Yosef Alfaris* returned to Iraq this summer a very different man than when he fled the country in 1991.
Alfaris was one of 32 students from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who traveled to Iraq this summer to provide humanitarian aid to people struggling to recover from the ravages of war. He saw the country with a vision he had never known before -- as a believer with a new faith in God, a new outlook on life and a new hope.
He also saw his family for the first time in 12 years.
The spirit of the Iraqi people has been badly crushed, Alfaris said. Their way of life seems to be dominated by fear -- a product of living nearly 40 years under dictatorship.
And even though the people are now in one sense free, he said, they still do not know what freedom truly means.
"It is going to take a lot of time for these people to understand what freedom is, to live as free [people], but I still believe there is no real freedom without Christ," he said. "I think God is going to do something beyond our imagination."
A DIFFICULT JOURNEY
Alfaris' journey to political freedom in the United States wasn't an easy one. Nor was it easy to accept the truth about Jesus.
Alfaris was a soldier in the Iraqi army during the first Gulf War, but while he was fighting in the desert he said he felt like God was telling him he needed to leave the country.
"I couldn't recognize this voice because I wasn't a believer [at the time]," he said.
Still, after four days in the desert, Alfaris continued to hear the voice and was convinced that the voice was that of God -- and that if he didn't leave, he would die. He decided to flee to Saudi Arabia, hoping he might one day return home.
Making his way through the desert, Alfaris arrived at what he thought was the Saudi border. Actually he was at the border of Kuwait, which was under Iraqi occupation. A car filled with Iraqis passed within yards of him, but no one saw him.
"I believe it was God's will," he said. "God, He wanted to bring me here to save me. God will do anything just to make sure I hear the Good News."
Alfaris eventually made it to Saudi Arabia, where he remained as a refugee for two years and eight months before being allowed to emigrate to the United States.
Settling in Texas, Alfaris began seeking a Catholic church to attend. "Since I was 10 years old, I went to Catholic Church," he said. "I never quit until I left the country. I was very faithful and active."
Three weeks later, however, he accepted an invitation to attend a Southern Baptist church instead.
WRESTLING WITH THE TRUTH
Alfaris said he began to wrestle almost immediately with the tradition of his past and the alternative that was before him.
It took him more than three years to realize that Jesus Christ died for him on the cross. Heaven, he came to understand, is not achieved by good works.
Shortly after accepting Christ as his Savior, Alfaris began to feel a longing to share his faith with others. When he traveled to Russia in 2000 for a two-week mission project, he sensed God's call to service as a missionary. When he returned from the trip, he knew God wanted him to attend seminary, and he enrolled at Southwestern.
Alfaris was surprised to learn earlier this year that he had an opportunity to return to Iraq.
"Now, God opened the door to go to Iraq," he said. "I felt that the time is very short, because I never wasted time," he said.
MORE THAN A FAMILY REUNION
The highlight of the three-week project was that Alfaris finally was able to see his family again and tell them what had happened in his life.
But his journey was much more than a family reunion. He was able to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with more than 100 people through an unexpected opportunity to preach at one Baghdad church and visit two others.
Alfaris was discouraged early in the trip because he heard several Iraqis saying negative things about the team.
"I let them talk, to say what they think about us," he said. "And when they finished, I told them the truth. ... I started telling them that these people, they are all students, they have to raise the money [to come to Iraq] ... these people are here just because they love you."
When he told them about the group's heartfelt mission, Alfaris saw tears in their eyes. On another day, a group of Iraqis approached him and said there was something "amazing" about the American students -- they were faithful and honest.
It was then that Alfaris began to see that the group's efforts already were being used.
"I was amazed at how God started touching these people," he said.
Alfaris's trip was made sweeter still by discovering that several family members also had experienced salvation in Christ since he saw them last, including one brother, two sisters and his mother. His father also had accepted Christ before he died several months ago.
"Last time when they saw me, we were all not saved," he said. "It was a blessing to see my family, how they are saved, how they are praising the Lord."
CHALLENGES AS WELL
Though there were many reasons for Alfaris to celebrate in Iraq, there were challenges as well. He said that for 10 years he had led a comfortable life in America, while life for people in Iraq is hard.
"It was discouraging to me, because everywhere I turned there was something burned or something destroyed," he said. "I have a different picture of Baghdad completely."
He said the people he remembered there were well-educated, but what he saw of the people recently was that they were struggling just to survive.
"Everywhere you go is not comfortable because there are no rules," he said. "They don't understand how to be organized with no rules. Still they don't understand what is the meaning of freedom."
Alfaris is encouraged that believers are taking the love of Christ to the nation of Iraq. The window of opportunity, however, may be very small.
"We don't know what kind of regime is going to take over after the U.S. leaves," he said.