Jerusalem’s former Relief Society president used her experiences as a Palestinian Christian and the West Bank’s only Mormon convert to counsel BYU Arabic students about enduring trials Feb. 15.
Sahar Qumsiyeh said understanding why trials are necessary helps people to endure them. This is what initially attracted her to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when she was a graduate student at BYU in 1996. The plan of salvation helped her see the purpose of suffering in life. Before she had thought God hated the Palestinian people because of the wars and deprivation they experienced.
She returned to her home in Bethlehem after joining the Church, and although her family — native Christians — was hostile to her new faith, she was determined to attend church every Sunday. The only LDS branch in her country was at the BYU Jerusalem Center, and Palestinians from the West Bank could not legally enter Jerusalem. Qumsiyeh was determined to be obedient, and for 14 years she spent every Sabbath getting around military checkpoints illegally so she could attend church.
“I did experience a miracle every time,” she said. “Those 14 years were some of the happiest of my life.”
Her obedience became more difficult as the political situation escalated. At first Qumsiyeh simply walked around a military checkpoint and climbed a hill. By the end, she had to take a taxi to a point more than an hour south of her home. She climbed through a hole in the newly constructed Israeli separation wall while the guards changed and hopped over a 10-foot wall, then hoped she could catch a bus to Jerusalem.
Qumsiyeh said the journey was dangerous at times, as she was shot at occasionally, but she felt that the Lord was protecting her.
The only concession she made was to wear pants during the journey and change into a skirt once she reached the Jerusalem Center. One experience of this protection occurred when she and a Muslim Palestinian woman were told to get off the bus she was taking and walk through a military checkpoint. Neither had the correct paperwork and could be caught and arrested, but the Muslim woman prayed that God would distract the eight Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint. Both women walked through unnoticed.
Qumsiyeh described strategies she had used to find hope and happiness during her trials: trust the Lord, obey the commandments, be grateful and content without complaining and endure to the end.
“I have had an easy life because I have been helped,” she said. “Think about the Savior and what he’s done for you.”
She told of one experience in which her town was being bombed, and the electricity was out. Her family went up to the roof to see whether their relatives’ homes were being targeted by the bombs. “I went to my room and prayed, and I felt peace,” she said.
Qumsiyeh said she thought she would be miserable when she returned to the West Bank after leaving BYU, as she had been before because of the political unrest in her country. For example, she had been tear-gassed so many times she is almost immune to it.
“I thought that when I joined the Church, I would go home, and I would be miserable again, but I wasn’t,” she said. “It’s easier because you have help from the Lord.”
Qumsiyeh’s problems getting to church finally ended when she received a job with the United Nations, which gave her a pass to enter Jerusalem legally. She then served a mission in London and is now excited at the prospect of an LDS branch in Bethlehem to help other Palestinians attend church more easily.
Stefanie Stakland is majoring in Middle Eastern studies and was responsible for organizing the fireside and inviting Qumsiyeh to speak. Stakland said Qumsiyeh was an example of living in faith during hardships, such as being placed under curfew — not allowed to leave home — in Bethlehem.
“In addition to applying the principles of the gospel in our lives, she taught us of her homeland of Palestine,” Stakland said. “Palestine is a beautiful land with wonderful people who go through so much hardship, many being displaced from their homes.”
Matt McKnight attended the fireside after graduating with a master’s degree in sociology. He did an internship in Jordan and met many Palestinians. He said Qumsiyeh’s testimony helped him understand not only God’s relationship with the Palestinian people but also how God can help him and others in their trials.
“I believe this was an event that was able to open my mind about how God can help us throughout trials,” he said.
Qumsiyeh spoke at an annual fireside for Middle Eastern studies students before leaving Utah to take a position at BYU—Idaho, where she will teach mathematics.