Human rights activist recounts journey to Judaism from Islam

Ayanna Nahmias

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

International human rights advocate Ayanna Nahmias will describe her remarkable journey from being a Muslim in Africa to becoming an Orthodox Jew in America during a program Sunday, Dec. 6, at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion.

Nahmias will relate the experiences in her life that allowed her to escape a repressive and abusive life in the African home of her Muslim father. After what she describes as “much spiritual, soulful and personal reflection,” she converted to Judaism. She now lives in Washington, D.C., with her biracial Jewish son and her mother, a Baptist minister who fully supports her life choice to live as an Orthodox Jewish woman.

Nahmias is editor-in-chief of the online Nahmias Cipher Report (ayannanahmias.com), which features articles written by her and other contributors concerned about international affairs and human rights.  

A native of Florida, Nahmias spent her formative childhood in Africa, where her father, who recently died, converted the family to Islam. She endured verbal and physical abuse and her father’s attempt to marry her off to a much older man. 

She escaped with her mother and siblings but, at the request of her father who ostensibly wanted to see his children, went back to Africa. Instead, he tried to keep them in Africa while forcing Nahmias to live apart from her siblings.  She escaped to America a second time, this time with the intervention of the U.S. government. Her determination to transcend her past motivated her to publish the Cipher Report.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Jewish Light recently caught up with her for an interview.

 

What motivated you to risk the first escape from your father?

We escaped from Tanzania with my mother in 1978. She risked her life and my life to escape from my father after having endured years of physical and mental abuse. 

Subsequently my father returned to Nigeria and began to teach mathematics at the Bayero University Kano, which is situated in Kano State. My father liked this area of Nigeria because, even then, there was a community of radical Islamists. Today, it is an area of the country that suffers repeated attacks by extreme Islamist groups like Boko Haram.

 

Why did you go back to visit your father?

Since my parents weren’t legally separated, my father retained some custodial rights and thus contacted my mother to ask if we could visit him. My mother told us of our father’s request and that her only caveat was that if we decided to go, then we had to all go together. My brother and sister decided that they wanted to go, and I knew that if I didn’t accompany them, I would never see them again.

Two weeks later, we departed the country to see our dad after being separated from him for three years. Almost immediately upon arrival, it became clear that he was not going to let us return to America. 

In Nigeria and in the Muslim faith, the man has complete ownership of his wife and children. So when he made us call our mother to have her send our school transcripts so that he could enroll us, I knew that if we were going to leave, I would have to take drastic measures.

 

Tell us about your life in Nigeria.

First, my father enrolled my brother and sister in a private school in Jos. He intended to separate us geographically.  And for a second time, he was arranging a marriage for me to a much older man. It was as if he was intent on breaking me by any means necessary.

As intent as he was on subjugating me, I was equally determined that we would not remain in Nigeria. My father knew that I wouldn’t leave without my brother and thus took him with him every day. My sister and I remained home all day and, shortly before evening, we would begin to prepare dinner in preparation for their return. 

Once our departure tickets had expired, and because my father had confiscated our passports and money, he seemed satisfied that we could not escape. Thus, on the last day before we were to depart to Jos. my father left my brother home and went to the university to wrap up the semester. I knew then that this would be the only window of opportunity for us to escape, and I took it.

 

Your father recently passed away.  Had he made any attempt to get in touch with you in the years since you left Nigeria for America?  Do you feel any kind of closure in view of his passing?

My father came to see me once while I was living in Florida. He had come to the States to visit other family members and to take care of some health issues.His passing didn’t provide me with closure. 

However, the fact that I inherited his land and razed his house and other termite-ridden structures to the ground provided me with a sense of closure. It was particularly poignant that the daughter whom he hated is the only one who shared his love of Africa and has inherited his land.

 

What was your first step towards becoming Jewish? How did your mother, a Baptist minister, react?

One day I told my mother that I would like to go to a synagogue to see if Judaism would fit me better, as it is the source, the beginning of the three Abrahamic faiths. Also, though each side may vociferously argue to the contrary, Judaism more closely resembles Islam in practices such as the separation of men and women during prayer. 

My mother was so excited that I had found a way to God she began to research different streams of Judaism and found some shuls which my son and I  could attend. My mother was so happy that I found God. That I developed a relationship with Him and that my relationship was with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

 

How did you come to embrace Orthodox Judaism?

I discovered that I preferred a more traditional expression of Judaism and thus migrated to Chabad. It was a wonderful experience. So caring, spiritual and educational. I wanted to become an Orthodox Jew right then and there.

 

Did your son also convert to Judaism?

My son, who is 14, converted first through the Conservative movement and then through an Orthodox conversion.

 

What kind of information do you dispense through the Nahmias Cipher Report?

 

I seek to provide people with human interest stories from around the world, stories that don’t raise the attention of mass media because they don’t possess popular appeal or aren’t “sexy.” There are so many people who live extraordinary lives in unpretentious circumstances without fanfare. There are others who suffer in silence. 

At heart I started the Nahmias Cipher Report as part of my deep commitment to humanity and tikkun olam (reparing the world).

 

Any other thoughts that you would like to share with readers of the Light?

I did not become Jewish in reaction to or a rejection of Christianity or Islam. I became Jewish because I have a Jewish soul. Through Judaism I discovered Hashem, cultivated a dynamic relationship through the unique approach to davening, and found faith. 

I now possess the ability to press forward through tough situations not because I have the stamina and tenacity, but because I know that I was created for a reason, that my life has purpose. Hashem spared me time and time again, so that I can accomplish my purpose.