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.


We met in the supermarket. Sahib* had come to Eastern Europe as a post-graduate from the Middle East, to study engineering. He started coming along to our club for international students. Then one day Sahib heard about our IFES national conference coming up. He wanted to come too.

“This club is for students of different backgrounds and beliefs,” I told him. “But the conference is for Christians.”

But Sahib came anyway. The only Muslim out of nearly 200 Christians. During those three days he heard the gospel preached over and over. He even came to a talk about sharing the gospel with Muslims! What on earth is he going to think? I wondered nervously. But at the end of the conference, Sahib shared his story with me:

Photo by John Price on Unsplash

Sahib’s story

Several years ago, Sahib’s brother had died tragically in an accident. His father, who never recovered from the grief, died six months later. Sahib’s nephew (his late brother’s son) went to live with him and his family. Then last year, while working in a military camp, he and his nephew were just metres away from the explosion of two ISIS cars. Sahib miraculously survived, but tragically, his nephew didn’t. Having lost three of his closest family members, Sahib sunk into a deep depression. He wondered why he was still alive. In desperation he had decided to move overseas to study again.

But then at the conference, he told me, something had changed. He’d suddenly felt the darkness and depression lift. He felt like he’d woken up. “It’s not an accident that you’re alive today, Sahib”, I told him. “I believe God saved your life for a reason.”

Soon after that, Sahib joined his local IFES group and has started going along to Bible studies and church services. Sahib still hasn’t accepted Christ, but we believe that God is at work in him.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Kasim’s dilemma

The decision to become a Christian has huge implications for Muslims. It might not be possible for them to return to their family or home country. If they do return, they could face extreme persecution, a serious lack of fellowship, and limited opportunities for career and marriage, as well as painful rejection from family members. It’s not appealing — and yet, to leave the people you love behind…? This was Kasim’s* dilemma.

Kasim is from Central Asia. Every international student from his particular country is monitored closely during their time overseas, and when they return their phones and luggage will be checked. While studying overseas, Kasim met Christians, got involved in our international fellowship group and started reading the Bible privately with a local pastor. Wonderfully he turned to Christ, and soon after got baptised in secret. Despite the dangers, he started to share the gospel with his friends in his dormitory. Then came a turning point.

Kasim had a dream to move to a western European country to do a Master’s degree. He’d even been studying the language of that country! But increasingly he felt convicted that he had a responsibility to go back to his home country and tell his people about the most important gift he had found here. If he moved overseas again then who would tell his people about Jesus?

So now Kasim is back in his home country, completing his obligatory service in the army. Praise God that, so far, he is doing well spiritually. We pray that in the future he’s able to help pioneer student ministry in his country.

Unparalleled opportunities

The opportunities currently open to us across Eastern Europe are unparalleled. Students from 17 different countries attended our Christmas evangelistic event. Many of them are from desperately unreached places. Our own context is not without its challenges, but it is more open here than it is in many of these sending countries.

Each week we organise activities where international students can come and socialise together, enjoy friendships in a safe environment, learn about local culture, discuss different topics, improve their language and, if they are keen, open the Bible with us. We pray on that many more students in this generation would, like Kasim, come to know the Lord.”

Reflections from an IFES staff worker serving students in Eastern Europe

Open Doors records the persecution of Christians in its World Watch List. The ten countries where persecution is the most severe sent a total of 220,647 students to study internationally in 2016, according to UNESCO statistics. Pray with us that these international students would meet Christians, hear the gospel during their time studying overseas, and return home to share their faith with those living in darkness.

* name changed