BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Karim Shamsi-Basha spent his childhood in Damascus, Syria, and when he tells that to Christians, they ask if he knew the road to Damascus where the Apostle Paul converted to Christianity.
Shamsi-Basha grew up a Muslim, so for a long time he didn't know what they were talking about. "I would say, 'Yes, we have roads in Damascus.'"
Finally someone told him he should read about Paul in the Book of Acts.
"The first time I read the ninth chapter of Acts, I said, 'Whoa! That's where I grew up,'" Shamsi-Basha said. "Syria is throughout the Old Testament too. Damascus was Damascus before the Bible was the Bible."
Now Shamsi-Basha has written a book about leaving Syria, and about leaving Islam. It's called "Paul and Me: A Journey to and from the Damascus Road, From Islam to Christ."
He has found his own road away from Damascus, but in many ways his heart is still in Syria. His home country has been wracked by civil war for the past two years. President Barack Obama has threatened a military attack in retaliation for Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons. That has been on hold as Russia negotiates with Syria to get the government to surrender its chemical weapons.
Shamsi-Basha said the situation in Syria is complicated, since the rebels, including some terrorists aligned with al-Qaeda, may be worse than the country's dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
"They don't have a Martin Luther King Jr.," Shamsi-Basha said. "It's divided up into all these factions. I really don't know what the solution is. Why does it have to come to shooting? I don't understand the human need for violence."
His two sisters are still practicing Muslims who wear hajib, the scarf that covers a Muslim woman's hair. One lives in New York City and one still lives in Damascus. "I talk to her just about every day," he said of his sister in Syria. "She'll say things like, 'Today they bombed about two streets over.' And I'll say, 'I'm glad you're okay.' She wants Assad to stop. She wants the rebels to stop."
The family wants her to leave Damascus, but that's not easy. "We're trying to get her a visa," Shamsi-Basha said. "There's about a million Syrians trying to get visas right now. There are 2 million Syrians in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan."
Shamsi-Basha left Syria at 18. He graduated from the University of Tennessee and moved to Birmingham in 1989 to work as a photographer for the Birmingham Post-Herald. In 1992, he was covering a fire at Independent Presbyterian Church when he collapsed in the parking lot. He suffered a brain aneurism that could have left him permanently paralyzed.
He was able to fully recover after months of therapy.
"Surviving that and making it all the way back is miraculous," Shamsi-Basha said.
In the book, he recounts that as part of his long spiritual journey that started in Syria.
"It's a love story," he said. "God loves every person on the planet the same. He doesn't love believers more than non-believers. He just cries and watches what we're doing to each other. Why has love taken a backseat to violence? Where did we go wrong?"
Shamsi-Basha was born in Damascus in 1965 and grew up speaking Arabic as his native language, but learned English in school.
During his childhood, Damascus was known for religious tolerance, Shamsi-Basha said. "It was a beautiful city, the oldest continuously occupied city on the planet."
As a child, he didn't think about politics.
"We lived under a dictator," he said, referring to Hafez al-Assad. "For a kid, freedom is not on the radar."
The city was mostly Muslim, but had about 15 percent Christians, he said.
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