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Two years ago I stood on stage at a fundraising gala for the Tahirih Justice Center, and I told an audience of 150 people about my experience fleeing gender-based violence and persecution in my home country of Niger. Tahirih’s a non-governmental organization that protects immigrant women and girls like me – it helped me get legal status in the United States. But I’d never dreamed that I’d receive their Courageous Voice Award, that I would end up on stage in Orange County, California telling my story, or that I’d begin working with the organization as a client advocate and speaker.
Because of this event, I met many new people. And a friend I met that night sparked the spiritual quest that led to me becoming a Baha’i.
I was born a Muslim, and growing up, everyone in my life was also a Muslim. I always questioned why I must be a Muslim just because my entire family was. I completely questioned Islam when I was forced to marry at 17. I was married off to a 52-year-old man, and I was his fourth wife. Everyone told me that this was what my mother had done, what my grandfather had done, and that this was what Islam dictated. A man was allowed four wives, and so I was to be the lowly fourth wife. I questioned a God who forced me to marry a man I didn’t love.
I fled Niger in 2004 because I didn’t want to stay married under those conditions. I didn’t love my husband. I wanted to have a voice, and I wanted to break the cycle of girls forced into marriage against their will. I escaped to live with my aunt, but my now ex-husband was pressuring me to return. I had to flee further. Unfortunately, my attempts to finish my education resulted in my getting trafficked to the U.S.
In 2005 my roommate in the U.S., a Christian woman named Dorothy, played Christian music every morning and before she went to sleep at night. I love music, and growing up in Niger, I loved singing and dancing. So I asked Dorothy what the music was. She said it was music to praise and worship Jesus. I loved her music. One day Dorothy invited me to her church and there was a band and people singing. I started going to church with her a lot. Eventually, I came to know and love everything about Jesus Christ. My heart was full. I loved the stories of his care for the poor and needy.
A couple of years after becoming a born-again Christian, I was still living in the United States, but I began attending an African church. In this church, it was always the pastor preaching, but I worried that his character didn’t match what Jesus taught. It seemed like the pastor only wanted us to tithe, tithe, tithe. It felt like we were handing over our money to glorify the pastor instead of praising Jesus. I worried this wasn’t directing us to what Jesus really said and did, and I knew that there was more to loving God than going to church every Sunday and tithing. My soul was seeking something else.
After years of hardships in my life, after being trafficked to the United States, I got connected with the Tahirih Justice Center, which led me to that fundraising gala in Orange County, That night, I met a woman named Gouya Zamani. She was so kind and friendly, and we struck up an easy conversation. We became friends and she told me that she is a Baha’i. One day Gouya invited me to watch the film “The Gate,” which is about how the Baha’i Faith started. Watching the movie really inspired me, and I wanted to know more.
Soon after that, I began attending a small group Baha’i study class. During the class, we studied the Baha’i writings and discussed how they applied to our daily lives. For example, Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith wrote that “A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding.” In the class, we discussed our responses to questions like, “What effect does a kindly tongue have on words?”
We also learned about the Baha’i teachings about life and death and prayer. I read how the Baha’i writings say that prayers are “communion with God,” and we talked about what is the purpose of prayer and the effect of prayer on our souls.
In the middle of the class, I realized that the Baha’i Faith was what my soul had been yearning for. The more I read about Baha’u’llah, the more I knew his words matched what I had always believed.
When I finished the class, I joined the Baha’i Faith.
Everything I knew in my soul had been confirmed in the Baha’i Writings. I felt I was born to become a Baha’i. I finally had answers to questions I had asked myself earlier in my life, and I actually became closer to Jesus once I became a Baha’i. Baha’u’llah said of Jesus:
“We testify that when He came into the world, He shed the splendor of His glory upon all created things. Through Him the leper recovered from the leprosy of perversity and ignorance. Through Him the unchaste and wayward were healed. Through His power, born of Almighty God, the eyes of the blind were opened and the soul of the sinner sanctified…. He it is Who purified the world. Blessed is the man who, with a face beaming with light, hath turned towards Him.”
When I became a Baha’i, I could finally understand my purpose in life. I finally knew my responsibilities as a human being, as a member of society, and as a Baha’i. Two years later, I love how I keep growing each day, and I love that the Baha’i Faith teaches us that religion is constantly being renewed and speaks to the time we live in.
Becoming a Baha’i gave me the confidence to believe in myself and to be a true lover of humanity. With everything I have been through, it’s been so hard to see myself as important or noble. The first time I read that Baha’u’llah wrote “Noble I made thee,” it gave me so much self-confidence. It became clear to me that each person is born to answer a particular need of humanity. I have a purpose. I am a noble child of God. And I am connected to everyone.