I graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and started teaching at an elementary school. I soon discovered that teaching elementary school was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
My brother Maher suggested that I get a master’s degree in statistics. Because getting a master’s degree in my country was not possible, I planned to go to the United States to obtain my degree. However, the salary I made then (about $400 a month) did not enable me to have any savings. There was no way that I could afford to pay for an education in the United States, so I pursued scholarships at several American universities.
I was overjoyed to receive an acceptance and a scholarship to American University in Washington, D.C. The scholarship was very generous, totaling $56,000 a year to cover all my schooling and living costs. The thought of leaving the violence, confusion, and hopelessness in Palestine to study in the United States thrilled me.
When I received a phone call soon afterward from a man saying, “Congratulations, you have been granted a scholarship to Brigham Young University,” I was understandably silent. Should I tell him that I am not interested, or should I wait and tell him later? I thought. Even though I had applied for a BYU scholarship after seeing an ad in the Al-Quds local newspaper, I never intended to go to BYU.
My mother mocked me for even applying. She said Utah was in the middle of nowhere and was a desert. I began making some inquiries and discovered that Mormons, or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lived in Utah. I had absolutely no idea what Mormons believed, but I had heard rumors from family members and friends about some strange beliefs they held.
Sahar Qumsiyeh with her family
Later I discovered that the BYU scholarship amounted to only $10,000 a year, less than one-fifth of my scholarship to American University. I had a decision to make, though the decision appeared to be easy because it was such an obvious choice. Without warning or explanation, however, I began to feel a yearning in my heart to go to BYU.
For the first time when faced with making a choice, I decided to ask Heavenly Father for help. Up to this point in my life, my prayers had often been rote, meaningless, and not particularly sincere. The few occasions when I had prayed from my heart were during the hardest times I had ever experienced—when I had asked Heavenly Father to end my life.
After this particular prayer, however, I had this strong feeling in my heart—a feeling I could not deny—saying that I should go to BYU. I did not identify that feeling as coming from the Holy Ghost, but I simply could not shake it. I followed my feelings and committed to pursue my graduate degree in statistics at BYU.
During my first year at BYU, I had the chance to listen to part of the general conference of the LDS Church. At first I listened because I was curious about the idea of a prophet speaking. I don’t remember much at all of what was said in conference, but I sat up and took note when I heard a speaker refer to my land as “Palestine” rather than calling it “Israel,” as most Americans did. This was the first time I had heard any American express what sounded like support for the Palestinians, and I thought a church that did not hate Palestinians must be a good church.
After that session of conference was over, I asked my friend Shae to tell me about her church. Shae told me everything. She started with the Creation of Adam and Eve and the Fall from the Garden of Eden and explained how God has a purpose for our lives in this fallen world. She told me about the plan Heavenly Father has for His children, about the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Apostasy, and the Restoration of the gospel. It was as though Shae were putting all the pieces of a puzzle together, and for the first time I could finally see the beautiful picture—a picture that was so clear and cohesive.
Soon after Shae’s illuminating explanation, Bryce, a friend of mine from class, gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon that had been translated into Arabic.
In the summer of 1995, I finished reading the Book of Mormon. But I never needed to kneel down to ask Heavenly Father if the book was true or if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the true church of God. I already knew the answer deep in my heart and with every fiber of my being. Words simply cannot describe my feelings during this time of study and pondering. For the first time in my life, I experienced a sensation of profound peace—peace and remarkable joy. I wrote in my journal, “I didn’t think that such peace and joy were possible!”
Sahar Qumsiyeh at her baptism
With excitement but also plenty of trepidation, I called my father and mother to tell them that I had decided to be baptized a member of the Church. I don’t think I was prepared for their emotional reaction. They were so mad at me that they called me crazy and brainwashed. My mother said that if I did join the Church, I would never marry, everyone would avoid me, and our family’s reputation would be ruined. When I thought of the fallout that would occur if I were baptized, my heart broke.
Soon I could fight my feelings no longer. On February 4, 1996, I was finally baptized.
Read more of Sahar's remarkable story in Peace for a Palestinian:One Woman's Story of Faith Amidst War in the Holy Land.
Sahar Qumsiyeh was born into a loving Christian family in Jerusalem and raised in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. Growing up in a country torn apart by political upheaval, Sahar struggled with feelings of hopelessness and anger as she watched her people being persecuted, tormented, and even killed.
In Peace for a Palestinian, Sahar shares her experience desperately searching for peace and joy only to find that true peace lies not in external resolution but in following the Savior. As she explains, "We may live in a place with barriers, checkpoints, and restrictions, but we can feel liberated by His Atonement."