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Courage, Terror, & Friendship In The Middle East

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This story is from a former missionary that served as a teacher to Muslim students in the Middle East. The Taliban eventually pushed out all American-based schools in the area and she was forced to return to the United States. She has served in teaching and ministry roles on three continents and continues to follow Christ faithfully and love Muslims with the love of Jesus.

It was a typical day—dusty outside and lively inside my classroom.

I had a room full of 11th and 12th graders, and I was reading out loud from the novel, The Scarlet Letter. The students liked it when I read to them, and the discussions were always interesting. One particular student, who always sat right in front of my podium, just one desk back, was normally found slouched down in his seat; so far that his feet reached a full desk length in front of him. *Ahmed, a tall lanky 12th grader, never let himself look too interested for too long, and was often spotted stealthily reaching a hand down to pull a hidden snack from the depths of his backpack. They had settled in and were listening and following along in their own books when all of a sudden a bomb went off. I gasped and closed my book. (The students would tease me later about that gasp!)  As calmly as my mind would allow, I  said, “Well, let’s head to the safe room.” I grabbed my class list and phone, and then remembered to run over and grab my walkie-talkie off of its charger. When I saw that all of the students were headed up to the third floor, I quickly jogged down the stairs and toward the door to the street. Our nurse said she had already locked the door, so we headed upstairs. We pulled the curtains and we pulled a gate across the stairs on the bend before the second floor. In the surreal clarity that comes in an emergency, I checked the bathrooms and the other classrooms before heading up to the safe room where all of the students in the building had gathered. I stood outside of the door for a moment so they wouldn’t hear everything that came over the walkie-talkie, but after I called us in as accounted for, I stepped into the room and shut the door behind me—leaning against it as the students sat on the floor. They stayed quiet—just a few whispers floating around. They made sure the younger kids who had been in the nurse’s room were reassured and comfortable. They were pros at this—tragically, they have done this too many times. Most remained stoic, but some made eye contact with me and smiled as if trying to reassure me, which was beautiful. They were packed tightly into the small room. I felt the wooden door against my back—knowing it wouldn’t keep anyone out—really nothing would if it came down to it. I put my walkie-talkie up to my ear and eventually heard an all-clear. We had missed a class period, so I sent the students on to the next hour after they gathered their things from my room. I walked down the stairs with them and watched as they started down the street to their next class.

Back to “normal” or so it seemed.

My 7th graders were making their way to my building and they each had a look of relief on their face. *Moska hugged me, and *Babak touched my shoulder. Many commented that they were happy I was okay. Being somewhat younger, they hadn’t been through this as often; they weren’t so hardened and stoic, and they showed their emotions a little more clearly than the upperclassmen felt able to—and this was beautiful. I gave hugs to anyone who wanted one and they seemed to welcome the feel of another human next to them, even if only for a moment. I gave them some time to process how they felt when they heard the bomb go off, and many told stories of other times they had been in danger—a bullet through a kitchen window, a frantic rush to a preschool to pick up little sister because there was gunfire in the neighborhood, an uncle lost, a father lost, a friend lost…

They all listened compassionately to each story—and that too was beautiful.

I wanted to grab them all up and send them to live with my parents, but they are wonderfully proud of their country and quick to condemn the actions of the terrorists within. They are proud of the hospitality their people show, and I can see why. When students leave, for refuge or schooling, most speak often of when they will be able to return. They want to use any advanced schooling to make their country better, stronger, safer.

The next day when my 11th and 12th graders came to class, I gave them a little time to talk about what had happened. In the midst of the discussion, *Pazir asked me why I had stood and leaned against the door to the safe room. I shared that I wanted to be the first person that anyone entering would encounter. *Ahmed, in his normal seat on the aisle, sat up straight—and with his eyes wide and his face set he passionately stated,

“Ms. Lewis, if the Taliban comes into this building they will have to come through me to get to you. I would stand in front of you.”

I was surprised. After a few seconds, I thanked him and said that I would do anything I could to keep them all as safe as possible. He kept that same intensity and said, “I mean it, Ms. Lewis, you came all the way here to teach us, and I’m not gonna let you stand in front of me!” I was floored, and I knew I needed to just sincerely thank him. I stepped forward, laid a hand on his desk, looked into his eyes and told him that I could see that he meant it and that it meant the world to me that he cared so much.

I needed him to know that this gesture, his words, were beautiful to me. And I still hold them close today.

By Shelli (Lewis) Byrnes

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*Names were changed to protect the safety of the teachers and students in this story.

May 15, 2019

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