A long trip from Iraq to Dunkirk

New pastor describes challenging journey

Submitted Photo First United Presbyterian Church in Dunkirk has a new pastor. Rev. Rami Al Maqdasi arrived in Dunkirk via Buffalo after leaving his native Iraq. The pastor is pictured with his wife, Raya, who is holding their daughter Lisa and seven-year-old Marilyn.

This is the story of the First United Presbyterian Church of Dunkirk’s new pastor, in his words.

“I am Rami Al Maqdasi, a Christian minster from Basra city – Southern Iraq. I was born in a Christian family who are from ancient times, in the first centuries. I am married and have two daughters.

I am one of three sons and our father worked in a government factory as an engineering assistant. My mother stayed home and sewed clothes. When I was 10 years old, there was a war between Iraq and Iran which lasted eight years. In the midst of that war, many missiles were dropped on buildings and streets. It was such a very scary time and I remember when my father decided to leave our city (Basra) in southern Iraq and flee to Babylon, a city which was safer. While on our way from Basra to Babylon, the missiles were exploding around us as we were taking a taxi to the station to board the train to Babylon.

Then, in 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. This started the Gulf War, a coalition against Iraq. This was such a horrible time in Babylon city. There was no flour to make bread, no rice, and three months without electricity. We were unable to get many things because of the Blockade.

My father decided to take us and go back to our city Basra, where his Presbyterian church existed and he was so happy to find the new building in place. He took us to church every Sunday and at that time, I started to read many books from the church library and, also, the pastor’s library! God was reaching me through these new books and new sermons which I had never heard and read before. One day I came to the Lord and asked Him to forgive me for all the bad things that I did and asked to change my life. After that event and daily thereafter, I felt a growing peace in my heart. My life turned around! I felt a powerful urge to tell people about this great change in my life in high school and college.

I started to serve as youth leader, Sunday school teacher, singer, in charge of the church library, and preacher. Then I sensed a call from God to become a pastor. In 2005, before my graduation from my college’s English department, I visited the Harvard University in Boston and Roger Williams University in Rhode Island with a group of Iraqi students to start a new relationship between the American universities and Iraqi universities. It was such a wonderful experience. After I went back home and graduated, I went to study at the Presbyterian seminary in Cairo, Egypt. In answer to that call, I left my family, relatives, church, friends and culture. I painfully watched from afar the tragedies that befell my native Iraq.

After the seminary, I moved to Damascus in Syria where my wife was living with her family as refugees. We were engaged at that time, and later we were married in Damascus. There were many Iraqi Christian refugees. I got a great opportunity to serve the hundreds of those refugees there. For this ministry, I worked with the Presbyterian Church of Damascus and a Missionary Alliance church. We served these refugees by providing them with food, medications and money for living expenses, such as rent. I served as a pastor in a Presbyterian church in southern Damascus and it was such a great privilege to work with the Synod of Syria and Lebanon.

During this ministry, the situation in Iraq became worse. I learned that many of my friends in Basra had been killed and churches were destroyed by car bombs of radical groups. These groups forced many Christians to leave their homes. I realized that it was dangerous to go back to Basra. I decided to stay in Syria with my family and I worked as a pastor with the Synod of Syria and Lebanon.

After the “Arab spring,” life in Syria became more and more dangerous because of the civil war between the government and the rebels. Also, my family received very serious threats. I realized that we had to leave Syria. I was very disappointed with a feeling of hopelessness because now I had lost my ministry, a position which I cherished. Our hearts were broken, but we did that which we had to do. We decided to go to Erbil in northern Iraq.

I was saddened by the loss of my ministry and I started to think about what I should do now. How would I find or establish a new church? Who would support me? Or should we leave the turbulent Middle East? I had hoped that my church people in Basra would help me, even though I had been away for a long time. Some ministers from Iraq whom I knew very well criticized me for leaving Iraq. Also, these same pastors were opposed to the ongoing process of my family’s emigration to America. They thought that I should serve the Lord in my own country. Their opposition denied me a pastorate in Iraq. I was very disappointed, very sad. I needed to find some work to survive and support my family. My working outside the ministry would be shameful in the eyes of these Middle Eastern ministers.

Despite all of these difficulties, I still had my passion and joy to serve God, to respond to His call to me to minister in His kingdom. I praise God for what happened next. He opened the door for me to minister to thousands of Syrian refugees at a camp in northern Iraq through the Samaritan Purse and Alliance Church! Also, I was helped by my friend who was a pastor from the Lutheran Church in Switzerland. This was a great opportunity to serve God and His people. What a great challenge this was to show these many refugees the love of Christ by our acts of love, mercy and prayer. God provided me (and my family) with this ministry to serve His people and to take care of my family. The Lord was with us and He prepared a table before us.

Eventually, we arrived in America! I was very grateful that God had protected us during those very difficult times in the Middle East. Within a week of our arrival, we became involved at North Church in Williamsville. They helped us with their generosity and very nice friendship since our arrival in Buffalo. God is indeed good!

Once in Buffalo, I resumed a ministry to some refugees from Syria and Iraq. I had a good opportunity to help some refugee families. It was nice to sit and talk and learn about their needs. I helped them by providing food and household supplies. Also during the blessed ministry as a pastoral assistant at a wonderful Wayside Presbyterian Church in Hamburg, I collected household items from Wayside members to help with the Journey’s End organization. I am grateful for this opportunity. The passion that I had for this work in Syria and Iraq has been kindled.

My family and I are so excited for our new calling, and ministry at the First United Presbyterian Church in Dunkirk. My wife Raya is studying English at home and caring for our two daughters, Marilyn who is seven and Lisa who is 22 months old. We are looking forward to living in Dunkirk and becoming a part of the community.