Editor’s Note: “God, from this day on we are Christians.” Enjoy this excerpt from Stranger No More — the story of Annahita Parsan, a Muslim woman who escaped abuse in the miraculous rescue of Jesus.
Three hours later the police returned to find our bags packed and the children and me ready to go. “Where to?” they asked.
It only took us an hour to get through Copenhagen, cross the bridge that took us to Sweden, and reach the city of Malmo, but having an international border separating us from Asghar made me feel a little safer.
We stayed with Iranian friends for the whole of the vacation. I had brought the Bible with me, and just about every day I brought it out to hold and kiss. I knew I was praying to Jesus, though I had no real idea who He was. I simply knew without doubt that it was helping.
My friends and I talked a lot during the time we spent together. We talked about where I might take the children to live. Canada sounded nice. Then again, Sweden appealed too. The culture was similar to Denmark’s, the country was ten times bigger, and the children and I could understand the language already. If I was going to start a new life in a new country as a single mother, I wanted to make things as simple as possible.
There was another reason to choose Sweden. I knew I would not be allowed to take Cherie with me, wherever I went. Though Asghar had given Cherie back to me three days after the court had granted him custody, technically, he was still her legal guardian. The police had let me bring her to Malmo, but only on the understanding that I would return with her as planned in the new year. If I left the country for good, I would have to return her to her father. And if I was forced to leave her with Asghar, the thought of us being thousands of miles and a whole ocean apart felt wrong.
Once Christmas break was over, we only went back to Denmark for a few days. The police were clear that Asghar was still a threat, and they wanted me to get away as quickly as I could, which meant saying goodbye to Cherie and letting Social take her back to live with Asghar.
It was no easier the second time than it had been the first. The words caught in my throat and the tears stung my eyes. “We will see each other again soon,” I said, finally, hoping that I was right.
Our second stay in Malmo felt different than the first. Though we had only been gone a few days, it was as if the air had changed. At Christmas I had felt as though there were some options that might be forming in the mist ahead of us, but as we returned I suddenly felt the need to be constantly looking over my shoulder.
Every time I saw a small white car I’d have two opposing instincts. Part of me wanted to make myself invisible and watch to make sure that it wasn’t Asghar. Part of me wanted to grab Daniel’s and Roksana’s hands and run for our lives.
The weight of poverty was heavy as well. Just like our time in Istanbul I was starting over completely. I had nothing beyond the little cash I carried in my purse. I had no bank account and no permit to work. I applied to emigrate officially but was turned down the first time. I tried again, and still no success.
I had met a fellow Iranian named Siavash over Christmas break, who offered to help us out now, letting us have a couple of rooms in his new apartment up north. I had been wary when he admitted he knew Asghar, but as I got to know him, I relaxed a little. My friends who I’d stayed with trusted him and said he was dependable and honest. I still had my doubts, but I could see the sense in putting a few hundred more miles between us and Asghar. But how to afford it? To my surprise, Social back in Denmark phoned me and offered to pay my rent for the next year and a half. Maybe the angel was still on my shoulder after all.
By the time the support from Denmark came to an end, life was starting to settle. I no longer panicked when I saw a white car, and I had almost disciplined myself not to imagine the worst every time the phone rang. The apartment we lived in was on the same block as the school Daniel and Roksana attended, and whenever I was studying at home instead of going in to college, I would crack open a window and smile as I listened to the shouts of happy children floating up from below during recess.
Siavash and I, after many months of being friends, had started a relationship too. He was quiet and kind, and he didn’t mind the way that the apartment would fill with noise when Daniel and Roksana came home from school, bringing their friends with them.
There were some old wounds that still hurt. I missed Cherie, and so did Roksana and Daniel. There were days when they grew frustrated at me for continually reminding them how important it was not to tell anyone about our past life in Denmark. Money was tight, and even though my immigration application had been accepted, I still had moments when I felt as though I was too many lifetimes away from the land in which I belonged.
But these problems were not nearly as large as the ones I had once had. Life — for the first time since the year that Mohammad and I had spent together — was finally beginning to be good again.
Then, two years after we left Denmark, Asghar found us. I don’t know how long he had been searching or how he found us, but as I listened to the nightmarishly familiar phone call from the school secretary telling me that Asghar was in the building and was refusing to leave, I felt all the peace and happiness that had been forming within me evaporate in an instant.
I said nothing for a while. I could hear Asghar shouting in the background, cursing the staff and threatening to burn the school if they didn’t bring out his daughter.
“Can you hear me? Are you there?”
I snapped back into the conversation. “What do I need to do?”
“The police are coming. I’ll make sure they walk Daniel and Roksana back to you as soon as they can.”
I held my composure long enough to tell her to be careful and say goodbye, and then I slid to the floor and sobbed.
Siavash arrived soon after the police brought Daniel and Roksana home. We all listened as they told us we had no option but to move.
“You mean to a safe house?” I asked.
“No, that’s not possible. We need a better long-term plan, but for now there’s a convent an hour away. You’ll be safe there.” By 9 p.m. the four of us were standing in the courtyard of a tall, wide building, watching as a nun in gray robes approached. The air was still. “We’ll be okay,” I said out loud, as much for myself as for the children.
I woke up to a sound I could not describe. Roksana, Daniel, and Siavash were all asleep, and it was still dark outside. I wondered if I was maybe still dreaming, but the noise kept coming, drifting in through the cracks in the closed door.
I put on a sweater and followed the sound. Female voices rose and fell, like waves on a pebble beach. I hadn’t taken much notice of the corridor on the way to our room the night before, but as I creaked my way along dark wooden floorboards, every few steps I passed a picture. The golds, reds, and deep blues shone from the white walls. I recognized the woman depicted in the picture as Mary, and the baby I guessed was Jesus, who, at the time, I still thought of as a prophet. As for all the other characters, they were lost on me.
Then I found the source of the noise. On the other side of a half-open door were twenty or thirty women, all dressed in the same gray clothes I had seen the night before. I backed away from the door and sat on a wooden chair in the corridor outside.
I knew they were praying, but the way they were praying was like nothing I had ever experienced before. In the mosque with Khanoum, prayer had bored me with its hollow words to a God who never replied. Ever since I had been given the Bible, my own prayers had been frantic, desperate pleas for help from someone I wasn’t even sure liked me.
But these women and their prayers were different.
I couldn’t understand the language, but the sound was beautiful. It was gentle and kind, and as I sat and listened I could feel my breath grow heavy within me. The fear that I had carried with me since the previous afternoon lifted. As it did, I felt calmer. It was as if I was listening with the very deepest part of myself. The longer I sat there, the more hungry I became to hear more. The more I heard, the more I wanted to join in. But I didn’t know how or even what it was that was stirring within me, so I just listened. Eventually I padded my way back to my room, the women’s prayers echoing inside me.
From the window in the corridor outside our room we could see a lake so large that its farthest shores were hidden beneath the horizon. I spent hours down by the water, and Daniel and Roksana didn’t grow tired of being taken to the gift shop to look at the postcards they sold there. They sold homegrown produce, too, and since it was the time of year the nuns made apple jam, the corridors would fill up in the afternoons with the most delicious, sweet aroma.
The nuns were friendly and put up with me asking them questions about how they made the jam and who was who in the paintings.
Eventually, I summoned the courage to ask the question that I really wanted the answer to.
“What is it about this life that keeps you here?”
The nun I had chosen to ask was one of the oldest ones. Sister Elisabeth smiled and invited me to join her outside.
The air was cold outside. I liked the way that every time I inhaled it made my head feel just that little bit clearer. We stood on the terrace and looked out at the water. She didn’t speak. She just looked out, smiling.
“I love God,” she said eventually. “I want to give my life to serve Him.”
She looked at me, still smiling. That same heaviness of breath that I had experienced on the first morning returned. I wasn’t just aware of the cold air around me; I felt like I was aware of everything. The world seemed more alive in that moment, as if I had pulled back a veil that had been covering me all my life.
Sister Elisabeth didn’t say anything else, but carried on looking at me. Her words echoed within me. Somewhere inside me I could feel something waking up, a sense that what I had just heard had the power to give me life.
I shivered. A different voice spoke within me. What did this old nun mean anyway? Everything I had learned about serving God in the mosque had always involved serving the mullahs, and those men were cruel and not to be trusted.
Could I really trust God the way that she did? Could I hope to find the kind of peace that lived within her? After so many years of giving up on God, could it be that he had not given up on me?
Sister Elisabeth’s smile grew wider. Without saying anything she patted my arm and turned to go back inside. I stayed awhile. The stillness was something I didn’t want to break.
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Excerpted with permission from Stranger No More by Annahita Parsan, copyright Annahita Parsan.
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Come share your thoughts on the comfort Jesus offers, especially in times of extreme trial. He has not given up on you either! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full