In the hands of a loving God
by Shannon VanRoekel
Jemal Damtawe’s hands, once intimate with an AK47 and forced to kill his own people in Ethiopia, now carry blankets, food, and a message of forgiveness and redemption to desperate and homeless people.
The road he walks today is a stark contrast to the one he trudged for so many years. Smiling with delight in the afternoon sunshine he shares about his former life and the blessings of being able to work as an outreach worker and pastor with Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Only God can hijack a life bent on destruction into one full of compassion, love, and great joy. Jemal’s life is proof.
Jemal was born in Ethiopia, raised as a Muslim (his father was an imam). He remembers many happy times growing up, going to school, and playing games.
On his way to school one day, at the age of fifteen, he was abducted at gunpoint and forced to enter a war that wasn’t his, killing and fighting against his own people and other child soldiers. For two years he lived hell on earth until he and a friend were able to sneak away, making their way to a port in Djibouti, where, after several months of working at odd jobs, they were able to stow away on a large cargo ship. Once on board, however, they were devastated to discover it was headed to the one place they didn’t want to return to—Ethiopia.
Leaving the ship, but stuck in Djibouti, they were soon picked up and put in a filthy prison for four months. Here they were near starving, reduced to fighting over scraps of food in squalid conditions. After their release they still had no documents or papers; another attempt at stowing away seemed their only option.
One night that chance arrived. With several others, they swam for an hour to where a ship was anchored, making their way up the ladder. Once the ship was en route, they were discovered and given jobs to do until they arrived in Israel. Trying, and failing, to pass as Ethiopian Jews at immigration, they were denied entry and forced to return to the ship.
In the middle of the night, Jemal and four other stowaways were forced overboard at gunpoint. Over the next two days, three of the five drowned at sea. Finally swept up on the shore of a small island, but still with no documents, Jemal and his friend soon found themselves in a prison in Massawa, Eritrea, under suspicion of being spies. They endured deplorable conditions and torture for six months.
Although his body eventually recovered from the torture, it would be many years before Jemal’s soul could heal from the terrible things that happened to him there.
Stowing away yet again, he was finally able to escape Africa, ending up in Montreal, where he applied for and was granted residency in Canada. But captivity was not over for him; he had merely exchanged a prison cell for the contents of a whiskey bottle.
He had attempted to embrace this new life in Canada and make the most of the opportunity, Jemal and his new Canadian wife bought and managed an Ethiopian restaurant for a time. A bright ray in his otherwise dismal and tragic life was, at this time, the birth of his baby girl, Bethlehem. But “happy ever after” was not to be and alcoholism crept into his life as his traumatic memories haunted and controlled him. Alcohol was an escape that worked, if only for a time. But it took a heavy toll on his marriage and relationship with his daughter.
“You have to make a choice, Jemal. Us or alcohol,” Jemal recalls his wife telling him. He chose alcohol.
Soon his addiction took a deadly turn: cocaine and crack, leading to gang involvement and violence. He was caught in the cycle of drugs and violence.
“I used to be mean and angry and thought of suicide many times. My life was a nightmare going from one high to the next, trying to keep all my memories and nightmares from my mind.”
After two of Jemal’s friends ended up dead from overdosing, he knew he had to get away. He ended up in Vancouver, specifically the notorious East Side. There he discovered a drug culture unlike anything he had ever seen before, where people used openly with no fear of being picked up or sent to jail. Going from high to high, he knew death was waiting for him, or insanity, after yet another friend died in front of him from an overdose.
One day he stumbled through the doors of Union Gospel Mission, holding very little hope, but also with nothing left to lose. Jemal knew he wouldn’t be alive much longer unless there was a change. Crying out in desperation, “Please help me, God,” he entered UGM’s drug and alcohol program and began to listen to the teachings of the Bible. Soon the Holy Spirit broke through, and Jemal invited Jesus into his heart.
The desire to fall back into using and drinking was not instantly taken away. Jemal learned about God’s love for him demonstrated through the death of His Son, Jesus, on the cross, for the payment of mankind’s sins, including his own. Little by little, his faith began to grow. He started attending church regularly and received counselling through UGM from a man who had the wisdom to help Jemal pray through his memories, producing air and light for healing and peace to begin.
“I began to see a much brighter picture and wondered what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I stopped blaming people and God for my past and began to deal with the pain and memories. God lifted me up and removed the weight and burdens that I had carried around with me for so many years. He helped me to focus and be the new man that He wanted me to be. People now cared about me, prayed for me and accepted me unconditionally,” Jemal later wrote in his book, Forced Paths, Ordered Steps.
Following graduation from the rehabilitation program at UGM, Jemal was baptized and began working for UGM, doing janitorial work first, then six months on maintenance. Receiving his first pay cheque, temptation overwhelmed him, as thoughts of using and getting high filled his mind. Looking out his window didn’t help at all, as he could see people on the street shooting up in front of him. Forcing himself to read his Bible, Jemal found himself on his knees, crying to God for help. And God did help. Jemal writes: “Tears from crying ran down my face as I fell asleep. It was as if God knocked me out. When I woke up at midnight, it was too late to cash my cheque. My desire to use was miraculously gone, and sleeping was heaven-like. God’s presence was right there with me, a warm, peaceful feeling inside. I had cried out to God from my heart, and He had given me peace and rest.”
Jemal did not realize how quickly he would need the strength of the Lord to help him overcome a different kind of temptation. Living alone in his own apartment, a computer on the desk and no one watching, the area of sexual temptation began to overwhelm him, leading him into the dark place of pornography. He turned to God and the Bible, crying out for help and finding verse after verse that brought him to his knees in repentance, the restoration of forgiveness and a clean heart. Finally Jemal picked the computer up and threw it out his window. And peace came in.
Several months later, Jemal could look back and know that temptations to go back into addictions had faded away. He didn’t consider himself impervious, but rather he was filled by the Holy Spirit and satisfied in the life Christ Jesus had blessed him with.
Jemal has been able to visit his family in Ethiopia again, building a relationship with his sister, Lubaba, who lives in Saudi Arabia and has also given her heart to the Lord, worshipping there as an underground Christian. Jemal still thought of his little daughter, Bethlehem, whom he had left behind. When God miraculously brought this meeting about, Jemal was thrilled and humbled to see God’s great grace to him. But the encounter also held sorrow. Sorrow over his sin and regrets.
“God has restored to me the years the locust has eaten,” Jemal states. “Not only do I have a relationship with my twenty-five-year old daughter whom I abandoned as a small child, but by His grace, I even have the gift of her forgiveness and acceptance.”
He writes in Forced Paths, Ordered Steps: ”I am chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, and unconditionally loved and accepted with the hope of spending eternity with God. My love and core identity are in Christ, never altered by what I do or by what others think and say; thus, as I have faith and trust in Him, I am free to spread His Gospel. I know who I am, and I am grateful and blessed beyond words. Remaining in Christ involves attuning my ear to God’s voice, which continues to say, ‘You are my own dear son. I am pleased with you’.”
Jemal’s future goal is to open a full-time care Christian rehabilitation home in Coquitlam.