How a Palestinian Woman Found the Church and Risked Her Life to Live the Gospel

Though born in Jerusalem a short distance from where the Savior—already whipped, bruised, and tortured—was executed on a cross, Sahar Qumsiyeh grew up in Bethlehem—the land of Jesus Christ's birth. But the sunbaked streets that Qumsiyeh knew held little reminiscence of biblical starlit skies and angelic choirs.

Instead, Qumsiyeh remembers the echo of bullets, the sting of teargas, and fear. In fifth grade, Qumsiyeh recalls, she heard the familiar sharp clang of rubber bullets outside as soldiers opened fire on children demonstrating at her school. A tear gas bomb rolled into her classroom as a fellow classmate curled up screaming. “We all wanted to go home and be in the safe arms of our mothers—but that was not permitted until the shooting stopped,” Qumsiyeh writes in her memoir, Peace for a Palestinian. Hours after that confrontation, a petrified Qumsiyeh walked home past the same soldiers who had fired at her schoolmates. But they did not shoot.

It would be several years later, when Qumsiyeh was 14, that an Israeli would first shoot at her.

Praying for Death

While playing with her cousins in the street, Qumsiyeh saw an Israeli settler stop her car before opening fire. “I don’t know if somebody threw a rock at her car or what, but she felt threatened,” Qumsiyeh says. “She got out of her car and started shooting in all directions. I remember hiding behind a fence and shivering because the gunshots were so loud. I felt they were going to come through the fence and kill me.”

The violence—fueled by decades of killing, animosity, and unrest—reached a new peak as Qumsiyeh graduated high school and began attending Bethlehem University in 1987, the year the “Stone Uprisings” began. Palestinian men and boys would blockade streets, set car tires on fire, and throw stones at approaching soldiers.

“At the time, . . . I was not interested in politics, so I kept myself distant from these demonstrations. However, what happened on October 29, 1987, changed all that,” Qumsiyeh writes. Late that morning, protesting students gathered for a demonstration on campus. When Israeli soldiers arrived, some of the students hurled rocks over the university’s 10-foot wall. Clouds of tear gas filled the campus, and the wall, once a shield protecting students from direct clashes with the guards, now became a prison.

Qumsiyeh huddled in the science building, catching stinging whiffs of the suffocating gas and watching injured students being dragged to the university’s small medical clinic. “At first their injuries were related to the tear gas,” Qumsiyeh remembers. “Some had passed out, and others were very dizzy. But then we noted students with bullet wounds being admitted.”

Among the wounded was a young Palestinian named Isaac, whose limp body was carried by four students, each bearing a limb; blood was dripping from a bullet wound in his head. “Isaac had been on the roof of the cafeteria hanging a Palestinian flag when an Israeli soldier shot him,” Qumsiyeh writes. “We expected Isaac to be rushed to a hospital. But . . . the soldiers would not allow him or anyone else to leave the campus. We sat there for two hours as Isaac fought for his life. Everyone was silent. Suddenly nothing else mattered. Isaac was slowly dying.”

Then something penetrated the silence. “I remember everyone singing patriotic songs, and it did something to me. It changed something inside me,” Qumsiyeh says. Late in the day, Isaac’s body was allowed to be taken to the hospital, where his organs were transplanted into Israeli patients. “At midnight, soldiers brought Isaac’s lifeless and empty body to his home in the Aida Refugee Camp and allowed only his parents to accompany their transport of the body to a remote field far from Bethlehem,” Qumsiyeh writes. “[They] dug a hole and threw Isaac’s body inside and then covered the hole with rocks and dirt.”

After Isaac’s death, the Israeli military closed Bethlehem University, but Qumsiyeh began attending demonstrations, refusing to use violence but also refusing to let others be slaughtered without acknowledgment. Qumsiyeh walked in protest after Anton, another of her classmates, was stopped by two Israeli border policemen who shoved an automatic weapon into his back and fired three times at point-blank range. They then dragged him down a flight of stone steps to conceal his body while he bled to death.

Demonstration in Beit Sahour after a Palestinian was killed in 2000.

Demonstration in Beit Sahour after a Palestinian was killed in 2000.

“In Israeli law, basically you could kill a Palestinian, you could put a Palestinian in jail, you could beat up a Palestinian—there’s nothing, [no punishment]. Nobody really cares,” Qumsiyeh says. “I started to wonder if Palestinian lives were as important as other people’s lives. . . . All these things I saw made me hate the soldiers.”

With businesses and schools closed because of strict militaryenforced curfews, Qumsiyeh had ample time to dwell on her hatred—on the hopelessness, injustice, and devastation of watching homes demolished, family members imprisoned without explanation, and her nation’s flag torn down and burned. 

“I wondered why God had abandoned me and my people,” Qumsiyeh writes. “I felt my heart fill with the darkness of anger and hate. I longed to die. In fact, during some demonstrations, everyone else ran from the Israeli soldiers while I stood still. . . . I saw no hope in the future; I began to pray to Heavenly Father, asking Him to end my life. One day I prayed with such intensity and faith that I thought He must have heard me.” Qumsiyeh reached the end of that day with her mind, heart, and pain as alive as ever. “I knew there was a God,” she says, “and I knew He listened. [But] because I prayed so much for Him to end my life, and He didn’t answer, . . . I [thought], ‘Well, He doesn’t care.’”

A Flicker of Light

After Bethlehem University reopened, Qumsiyeh received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1993 and quickly determined she wanted a master’s degree—an impossibility in Palestine at the time. After applying for scholarships across the United States, Qumsiyeh received a dream scholarship of $56,000 to American University in Washington, D.C.

But then she received a call from Brigham Young University, to which she had applied on a whim after spotting an advertisement in a local newspaper. Qumsiyeh knew little about BYU except that it was located in a desert her family told her was inhabited by religious zealots who did not drink tea, coffee, or alcohol. Virtually everything Qumsiyeh read or heard about Utah seemed alien and unappealing, which should have made it easy to turn down the $10,000 scholarship offer.

Yet she agonized over her choice. “I lit a candle in the Church of the Nativity . . . and I said a prayer,” Qumsiyeh says. Raised a Christian, Qumsiyeh knew rote prayers, but the only times she had prayed expectantly and sincerely were when she begged God to take her life. “After this particular prayer, however,” she says, “I had a strong feeling in my heart—a feeling I could not deny—saying that I should go to BYU.”

Despite this conviction, she waited for a divine voice, a grand revelation, or the heavens to part, but God provided no manifestations or heavenly signs. In the end, Qumsiyeh defied her family’s wishes and followed the subtle prompting by attending BYU in 1994. 

“From the little I knew about [Latter-day Saints], I figured it would be hard to get used to being around them,” Qumsiyeh recalls. “The strange thing was that from the moment I arrived on BYU’s campus, I felt loved and welcome. . . . I had never seen people treat me that way and respect me the way people did at BYU.”

Despite this embrace of love and kindness, Qumsiyeh felt that the dreams and fears inescapable to her seemed alien to or ignored by those who surrounded her. “Few of my new friends seemed remotely capable of understanding how difficult my life in Palestine was,” she writes.

Qumsiyeh never felt more foreign than when attending church with her Latter-day Saint friends. But the promise of hearing a living prophet encouraged her to listen to general conference that fall.

“During conference, when my friends said the prophet was going to speak, I was curious,” Qumsiyeh says. “One of the speakers referred to my land as Palestine, and that meant something to me. . . . It felt like somebody was acknowledging  my identity and my right.” Qumsiyeh suddenly felt noticed and acknowledged, and she knew that “a church that did not hate Palestinians must be a good church.” 

Her head still ringing with conference messages, Qumsiyeh asked her friend Shae about the Church. Shae began by speaking of the premortal world, explaining the creation, our divine nature and potential, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, mortality, suffering, and life after death. “Others in the room objected to Shae’s approach because they thought she was telling me too much and would confuse me,” Qumsiyeh remembers. “But to me 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.”

Qumsiyeh received a copy of the Book of Mormon in Arabic, and she began relishing opportunities to attend church. She writes, “I learned to love the Church more and more with each visit. Everything that was taught sounded so logical and perfect to my ears and my heart.”

After she finished reading the Book of Mormon in 1995, an unshakable peace enveloped Qumsiyeh. She says, “I just remember that good feeling of peace that I [had] found the truth. I just knew it. I finished reading the Book of Mormon—I never needed to kneel down. I never needed to ask because . . . I already knew the answer deep in my heart and with every fiber of my being.”

However, knowing the truth and becoming a member of the Church were two separate crossroads for Qumsiyeh. By committing to baptism, Qumsiyeh risked ostracism and persecution by her people and the heartbreak and antagonism of her family. But when Qumsiyeh’s friend asked her, “Sahar, are you willing to follow Christ and be baptized?” her one-word reply changed her life: “Yes.”

Sahar Qumsiyeh on her baptismal day. She became baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while attending BYU.

Sahar Qumsiyeh on her baptismal day. She became baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while attending BYU.

On February 4, 1996, with 160 friends gathered to support her, Sahar Qumsiyeh was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “As I came out of the water, I knew that I was born again,” Qumsiyeh writes. At that moment, she understood that Heavenly Father loved her, heard her, and had indeed answered her most desperate prayer: “Heavenly Father did end my life—He ended my life of misery, despair, and pain and gave me a new life of light, peace, and happiness.”

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