On September 11, 2001 Sujo John sat at his desk on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. He could hardly believe what the past several months had brought. Having wed Mary in January of 2000, he was still a newlywed and she was four months pregnant with their first child. Just six months before, the two had left their native Calcutta, India with only $50, a couple of suitcases and dreams of a better, more prosperous life in the United States. In that short time in America, the two had landed good jobs. Mary worked nearby—on the 71st floor of the WTC’s South Tower.
As he sat typing an email to a friend from church, Sujo confided that he believed God wanted more for him. Having read the Prayer of Jabez, by Bruce Wilkinson, Sujo wrote, “I’ve been chasing stuff in America. I want to be used of God.” He finished his email and hit “send”. It was 8:05 on a beautiful Tuesday morning, and it was time to start working. About 40 minutes later, Sujo was sending a fax and heard a huge explosion that we now know was American Airlines Flight 11 striking the North Tower between the 94th and 98th floors.
Down on his floor, Sujo watched as the world seemed to crumble around him- a huge hole allowed him to see ten floors up. The building shook violently, walls started to fall apart and jet fuel from the planes caused fires to break out everywhere, making every minute more treacherous for those in the building. Sujo made his way to the stairs along with his co-workers and thousands of other workers in the building. He remembers the people’s faces saying the “fear of death was written on the face of everyone.”
A short time later, he heard another loud crash when United Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower around the 81st floor, just ten floors up from where Mary worked. Wondering whether he would get out alive, he was now more worried about what was happening with her. Sujo tried to use his cell phone and those of people escaping down the stairs with him, but he couldn’t get through to her. By the time he made it to the ground level of the tower, an area called The Plaza, the horrors of that day really hit Sujo. Normally, The Plaza was a bustling, lively place, but what Sujo saw was beyond human comprehension. He said, “This place of life, this place of just exuberance where life would be celebrated has now been turned into a place of death, a place of destruction, as I see hundreds of bodies of people that jumped out of those buildings, people who were in those planes.”
As time ticked away and he made his way through the chaos, away from the North Tower towards the South Tower, he felt the ground beneath his feet begin to rumble. Sujo described feeling as if he were being “sucked into a vacuum” as he heard the roar as the upper floors of the South Tower began to crumble. He stopped momentarily and huddled with a group of 15 or 20 people and suddenly became very concerned of what would become of them if they all died without hearing about Jesus.
Until this point in his life, Sujo described himself as a “closet Christian”, keeping his faith to himself and never sharing what he believed about Jesus Christ. Now facing death, Sujo found a boldness he never had and began praying out loud, crying out the name of Jesus. He then realized those people he was with were also joining him in unison as he prayed. He went on from there, stumbling through the dust and debris, covered in soot and wondering what became of Mary.
After the dust settled somewhat, Sujo decided to try to crawl back to the group of people he had prayed with a short time earlier, only to find they had not made it, and had been crushed by the hurricane-force wind and debris cloud caused by the South Tower’s collapse. Downhearted and questioning God as to why He would allow him to survive and not them, Sujo said he felt God’s presence and believed those people were at peace now. After the North Tower followed its twin and imploded, Sujo was shocked and couldn’t believe he was still alive. He found himself out in the street, certain his beloved Mary was gone.
After wandering into a shop, he met a young woman who helped pull bits of glass out of his hair and offered to call someone for him. Just as he handed his phone to her, it began to ring for the first time in many hours. It was about noon by this time, and the clerk handed the phone back to Sujo. The caller ID said it was from Mary’s number, but he was certain it was going to be the worst news…that someone was calling from her phone to let him know she didn’t survive.
He was wrong. When he answered, he heard Mary’s voice. She told him she had wanted to get to work early that day, but ended up running late. When they reunited that night, they made a vow to each other and to God that they would make every day of their lives count. Sujo prayed for God to “rewrite the history of my life”. He knew that he and Mary had not come to America just to make money, pursue success or have financial security. He believed that what was important to God was people…all people.
Fifteen years later, Sujo and Mary live near Dallas with their three children and have started an organization called You Can Free Us. This organization works to abolish the modern-day slavery of human trafficking by rescuing women and children forced into prostitution in the U.S. and around the world. As 21st century abolitionists, Sujo and Mary have made good on their promise to God and have taken their message of survival and hope to people of all ages all over the world.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. sat in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama and penned his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. In it, he explained to a group of fellow pastors why he had to be in that city, which at that time, was the most segregated city in the United States. He wrote, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Perhaps it was that same Spirit that desires to see freedom for the oppressed that prompted Kayla Mueller, a 20-something relief worker from Arizona, to go to one of the most dangerous parts of the world to help people living under the dark shadow of the Islamic State (ISIS). Kayla had done relief work in India in the past. When her boyfriend Omar Alkhani went to Syria to do some internet service work for Doctors Without Borders, she asked to go with him.
They were both captured in August, 2013 after leaving a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Alkhani was beaten and released after two months, but Kayla’s ordeal was to continue on. According to reports that have since been confirmed by American intelligence, Kayla was raped repeatedly and forced into a “marriage” to top ISIS leader and financier Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
During her captivity, Kayla wrote a letter to her family that made its way to them and has since been released. To read it, knowing what we now know, is truly heart breaking. She tells her family she was “in a safe location, completely unharmed.” However, it’s apparent she was just trying to spare them any further worry about her situation. She’s even apologetic, to the point of feeling like forgiveness from them is beyond her reach: “If you could say I have “suffered” at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness.”
She writes about her cellmates who were released…2 Yazidi teens who were also kept as sex slaves. They wanted her to come with them, but she insisted she stay behind because she thought her obviously-American appearance would put them in jeopardy and that they would all be re-captured. So she stayed behind. Though she was hardly old enough to be a mother to the teen-aged girls, Kayla’s family said she became a “mother figure” to them as they all tried to survive together. They were held in the home of another ISIS leader, Abu Sayyaf and his wife Umm Sayyaf. The teens with whom Kayla was imprisoned confirmed Kayla’s forced marriage to al-Baghdadi. He would often come to visit the Sayyafs, and when he did, Kayla was taken to his room. When she returned, she would often be in tears and told the other girls what he did to her.
Her mother, Marsha said, “Kayla did not marry this man. He took her to his room and he abused her and she came back crying.”
Kayla’s death was confirmed back in February of this year, but even now, no one knows how she died. ISIS claims she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, but U.S. officials have not said that those were the circumstances that caused her death. As for the Sayyafs, Abu Sayyaf was killed in a May 16th raid by the elite U.S. Delta Force that intended to capture him, but was forced to kill him because he drew a weapon on them. This lead to a “treasure trove” of new information about ISIS, some of which came from Sayyaf’s wife Umm, who is said to have pretty much spilled her guts about ISIS leaders’ routines and locations. She also corroborated much of what the Yazidi teens had told to U.S. officials about Kayla and the torture she endured to the end of her life at the hands of al-Baghdadi.
What happened to Kayla Mueller is just one example on a long, long list of examples of the inhumanity of the group called ISIS. They behead men, burn people alive, crucify children, throw homosexuals off of buildings and force women and young girls into sex slavery. Kayla saw injustice and oppression on the other side of the world, and like MLK before her, decided she couldn’t sit and do nothing about it. She did what most of us wouldn’t be willing to do: to be a light in the darkest place on earth. She may have lost her life, but she gained so much more, as she clung to her faith in God. In her words, “I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”
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