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Ode: A Christian from Kyrgyzstan sets out to find freedom among 'real Americans'

Chopa Ryskulova
Ally Karsyn

I am the youngest of eight girls. Yes, eight girls. We all became Christians in a Muslim country.

My second-oldest sister, when she was in college in Kyrgyzstan’s capital city of Bishkek, she met an American woman who was Christian. My sister learned about her faith and about her, and she really loved that. She was the first one in our family who became Christian.

Of course, when she came home from college, my mom freaked out. She didn’t understand. My parents called themselves Muslims, but they didn’t fast or pray or go to the mosque. My dad worked in government. He believed in God but didn’t practice any religion.

I turned to God in middle school. One boy was bullying me, saying I was a bad kid because I didn’t have a dad – he died when I was 3. I ran to the bathroom, sat on the floor and cried. That’s when my heart opened up, and I asked God into my life to protect me.

As a believer in my country, you have to gather in secret.

Kyrgyzstan’s constitution claims to provide religious freedom, but the 2008 Religion Law criminalizes unregistered religious activity. Organizations applying for registration must have at least 200 adult citizen members. Before the law passed, you only needed 10.

The church I went to had about 40 members. Every week we met in the basement of an office building, we ran the risk of being caught and punished. We had to hide. We knew we didn’t have enough people to register, but at the same time, we could not stop worshipping.

So our church operated underground – always scared to welcome in strangers. They could be government spies. While there was a certain amount of fear, we had a reason to be joyful too. At Sunday services, we laid down long, thin blankets on the ground and gathered around a coffee table with tea and snacks like a family. The women sat in a humble position with their knees pulled close to their chests. The men sat cross-legged.

Together, we’d listen to a sermon and sing, accompanied by a single guitar. One of my favorite songs was “Good, Good Father” by Chris Tomlin. I really loved that song because I never knew my dad. Together, we’d share and pray and console each other.

When I came here to the United States in 2014, I found a new church family that was open to everyone. In an auditorium that seats over 1,200 believers, I look around and think they’re so lucky. They’re so blessed. They had freedom. Freedom to worship.

You can die because you are a Christian in my country.I knew a woman who was telling people about Jesus in the park. She was arrested and put in jail. Fortunately, that never happened to me, but I still got in other sorts of trouble.

In college, I was so passionate about my faith and started sharing the gospel with my friends. Some people would understand. Some wouldn’t. A lot of people would say, “You are a kaffir. You are a hypocrite, a traitor. You don’t belong to us at all.”

That really hurt, but I didn’t care. I wanted to tell them what I believe and what is true for me.

But then, my teachers found out what I was doing, and eventually, the dean of the college got involved. I was called into her office and she said, “If you don’t stop talking about God, we are going to expel you.”

They knew everything about me – where I went, who I talked to, everything.

I stayed in school, but some of my friends and teachers wouldn’t talk to me anymore. Everything in my life is about my family and my faith, but that didn’t leave me with many friends. It was hard to finish that year. I kept looking forward.

I always wanted to go out and explore the world. I had been studying English and wanted to come to the United States to be around English-speakers. I knew there was something more. There was a work and travel program. I didn’t think I could afford it. It was pretty expensive.

But then my sister got a bonus from work, and she gave the money to apply and get a visa. Out of 30 students, only three of us got a visa. I was one of them.

I came to the United States, and immediately, I wanted to know everything about it. I knew I wanted to stay because of the religious freedom you have here. I knew I would be safe because, right on your money, it says, “In God we trust.” When I told my mom about my plans, she wondered how I was going to survive. I was only 19 years old and totally alone. I had no friends or family to lean on but found the kindness of strangers.

I lived in New York for about six months before moving to Sioux City, where one of the other students from the program had found a job and an apartment. I went to live with her.

I always wanted to experience real American life. You know, New York is really big. There are no real Americans.

My roommate actually went back to Kyrgyzstan to be with her boyfriend and get married, but I’m so thankful to be here.

For now, I sell sunglasses at a kiosk the mall. I’m also working on getting a GED. I left all my school transcripts in Kyrgyzstan. I’m starting over to get a better education.

Here, I have a future full of opportunities. I know exactly what I would be if I was still in my country. I would be persecuted. I would be single with little hope of finding a nice Christian man who shares my faith. And as a woman, I would be told that I don’t need to get an education or go to work. Instead, I’d be expected to get married, stay home and have a bunch of kids.

I want more than that, and by being here, I have the freedom to worship, the freedom to dream.


Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.

The next event is 7 p.m. Friday, February 3 at {be}Studio in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Be Moved: An ode to transitions and transformations.”Tickets are available at kwit.org.

For more information, visit facebook.com/odestorytelling.

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