March 24, 2017
Writer: Mackenzie Holbrook
The state of Palestine is a country steeped in religious conflict. The country claims the West Bank bordering Israel and Jordan and the Gaza Strip bordering Israel and Egypt.
Sahar Qumsiyeh is a faculty member in the Mathematics Department at BYU-Idaho who was born in and spent most of her life in Palestine.
Qumsiyeh graduated with a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Bethlehem University and was set to go to Washington, D.C., to get her master's in statistics when she found an ad for Brigham Young University, which was offering scholarships to Palestinians.
"So, I applied," she said. "I had no reason to, nor did I have an intention to actually go."
Qumsiyeh said, after BYU accepted her into the school, she felt a nagging feeling that she needed to attend the school in Utah.
"I really didn't understand the feeling because, even though I was raised Christian, I didn't really understand the role of the Holy Ghost," she said. "So I was being prompted to go, but I didn't know it, but at the time I just had this compelling feeling to go to BYU, and I decided to go even though the scholarship to BYU was way less than the other one."
Qumsiyeh said making the decision to attend BYU was difficult, considering the lack of support she received from family and friends.
"My family thought I was insane because they'd never heard of Utah," she said. "They heard really strange things about the Mormons. So, everyone discouraged me."
She said she wasn't interest in joining the Church when she first got to BYU. She just wanted to get her master's degree.
But then, one day her friend told her she was going to General Conference to listen to the prophet speak. Qumsiyeh was skeptical.
"I'm like ‘you guys are nuts that you think that there's a prophet,'" she said. "And so I went just kind of out of curiosity to see this ‘prophet' person."
As hesitant as she was to listen to the voice of this so-called "prophet," Qumsiyeh remembered one thing about the conference that interested her.
"I don't really remember what was said in conference, but I do remember the person that was speaking referring to my country as Palestine," she said. "So, that kind of intrigued me that an American would recognize my right as a Palestinian, because everyone calls it Israel, and to me, it's Palestine."
After conference, Qumsiyeh asked her friend to tell her about the Church, and after reading the Book of Mormon and understanding the truth of the gospel, she was baptized shortly before she returned to Palestine.
"My family was really against me joining the Church, but I couldn't turn away from it because I really knew with all my heart that it was true," she said.
Qumsiyeh quickly learned she wasn't able to attend church because the only ward near her was in Jerusalem at the BYU Jerusalem Center. Because she is a Palestinian and was living in the West Bank, she wasn't allowed to enter.
Then, she did what many might think impossible.
"I kind of had to sneak in for 12 years to get to church," she said.
Twelve years. How did she pull it off?
"The first little while it was kind of easy where you had to avoid the check point - you climb a hill, you avoid the check point, you try to make sure the soldiers don't see you," she said. "Then, it got harder because they built something we call the separation wall, which is a 25 foot concrete wall that goes around our cities. And so it became really physically difficult and dangerous to go to church, so in 2007 I remember that the only way to enter Jerusalem was in this little hole in the wall, so it was kind of an incomplete part of the wall, which was about two square feet, the hole was really small."
Qumsiyeh said getting to church took about three hours because she had to take an hour-and-a-half taxi ride to the hole in the wall; wait for the soldiers on the other side to change shifts so he could go through without being see; then climb a different 10 foot high wall and wait for a bus to get her, which she prayed wouldn't get stopped by the Israeli check points along the way.
"It was dangerous because I got shot at a few times. It's just not safe to do it," she said.
After finding different ways to get in and out of the city for 12 years, a friend asked her what would happen if she were to get caught.
"I'm like, ‘I don't know," she said. "I've never considered that possibility. I know it's possible, I just don't know what they'd do to me."
But then something happened.
"That very day, I was going back from church and we were on the bus, and normally when you leave Jerusalem, they don't check, but this time, they did and they stopped the bus and only me and another Palestinian man didn't have the right papers to be there, so they let us off the bus," she said. "And I'm like, ‘They're going to arrest us. I don't know what they were going to do.'"
She said she wasn't sure what she was expecting, but the Lord sent her a miracle.
"That's when I got my [United Nations] job, which gave me the papers to be able to go back and forth," she said.
Qumsiyeh was called as the Relief Society President in her branch and then later the District Relief Society President.
"I felt I was doing a lot of good in the district there because I had that permit that allowed me to travel freely, and I felt that I was kind of happy," she said. "And I had a good job and everything was going well."
Then she felt impressed to quit her job at the U.N., which was a very difficult decision to make.
"I didn't know what to do because quitting my job means I don't have a source of income," she said. "It also means that I can't go to church - and it also means that I can't fulfill my call as District Relief Society President."
It took her three months to submit her resignation - and when she did, she felt impressed to serve a mission, which she felt was strange because she was 41 years old at the time.
She served in the England London South Mission for about a year before returning home to find a job.
"When I got back home from my mission, I thought, ‘well, I've been obedient, right? I would find a job easily,'" she said. "And I got home and I didn't find work, and I looked and I looked and it was nine months and I still couldn't find work."
After nine months, a friend in New York offered her a job as a secretary in his office.
"I'm like, ‘well, I have a PhD in statistics, so you know, let's see, OK, it's a job. It's work. At least I'll make some money,'" she said.
She decided to fly to New York to take the required test to accept the job as a secretary, but then she'd have to fly back to Palestine to get her work visa.
"So, I booked my ticket for a week, came to take the test and I was planning to go back and I failed the test," she said.
Despite failing the test, she decided to stay in the United States to look for work.
"If you're here as a foreigner, you need a work visa to find the job, but you need the job to get the work visa," she said. "So, it's like almost impossible for someone without a work visa to get a job."
Qumsiyeh admitted defeat. She planned to move back to Palestine and have her mother support her. But first, she had an interview with BYU-Idaho.
"And so I booked my flight and it was on a Monday," she said. "I had my interview with BYU-Idaho on Friday - like, three days before. But they're like, ‘We can't let you know until a month from now or whatever,' and I'm like, ‘well, I have my ticket.'"
She decided to just assume she got the job at BYU-Idaho and she canceled her flight.
"I stayed, and it worked out," she said. "I signed my contract here one day before my tourist visa expired, so it was like in the nick of time that we were able to make this work."
Qumsiyeh hopes students can learn from her testimony that obedience is happiness.
"The Church gave me so much more," she said. "I was completely depressed before I joined the Church, and I saw no purpose to my life, and when I joined the Church, I found this peace and this joy that I've never, ever experienced. I've lived in conflict my whole life - I've seen people get shot and arrested and beaten and [I've] lived under curfew and all that - I know how hard life can be. But then, when I joined the Church, I'm like, ‘Oh, I'm in the same situation, but I'm happy,' and so I discovered the contrast - what the Church gives to me, what the gospel has brought into my life, and I never wanted to go back to where I was. So, for me, keeping my faith and my testimony was kind of a matter of survival. I didn't ever want to go back to where I was. And as I look back, actually, I would say that those 12 years were the happiest years of my life. It was really, really difficult and I probably don't want to do it again, but I really felt the Holy Ghost, and I really felt Heavenly Father's support, and I saw a miracle every time I would go to church. Like, people are like, ‘well, how did you get through? Everyone was turned back, how did you make it?' They were surprised, and I was surprised, and I was like, "I don't know - I felt invisible a lot of times because there would be a check point and the soldiers would be checking everybody, and I would just walk by and they didn't see me. So, it's kind of a lot of miracles, and I'm grateful for it because, really, it did build up my testimony."
Read more about her story in her personal blog and listen to the interview below.