Ten-year-old, Semra stood with her teacher in the front of her new class in North America. The walls were lined with pictures, pictures of Turkeys, people with black hats, and dried leaves which had fallen from the trees. Semra’s knees shook. She noticed that she looked different from these American children. Her long dress and scarf covering her hair contrasted with the jeans and T-shirts, and free flowing hair on most of the girls. The children were talking together, but she understood little of their babble. A few looked at her and giggled. Her lower lip began to quiver. Her teacher spoke.
“Class, we have a new student. Her name is Semra Ertan. She comes from Turkey,” she said. The whole class exploded with laughter, with some boys even pointing to the pictures on the wall. Semra was humiliated. She swallowed her tears as her embarrassed teacher brought her to her seat. Even though the teacher punished the class for their behavior, the damage had been done. Now Semra knew she would never like her new country. How she wished her parents had never come! Her mind wandered back to the events of the days leading up to that day...
Semra was born in a city in Turkey called Kayseri. Her brother and two sisters were older than she. They lived in a small house with a garden in a village outside of the city. She attended a village school, and memorized her lessons faithfully. But since she was the youngest, the older children sometimes spoiled her a little. In Turkey, families spend a lot of time together, so her sisters had practically raised her. Her sisters, Samira and Nurhan carried her everywhere as a baby, taught her to walk, talk, and played with her. Their family spent many evening hours after the work was finished sitting around, playing games, talking, and drinking tea. Sometimes the men would be at the tea house playing cards and watching a new machine that brought the world right into their lives, a television. Once her brother had brought her to the tea house for a peek. It seemed to Semra that the man in the box was talking right to her!
But Semra loved to play in the garden which was like a grassy yard with fruit trees. She loved to run in the fields and meadows. She loved all the holidays and family times. But most of all she loved her best friend, Ayla. Ayla and Semra were inseparable. As friends can be, each girl seemed to be part of the other. Unless they were at school or studying, they were always together. Sometimes they spent the night in each other’s homes. They shared many secrets. Sometimes, as good Muslim girls should, they did their prayers together. They even had a secret place, under a large tree near a field of wheat.
Semra’s father was an engineer, and worked in a factory outside of Kayseri. He wanted a better life, better education for his children, and he dreamed of a better position in another country. Some of his relatives had gone to Germany to live. He didn’t speak German. Some had gone to America. Semra’s father spoke a little English. Perhaps if he could find a better job in America, he could give a better life to his family. His son could get a good education, and his daughters, besides an education, might find rich husbands who could provide well for them. As much as he enjoyed the peace of his family home, he had to think about the future for his children’s sake. So, he made a decision, and wrote to the relatives in America.
Soon the answer from the relatives arrived. Everyone gathered around as father read it. Semra’s mother gave him many worried looks. Her mother had many friends from childhood in this village. Semra’s brother, Halil, and sisters, Samira and Nurhan, became very excited. But the prospect of leaving, filled Semra with fear. Even knowing that relatives lived there didn’t help. What would she do without Ayla? Her father had decided that they were going to pack up and move to a place called Trafton, where the children only spoke English and where Muslims were few. She had heard lots of stories about American Christians--people who ate pig meat, and didn’t cover their hair as all good Muslim girls had been taught to do. Christians had killed innocent Muslim children during the Crusades. How could they move to such a place? And how could leave Alya? She just couldn’t bear it! She would be so lonely in that strange place without her friend.
Semra ran all the way to Ayla’s house. When Ayla saw her, she knew that Semra was very upset. The girls ran off to their secret place, and Semra collapsed, weeping. She must have cried for 15 minutes before Ayla could quiet her. As Semra explained that they were going to America, even Ayla started to cry. How would they face being separated from one another? It seemed like a part of each girl was going to die.
Finally Ayla sat up as a new thought struck her. “Maybe it won’t be so bad, Semra. We have new neighbors, an American family, who speak Turkish. They helped my mother when she was sick. They are religious people, too. They pray and read their Book all the time.”
“But they’re Christians! How can you trust them? They’ll try to steal you away from our religion. You know their Book has been changed and can’t be trusted,” returned Semra, horrified that her friend had listened to them.
“I know what we’ve been taught. But don’t worry about us, remember my father is the religious teacher in our village. But they have a daughter, Susan. She’s really nice. Maybe she can tell us what it will be like in America,” continued Ayla. Both girls were silent for a time. Then almost as one, they rose and went to Susan’s house.
The three girls warmed up to each other almost at once. Semra wondered whether she had ever seen such kind, peaceful eyes as Susan’s eyes, in anyone else. Both Ayla and Semra could sense the peace in this foreign home. Susan had come from a place near Trafton. They spent hours talking about America, dolls, and all the things girls talk about. But Semra had to know why this girl was so kind, with a goodness that seemed real.
“You’re different from any American I’ve heard of. Why are you so kind?” asked Semra honestly.
Susan was a little embarrassed. “I’m just like any girl, I guess, but I know Someone who loves me and lives inside of me. Because He loves me, I want to love others, too. His name is Jesus.” A discussion followed about Jesus and Mohammed. When Semra and Ayla left, Semra felt better. She would be lonely without Ayla, but if there were girls like Susan in America, it may not be all bad.
The next month was a flurry of activity. Ayla and Susan were in Semra’s home frequently helping with the packing, sorting, and plans being made. When the village people heard that the Ertan family was leaving, family by family they all came over to visit. So in the midst of packing was the constant flow of guests. Finally the day came, the tears were all cried, and Semra’s family boarded the plane in Istanbul bound for New York City.
They arrived and Semra was overwhelmed with the tall buildings, the busy city, and the babble of languages around her. She had learned a little English in school, but there were people from all over the world speaking their own languages here. It was mid-fall, and Semra noticed gaily dressed turkeys and people in black hats on signs everywhere. Semra wondered what it meant. Were Americans celebrating a holiday?
They settled with relatives until her father could locate an apartment to rent, and find a job. Her parents registered her in school, and within a week of arriving in her new country Semra was starting school, where everything would be in English. Semra was scared and lonely. Everything was so different.
Then the first day of school had begun as a disaster.
Her mind snapped back to the present. She understood a few words of the lesson, and the teacher kindly tried to help her. Time went slowly until lunch, and Semra found a bench in a corner by herself. She didn’t feel like eating. Suddenly she looked up to see a girl from her class standing beside her.
“Hi,” the girl smiled at her, “My name is Sofia, and I was born in Bulgaria. Can I have lunch with you?” The girl was offering her an apple.
Semra moved over to let Sofia sit next to her, and noticed Sofia’s eyes. They had that same peace and quality of kindness she’d seen in Susan’s eyes. They began a conversation of few words and gestures, and Semra began to feel better. Whenever she looked at Sofia, she thought of Susan, her friend back in Turkey. Sofia was telling Semra of her first days of school in America. The children had laughed at her, too.
“Why everyone laugh?” Semra was being honest with this new girl, as tears again came to her eyes.
“They weren’t really laughing at you. You see all the Turkey pictures? It’s Thanksgiving. It’s a big holiday here. In English “turkey” is a bird that we cook and eat on Thanksgiving. It isn’t nice, but when they think of turkey they think of a bird. But I think you’re nice. Would you be my friend?” asked Sofia. Semra even smiled a little, now she began to understand the joke. But it still hurt. This girl wanted to be friends. Semra wondered why.
“Why be my friend?” Semra was risking everything.
“Well, I have a Friend, who loves me all the time. And He lives in me. He loves you, too. I think He wants us to be friends. He’s Jesus.”
Semra was stunned. Maybe there was something about this Jesus she didn’t know. How could two girls oceans apart have the same kindness, the same peace. A discussion about Jesus and Mohammed followed, and Sofia promised to help Semra with her English and her schoolwork.