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The life Rifqa Bary ran away from

WESTERVILLE, Ohio — Rifqa Bary saw a girl. She kept seeing her. She saw her in the bathroom and the lunch room and the locker room.

"And for some reason," Rifqa said later in a video posted on YouTube, "I told her I was a Christian."

Which she wasn't. Not yet.

"Wanted to fit in, maybe," she said.

Eventually she would run away from her home here and flee to Florida, believing her Muslim family had to kill her because of her conversion to Christianity. Eventually she would become for some a crucial character in a culture war. Eventually her story would fill TV airtime, stoke partisan blogs and spark dueling custody cases in courts in two states.

But this is where it started: Rifqa saw a girl. The girl asked her to go to church. So she went.

The Korean United Methodist Church is a brick building with a low roof on a busy road in Columbus. The sign outside says "Welcome." Inside, on Nov. 18, 2005, people stood and sang, "with fire in their eyes," Rifqa said, and so she did, too. The pastor talked about salvation and invited newcomers up to the altar.

"I felt nothing but love," Rifqa said in the video.

She was 13 then. She is 17 now. The story of her life in between is the journey of a teenage girl, the only daughter in an immigrant family, a brown-skinned, lower-middle-class high school student in a mostly well-to-do, white suburb, looking for a place to belong.

What started as adolescent identity issues and predictable tensions with her parents ultimately became a plan to escape. In her mind, it was her role in an epic battle between God and the Devil, in which she was both a prize and a prophet.

• • •

Home for the Bary family is a second-floor apartment with a tan carpet and two bedrooms. The table in the dining room sits on unsteady legs. The living room couches are draped in blankets to cover the worn upholstery.

This is where Rifqa lived, with her father, Mohamed, her mother, Aysha, her 19-year-old brother, Rilvan and her 6-year-old brother, Rajaa. Her father sells jewelry at weekend trade shows around the South and Midwest. Rifqa shared a bedroom with Rilvan. Rent for the apartment: $850 a month.

They're here because of her.

The Barys are from Galle on the southern coast of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. When Rifqa was 5 she fell on a toy airplane that pierced the cornea of her right eye. Scar tissue built up over the next couple of years. Doctors told the Barys they might have to remove the eye. So they went to New York in 2000 for medical treatment.

Four years later they moved here in large part because of the schools. The school district of suburban New Albany is considered one of Ohio's best. It's 80 percent white, 9 percent Asian, 6 percent black. The campus with its red-brick buildings and tall white columns feels almost collegiate. Average income in the district: $185,000 a year.

At New Albany High, where last year she was a sophomore, Rifqa was on the honor roll and the junior varsity cheerleading team. She was known as a diligent student in the classrooms, and as a friendly, even gregarious presence in the hallways.

At home, her mother cooked traditional dishes, curries and rice with dahl, but Rifqa preferred chili from Wendy's and soup from Panera.

On weekends, she shopped for clothes at stores like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch, spending money she made babysitting and waitressing at the Chinese restaurant in a nearby strip mall.

At home during dinner, over the past few years, she stopped speaking Tamil, her family's native language. Her family spoke Tamil to her, and she spoke English to them. When her grandparents called from Sri Lanka, her mother says, she spoke only "small, small words."

The Bary parents prayed five times a day. Rilvan did not. Neither did Rifqa.

In 2006, she made a baby­sitting flyer that said she was Christian; in 2007, her father found in her room Rick Warren's Christian bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life.

This sometimes made her parents sad, but not mad, they say — their children were growing up in America, not Sri Lanka, so they understood.

Her father says he told her: "You know, Rifqa, you have a brain of your own, you do whatever is good for you, but you were born Muslim — it's your responsibility to learn that, too."

Rifqa was always well-behaved — she didn't even have a curfew, her parents say, because there was no need. In the months before she ran, though, her behavior changed. She turned sullen and stopped spending as much time with her little brother. She started locking the door to her room.

Tensions crested in the spring.

Rifqa says her parents confronted her about her Christianity — her father angrily, her mother tearfully. They threatened to kill her, she says, or take her back to Sri Lanka.

Her parents say that's not true. They both say the confrontations had to do with her overall behavior — late-night Facebooking with guys in their 20s and what seemed to be a new set of friends whom they didn't know.

One night, they say, she stormed out of the apartment.

"It's my life!" she said.

Her friends noticed a change, too: On Facebook, Rifqa Bary became Anna Michelle Matthew.

• • •

Rifqa was forced to live a secret life of sorts, she has said — to friends, in court files, to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — praying and reading her Bible in the middle of the night in her room or the bathroom or the porch on the back of her family's apartment.

Her parents say they knew.

At school, meanwhile, she did nothing to hide her faith.

"She'd read her Bible in class," said Tony Hou, a junior at New Albany. "She brought her Bible with her just about everywhere."

It became, he said, one of the things she was known for — her blue Bible, her name written on the front, in shiny silver letters.

Last fall, she listened to an online sermon given by Jamal Jivanjee, a local evangelical pastor who also was a Muslim who became a Christian. She e-mailed him. They met at Starbucks.

And at some point she started reading the Facebook writings of an Ohio State University student and an aspiring pastor named Brian Michael Williams.

In Williams' writings, evolution is bunk, abortion is murder, Armageddon is near. He said he needed "an army of prayer warriors" for the end of days.

Rifqa grew to consider Williams a friend and a mentor. She started last spring proselytizing students at school. Her father scolded her for it, he said, because it was against school rules.

At home, when Rilvan had friends over, she started coming out of her room and telling them about the Bible, saying they were listening to "demonic" music.

"She was really aggressive about it," said David Sharpe, who last year graduated with Rilvan.

Last spring was when Rifqa also started exchanging Facebook messages with Beverly Lorenz. She and her husband, Blake Lorenz, are the pastors at Orlando's Global Revolution Church, an evangelical, end-times group that says it's "about changing our culture."

Brian Williams baptized Rifqa in June, in Big Walnut Creek at Hoover Dam park, not far from her parents' apartment. She cried and laughed and kept falling over so Williams had to hold her up.

"After she was submerged in the water," said Hou, her New Albany classmate, "she pretty much fainted, she pretty much passed out, literally, from joy."

Rifqa wrote in her journal.

"I am called to the nations," she said. "Send me to the deepest darkest places into the pagan land."

"Lord is preparing me."

"Enemy is after me."

• • •

Some of her friends got a Facebook message from her in the middle of July.

"She basically said: 'My bags are being packed,' " said Jivanjee, the pastor. "She said: 'The day that I have dreaded is now upon me. Pray for me that I would not deny my faith.' "

Sunday, July 19, 2:30 a.m.: Her mother woke up and saw her out on the porch. Her mother begged her to come inside. Her father was out of town for work.

Rifqa came into the living room.

Pictures of her in her cheerleading uniform were on the top of the TV next to the trophy she won in 2003 in an oratorical contest. On the wall in a frame held together by tape was a poster with some verses from the Koran.

"In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Say: O you that reject faith! I do not worship that which you worship, nor do you worship that which I worship. … To you be your way and to me mine."

Rifqa shut her door.

Sometime between then and 8 a.m., she took her toothbrush and her travel pack, wrote a note to her parents, and left.

She took a right on Longrifle Road and a left on Mardela Drive and went to a small brown house a third of a mile away. The Hopsons live there. Their daughter is one of her friends. They knew she was coming. They knew where she was going.

Later that day Williams picked her up and drove her downtown to the Greyhound station. He knew where she was going.

So did people in Orlando. Global Revolution director of operations John Law bought her ticket, she later told FDLE, and the Lorenzes had decorated a room just for her in their home.

Her mother walked into her room Sunday morning. No Rifqa. She called her husband. He came home early from his trip. He called Rifqa's cell phone. Straight to voice mail. He called some of her friends. Nobody knew where she was. He called the police.

In her room they found some books she had been reading. Did God Forsake Jesus? The Prayer of Jabez for Teens. Page 55: "Are you ready to ask God for something huge, something outrageous?"

They found the note she left.

"Jesus is my saviour, I cannot deny Him, nor will I ever. I pray that you find His mercy and forgiveness just as I have. Love you both dearly."

No sign of her Monday. No sign of her Tuesday. On Wednesday, her father went to the Golden Valley Chinese restaurant, where she was scheduled to start work at 5. Maybe she would show. He sat at a table by the window. He looked out at a bank, at a gas station, at traffic on Sunbury Road.

It was 4:45.

It was 5.

It was 5:15.

Rifqa had been in Florida for almost two days.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

What's next?

The next hearing in the case is Tuesday in Orlando. A Florida judge is expected to talk in court with an Ohio judge to discuss the possibility of sending her back to her home state.

About the story

This story is based on court records, police reports, Brian Williams' diary, reporting in Orlando and Ohio, interviews with Rifqa Bary's friends and family, and her words — written on her laptop, said to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and spoken into video cameras and then disseminated on YouTube.

The life Rifqa Bary ran away from 10/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 11, 2009 2:10am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

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