asylum seekers. People from the Nazarene church visit the hotel to teach English classes, or invite the residents to craft nights, a kids’ club and other activities at the church. Asylum seekers who attend the church’s activities love having somewhere else to spend time besides their cramped rooms in the crowded hotel. The church people are friendly and caring. The congregation, made up of people from various cultures and languages, is like an adopted family.
Ahmed wanted very much to join them. But he was concerned people would think he was only attending so that his asylum would be granted – an early misconception some asylum seekers have. So he stayed away.
Meanwhile, Zahra and their boys lived in hiding for three years, moving every three months for safety. The boys couldn’t go to school. Zahra says she was frightened all the time, constantly worried their location would be discovered by people from the other sect.
She would receive update calls from Ahmed in Finland and then in Croatia. The waiting and separation was agony.
“When he left me, I was younger than now,” Zahra said, describing how the experience aged her. “It was really tough for us. He would call me, going crazy.”
“We reached a point where we thought if I didn’t get anything here in Europe and have to go back, the whole family will do suicide together,” Ahmed admitted.
While Zahra and the boys moved and hid, moved and hid, Ahmed continued his daily visits to the Zagreb cathedral, begging God to bring his family safely to him, and give them a life of peace together.
A place of peace
In January, Ahmed’s asylum in Zagreb was granted, and his family received reunion visas.
As soon as his asylum was granted, Ahmed wasted no time finding Pastor Mahdi*, the leader of the Arabic-speaking worship service at the Zagreb Church of the Nazarene. Mahdi* and his wife had been asylum seekers themselves, and were actively ministering to those living in the hotel, where they had also once lived while waiting for their application to be accepted. (Read their story: http://nazarene.org/article/young-couple-escapes-persecution-finds-home-croatia)
“I got my residence at 12 p.m. and talked to Mahdi at 4 p.m.: ‘I want to come to church.’”
A short time later, as Zahra and the boys walked off the plane in the Zagreb airport, Ahmed snapped a photo. It was the first picture he posted on social media since he fled their home. They had no more reason to hide.
“When they first came, it was snowing,” Ahmed recalled. The very first thing he did was take his family into the city center. “We went to the cathedral and I said, ‘This is the reason you are here. All the prayer to God happened here, in the cathedral.’”
Relocating to a predominantly Catholic country has provided an immense sense of relief for the family. They know that their traditional religious sects don’t matter here, and believe that generally Christians live in peace.
“Why don’t Christians fight?” he wondered when he began living in Europe. “Here in Croatia, there are all religions, and even atheists. And they don’t fight. I think Christianity is the most peaceful religion because it’s calling for peace. Because Christ, when He was born, He asked for peace between all people.”
Ahmed and Zahra want their sons to grow up in the church, away from the religious divisions and fighting that are destroying their home country.
“It affected my kids a lot and that’s why I entered the church,” Ahmed said. “I want them to be raised away from the fights. I don’t hate [my faith] but I want to have a new life, a new beginning. I want them to forget the war, the death, and have a new start. Because people are fighting together, they make the religion bad. So I want [my sons’] head and brain and their thinking to be in the church.”
New life, new faith
In Croatia, the family has peace, but it will take time to rebuild their life. Ahmed found a job as a painter, but the two-year benefits he receives as a new resident in Croatia do not cover the living expenses or health care of other family members. Zahra wants to work part-time, but does not yet have the right to do so.
There is also lingering trauma and fear that they must overcome.
Recently, Ahmed took Zahra out for coffee, just the two of them. It was the first time in three years that Zahra had left their children alone, and it was difficult to be separated for even a couple of hours. Ahmed convinced her they would be safe.
They’ve enrolled their sons in the local school, and insisted that the boys also attend the optional Christian religion classes. The family attends every gathering offered at the Nazarene church.
“We felt belonging and we know everyone now,” Zahra said. “We’re [always] waiting for Sunday.”
As they met regularly with believers and studied the Bible, the family grew in their belief. They reached a point of decision where they confessed Jesus as Lord of their lives. Having completed a Nazarene membership course, early this summer they were baptized into the faith.
Just like in the cathedral, Ahmed knows he can talk to God in the Nazarene church, and anywhere, really.
“In Christianity, He’s not just God, He’s a Spirit with you. You cannot put God in a box and say this is the way to pray to God. He’s everywhere and He’s always with you. God is faithful.”
Written by Gina Pottenger and previously published in the July 2018 Where Worlds Meet edition.