It Starts with Kindness

Today, I am honoured to be serving as the regional secretary of IFES MENA. My journey to faith started when a group of French students extended their kindness to me, an international student from Tunisia. This is my story.  

Toward the end of my architectural studies in Paris, I happened to come across a book table organized by Groupes Bibliques Universitaires or GBU, the IFES movement in France. The Christian students there invited me to a series of lectures on Islam and Christianity given by Chawkat M, who at that time, worked with IFES in Paris and was in charge of relations with Arab and Muslim students. Initially, I decided to participate out of a desire to contradict the speaker and prove the theological superiority of Islam. However, I was surprised that despite my sometimes provocative questions, the Christian students always responded with such kindness. I was so struck by their courteous and gracious attitude that when I returned to Tunisia, I decided to bring one of the gospels with me. But the more I read the words of Jesus, the more questions I had.

As these questions burned in me, I started to write them in letters to my Christian friends. I spent the next several months sending questions by mail (there was no email at that time) and waiting two weeks for each answer.  

It was during this time that Chawkat connected me to a missionary couple studying Arabic in Tunis. I met with these new friends every Sunday evening to read the Bible together. Just months later, I decided to give my life to Christ. Life was peaceful until one day when my older brother followed me to their house. A few minutes after I entered their home, the doorbell rang and my brother was at the door. When my friend invited him to enter, my brother discovered the Bible lying on the table. He stayed for five minutes, explaining that he only wanted to know who his brother was meeting. Then he left.  

The next day, my brother visited me at work. He asked me to cut off all ties with Christians and return to Islam. He gave me one week to reflect before he would be obligated to share the news with my family. A week later, he came back for my answer. When he didn’t hear what he wanted, he returned home to tell the whole family. That evening, our house was filled with shouting and crying as my father kicked me out of the house. I stayed at my sister’s house for three days before she also asked me to leave. She said she could not go against the family’s decision. A co-worker also contacted me to say that he had heard about my conversion to the Christian faith. He explained that he could no longer collaborate with me and told me to leave the office immediately.  

With nowhere to go, I called the missionary couple to ask what I should do. They connected me to a single missionary who offered a place to spend a few days. The following week, that missionary couple received death threats addressed to me from an Islamic group that my brother was involved in.  

On my way to church that Sunday, I encountered my brother and another person waiting for me just a few metres away. I ran for refuge in the church and was able to escape through an emergency exit onto another street. However, that evening, the church pastor, who was Swiss, came to find me and asked me to leave the country. He feared my life was in danger and told me that I had become a source of potential danger even for them. If the Tunisian government knew what had happened, the church would also be shut down. 

Within 24 hours of that conversation, I left Tunisia and took refuge at a farm in Switzerland. During my five months there, I reconnected with Chawkat to see if I could study theology in France, a country I was more familiar with. Thankfully, God opened the door and in September 1987, just months after deciding to follow Christ, I began my theological studies in France. Now, decades later, I am honoured to serve as a regional secretary for IFES to help pioneer student witness in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Praise God for the ways he has grown ministry in my own “home” region, even in extremely difficult places.

May He open new doors, may He equip and give us love and hope when we are involved with international students and may He sustain us.

Because he is my brother

This was not what Arjun* had in mind when he dreamed of being a doctor. He stumbled backward as the man advanced. The man was shouting hateful words. Go back to where you came from!  His eyes were wild. In his peripheral vision Arjun noticed someone else approaching, stalking their group of six students. His friend let out a cry – the shouting man had kicked him! Arjun noticed more men emerging. They were everywhere – he counted twenty of them. As they closed in with fists raised, Arjun knew this would not end well. He lifted his eyes, and just before he felt the first blow, he noticed a police officer leaning against a wall, silently watching. 

Arjun remembered his little white coat. He loved to dress as a doctor when he was a child. His parents were so proud when he had told them that he wanted to study medicine. When he learned he could attend medical school in Central Asia for a fraction of the price in India, his mind was set. The admissions counselor made it sound easy. The city would be modern and exciting. Everyone would speak English. Six years abroad would be a breeze.  

But the admissions counselor had lied. It did not take long for Arjun to realize that the situation was not as perfect as he thought. At the airport, the student coordinators forced Arjun and his friend Veer* to hand over their diplomas. They and the other Indian students were crammed inside a taxi and sent eleven hours away to their study destination. Hungry and nervous, they were unable to communicate with the driver, who only spoke the local language. But that was the least of their worries. They soon realized that as Indians, they faced heavy discrimination from locals.  

They were warned not to stay out later than five o’clock, as a minor encounter with the wrong people could quickly become dangerous. Wallets and bags were stolen from their friends in broad daylight. Their elementary skills in the local language rendered them helpless. But there was one word they understood well – “black.”  As they walked through markets children shouted it at them while their parents pointed fingers. 

The discrimination continued on campus. Following their first exam, Arjun and Veer stood in a long line, waiting for their results. After an hour, all 200 names of their peers had been called, yet the two students remained outside. They began to panic. What happened to our tests? The door opened and their group leader stepped through.  

The professor is wondering when you are going to pay him.”   

Unbeknownst to Arjun and Veer, the professors routinely withheld marks from students who did not pay a bribe. Indian students paid a premium. While their local classmates paid the equivalent of 15 USD for a good mark, Arjun and Veer were forced to pay the equivalent of 200 or 300 USD. But sometimes they did not have the chance to take the test at all. While students waited to enter the exam room, some professors would find small excuses to remove them. Once Veer was barred for wearing a hoodie. Another time, Arjun was removed because he had a beard. 

Despite their best efforts to understand the local people, Arjun and Veer were constantly shocked by their treatment. Six years stretched hopelessly before them as they considered a life without allies. Unable to find relief from the stresses of their coursework and the dangers of the city, the students felt emotionally homeless. This continued until their Indian classmate, Sai*, met a local peer named Adel*. 

Adel had never known any Indians before. But as she chatted with Sai after class, she realized he needed a friend. She invited him to her IFES group. Then Sai invited Arjun and Veer. In a matter of weeks, 15 more Indian students attended regularly. There, the students met Omar* and Elina*, the local IFES staff, who welcomed them into their lives. Finally, they had local friends.  

Omar and Elina were the first people that Arjun and Veer called after they were beaten up on their walk home from class. The two staff members rushed them to the police station – where the police advised the students not to file a report. Still, Arjun and Veer took comfort in the fact that they had someone to call. These relationships completely changed their experience.  Adel began offering her help for anything they needed. She accompanied them to the markets and haggled over rent prices with landlords. By simply being present, she dramatically changed how locals reacted to the Indian students. 

But other locals did not understand why Omar, Elina, and Adel cared about the foreigners. When Adel walked with them, they called out to her, asking if the Indians were a bother. Sometimes they challenged her. Once she accompanied Veer to the clinic to make sure he was not overcharged. When she refused to accept the exorbitant price, the doctor became angry. He questioned why she would go to such lengths to protect an outsider. Adel’s response was simple and salient.  

“He is my brother,” she said. “This is what you do for family. You protect them.”  

In truth, Arjun, Veer, and the other Indian students did find a family with the IFES movement in Central Asia. Worshipping and studying the Bible with Omar, Elina, and Adel carried them through the darkest hours of their studies. These friends were their allies in a culture that rejected them. Arjun describes his local Christian friends as people of integrity.  

“They always stood for the right things,” he says. “They backed us up.” 

In many places, foreigners like international students, refugees, and immigrants navigate blatant discrimination in their new society. Christians like Omar, Elina, and Adel are taking the opportunity to welcome these people by demanding justice on their behalf. They have even risked their own social status to do so. Their actions honor God’s command to treat the foreigner as “your native-born,” (Leviticus 19:33-34) and bear witness to God’s love for all nations and peoples.  

How can you be an ally to the foreigners around you? What can you do to pursue justice on their behalf? 

*name changed 

Reaching international students together

I was hoping to get a prayerful roommate at college. But when I started my program God gave me the opposite. Moses was not a believer. He was into drinking and partying. So I started praying for him. 

Moses was an international student from Equatorial Guinea. He had a lot of questions about my faith. Through him I met other international students from Equatorial Guinea, and started inviting them to our events, praying for them to receive Jesus Christ. 

Last year, God answered my prayer. Moses and some other international students professed faith in Jesus Christ! They are now active in spreading the gospel on campus. 

Godfree, a student from FOCUS Zimbabwe, is at World Assembly this week. He is here to share his story, encouraging others to reach out to international students. He is also here to learn. To get ideas. To be reminded that he is part of a growing global movement of students like him who want to tell their friends the good news of Jesus.