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 was raised in a different religion, the Catholic cathedral in Croatia’s capital was a holy place for him. Ahmed felt he could talk to God there, and that God was listening.
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. After a relocation to a new town for work, he noticed a beautiful 17-year-old on the street — his eventual wife, Zahra. He asked people about her – what was she like? Who was her family?
Eventually, he got her phone number.
Zahra also noticed Ahmed and returned his interest. She had the same faith as Ahmed but had grown up in a family that belonged to an opposing sect in the region. When they fell in love, that didn’t seem to matter.
Through a co-worker, Ahmed proposed to Zahra, and they got married in 2004.
As the country slid further into turmoil, hostility and suspicion increased between the two main religious factions, Ahmed's sect, and Zahra's sect.
On more than one occasion, someone approached Ahmed on the street, asking if his wife was from the other religious group. 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. They took the young couple’s home and everything they owned.
In the capital, a more diverse city, Ahmed and Zahra hoped to live anonymously and escape questions about their religion.
During the next eight years, they continued with their lives, and 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’ religions.
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.
In 2015, Ahmed traveled to Europe for asylum. They planned 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 the government took their fingerprints. The Croatian government took Ahmed's fingerprints first, 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 visited 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 loved having somewhere else to spend time besides their cramped rooms in the crowded hotel. The church people were friendly and caring. The congregation, made up of people from various cultures and languages, was like an adopted family.
Ahmed wanted very much to join them, but he was concerned people would think he was only attending to gain asylum – 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 about being 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 said.
While Zahra and the boys repeatedly moved hiding places, 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.
In January, Ahmed was granted asylum in Zagreb, 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.
“I got my residence at 12 p.m. and talked to Mahdi at 4 p.m.: ‘I want to come to church,’” Ahmed said.
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 said. 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?” Ahmed 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 old 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.”
In Croatia, the family has peace, but it will take time to rebuild their lives. 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 away from her children 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, and the family attends every gathering offered at the Church of the Nazarene.
“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 Christian faith.
Just like in the cathedral, Ahmed knows he can talk to God in the Nazarene church.
“In Christianity, He’s not just God, He’s a Spirit with you," Ahmed said. "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.”
*Names have been changed for protection and security.