"From Iraq to Michigan"
January 1, 2022 | Alanna Rodriguez | Ann Arbor Church
Maher grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, with his father, mother and four sisters. He remembers playing with friends, enjoying school and playing soccer. Life was good. One day that all changed. In 2003, the U.S. military invaded Iraq, and memories of tanks, bombs, grenades, and being held at gun point replaced the joy of his early childhood. Maher was six-years-old. Before the conflict, he says, “Everyone was friends. My best friend was Christian although I didn’t know what that meant.”
In 2006, another conflict arose—this time between the Shia and Sunni, the two largest groups in Islam. Maher’s uncle was killed by Shia radicals because he was Sunni. They came looking for Maher’s father, but he was able to escape. It was a very stressful time.
Three years later, his father succumbed to leukemia.
Around this time, Maher’s mother discovered she had cancer in her neck and kidneys. Treatment opportunities were few and finances were tight. She applied to go to Jordan, but her visa was denied. Through the help of a local friend, they were finally able to secure a visa. They left in the middle of the night, unable to say goodbye to any friends.
While in Jordan, Maher and his family applied for and received visas to the U.S. from the United Nations. They arrived in Michigan in 2012. They moved to Ann Arbor, and he started school with his sisters. His mom was doing well for the most part. Then his mom started getting sick again. She sent a letter to the Mosque asking for a family to take care of her children if she passed away.
Another Arab family took care of them while his mother received treatment at the University of Michigan Hospital. The Imams came to visit Maher and tried to help him. One day he received a Facebook message with condolences for his mother’s passing. He didn’t even know she had died. The family never told him.
Losing his mom was devasting. Life became difficult with the family he and his sisters were staying with. They threatened to give Maher and his sisters to the government and told them they would be placed with different families. An American family who took Maher and his sisters to appointments with a social worker offered to take all of the children so they wouldn’t be separated.
Maher’s first introduction to Christianity was not positive. In October 2021, Ronald, a best friend from high school, began talking about Christianity with Maher. He began by telling Maher that Mohammad was not a prophet and shared videos by Doug Bachelor showing that the prophet was false. Maher was angry but listened. After watching a movie about Jesus at Ronald’s place, Maher began to wonder if Jesus was real.
Maher had an interesting conversation with a cashier at the supermarket. The cashier encouraged him to pray in the name of Jesus. Maher was still living with his sisters but decided to go in his room and pray. “If you are real, if you are God, please prove it to me,” he said. Soon after he had a dream. He was in a dark place with evil people chasing him. Maher saw three people from his country, two woman and a man, in a store. When he ran to ask for help, they laughed at him. One of the evil men with a knife tried to cut his throat but a force grabbed him and threw him into the sea where he was swallowed by a black and white whale. Soon the whale spewed him in the air where he saw a very bright light for five seconds and then woke up. He knew it was not just any bright light. He knew it was Jesus.
“I knew that Jesus was real and felt that He was God in my heart. I accepted that He died for my sins, but I didn’t know a lot,” Maher says. While sitting in his room alone, he reflected on the fact that Jesus died for his sins. Feelings of shame, sadness and guilt came over him as he reflected on sins he had committed. He thought about how Jesus forgave the men who were persecuting Him; he thought about what he was doing to hurt God by not respecting the sacrifice that Jesus made for him. He wept. Suddenly he felt that he was different, like a new-born baby. Someone had entered his heart.
As Maher began comparing his Muslim roots to his new-found faith in Jesus, he says, “I realized that Muhammad is not a prophet. I never saw him saying love one another, pray for your enemy. He never mentioned that God is love. Muhammad just taught that it was about what I do: praying, keeping Ramadan and Eid…it was all false.”
Ronald, who was not attending church at that time, introduced him to the Ann Arbor Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Maher began to attend as a visitor in January 2022. He was impressed with the godly people, music, sincere prayers, and faith. He began to attend regularly.
He started studying the Bible with Pastor Danny Rodriguez every Sunday, learning biblical truths as taught by the Adventist Church. It was hard for him grasp that God was three in one: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
His chauffeuring job required him to work on Sabbath. He refused to work after sundown on Friday one time, but other times he was pressured to work on Sabbath. In one evening, Maher could make anywhere from $800-1000. But in his own words, “Money does not save me.” He chose to take a stand for the Sabbath. There were times when he didn’t have enough money for rent. But finally, through faithful perseverance, he was able to get sundown Friday to sundown Sabbath off. He continues to grow in faith.
He recently connected with Saad Elias, a fellow Iraqi from the Warren church, who encouraged him. Daniel Duffis, an Adventist interfaith facilitator, counseled with him and helped in his walk with Jesus. On September 3, 2022, Maher was baptized at the Ann Arbor Seventh-day Adventist Church.