Expelled from home, rejected by his family and community, intimidated with death threats by his closest friends: this was the new reality Syrian Christian Anwar* faced, following his conversion to Christianity.
That he made a choice like this is all the more remarkable by the life he left behind. Anwar is the son of the community leader or Sheikh – a high status figure.
Anwar, 25, lived in a community of around 700 people in a Syrian suburb, all of them from Alawite background, a sect of Shia Islam. The Sheikh has duties in officiating prayers, funerals, marriages and implementing Sharia or Islamic law.
Growing up, he was taught by his parents and community that he could not be friends with Christians, that they were 'infidels'. As a teenager, Anwar would mock and make fun of a Christian classmate who tried to talk to him about Christ.
Ten years ago, when the Syrian war started, Anwar resigned to a phase of loneliness and depression with no hope for the future. His physical and mental health started deteriorating and he started experiencing suicidal thoughts. It was in these dark days that a Christian friend introduced him to Christianity. Despite being hugely sceptical, Anwar decided to give his friend's faith a try.
"She taught me how to pray. I went into my room, and I remember thinking that I was a crazy person for talking to myself," Anwar told Christian charity Open Doors. "At first nothing changed. However, after a while I became addicted to knowing Jesus. I started watching videos, listening to worship songs and sermons. I completely forgot about suicide."
To hide his transformation from his family, Anwar had to change houses. He was constantly preoccupied by the fear of his family discovering it.
"If they found out the truth, I would be in danger, I could be killed, kicked out of the house, deprived of my inheritance and disowned," Anwar said.
However, it was soon discovered that he was secretly attending church services. As he was the son of a Sheikh, the news spread like wildfire, reaching his parents.
"Don't ever come back here," he heard his sister saying to him on the phone. "My mother is in the hospital because of you. You are no longer my brother. You have no honour." She then hung up on him.
Following the phone call, Anwar went away to participate in a Christian conference. When he returned to the house where he was staying, he saw his room cleared, his bags packed and put by the door. His brother called him and demanded that he leave the house immediately.
Anwar had no place to go. His Christian friend connected him with a church which partners with Open Doors and houses a Centre of Hope: an establishment that provides vulnerable Christians with support. Through the church, Anwar was able to rent a room and got a job at the centre as an English teacher. He also organises activities for children, teaches them about Christianity and provides spiritual support.
"The Centre of Hope gave me a new beginning after my family became strangers to me. I had nothing to belong to, I was alone. Now I've met a new family in the church, and they compensated me for the things I'd lost. If it weren't for the centre, I think I would be homeless, hungry and alone."
There are 40 Centres of Hope in Syria and dozens more in Iraq. At a Centre of Hope, local Open Doors partners reach their communities with hope and help. Some are hosted in church buildings, some are in low-cost, newly constructed sites and others are in repurposed buildings.
Centres of Hope established in Iraq and Syria are a big part of Open Doors' work in the region. Open Doors is raising awareness and support for this work with their Hope for the Middle East campaign.
Through Centres of Hope, Open Doors partners have provided food aid, medical care, trauma care, children's classes, Bible training, business microloans and more to Christians who have suffered from the so-called Islamic State's attacks, or, like Anwar have been shunned by their families.
Safe and happy where he is, Anwar still hopes to re-establish his connection with his family and be accepted by them:
"I still pray for a miracle for my family, to reconnect closely with my family like before, but where I am now is a big consolation for all my loss."
*name changed for security reasons
Zara Sarvarian works for Open Doors UK & Ireland, part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for over 60 years and works in over 60 countries. In 2020, it raised £42 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised about £16 million.