The Uncommon Life of Lucia Da Silva

By Esther Kline
Dec 8, 2020

The first time I met Lucia Da Silva, we climbed the stairs of an apartment building in Amman, Jordan, to visit a Syrian refugee family, pausing at each landing so her heart could rest. Once inside the fourth-floor apartment, I watched as women and children greeted her with kisses and hugs and brought her a plastic chair and a glass of tea. Silhouetted in light coming from the open door, Lucia examined a sewing project one of the women had completed, then turned to converse with the men on social and spiritual topics. 

In the months following I watched Lucia pour herself out for her Syrian and Iraqi sewing students. When she wasn’t teaching, she was visiting them, and when she wasn’t visiting, she was interacting through WhatsApp. Despite outward appearances—gray hair clipped short and often covered with a crocheted hat, her elderly frame wrapped in a red wool shawl—she was a powerhouse of love.

“As long as I am living, I am for the Lord’s work,” Lucia says. “As long as I’m on this earth, I am for the Lord’s ministry—tired, sick, persecuted, thrown out, wounded, in pain—I’m for the Lord, as I am.”

Perhaps this is one reason Lucia’s ministry among refugees has flourished, one reason she is magnetic: like those she serves, she has experienced trauma and grief, has felt forgotten and abandoned. And yet she has not lost hope, the thing her students need most.

SEARCHING FOR A FATHER

Lucia doesn’t know what year she was born, though she tends to reckon her age by a 1956 birth year, contra the paperwork of the hospital where she was born. Though born in Baghdad, Iraq, she spent her childhood in Mosul. She was raised by her mother’s parents, active Catholics whom she remembers as loving and generous. 

Lucia attended a convent school in Mosul and often visited one of several churches nearby after school to spend time with the nuns and monks. Lucia loved one nun especially. She remembers kneeling with her in the church and sometimes even falling asleep beside her as she prayed.

“I never distinguished between denominations,” Lucia says. “I just saw Jesus.” 

Enfolded in her grandparents’ care, Lucia was not aware she had parents until sixth grade when her mother appeared at her first communion. She invited a resistant Lucia to spend a week in her Baghdad home so she could meet her half-siblings. There Lucia also met her mother’s husband—a man they said was not her father.

“As long as I am living, I am for the Lord’s work,” Lucia says. “As long as I’m on this earth, I am for the Lord’s ministry—tired, sick, persecuted, thrown out, wounded, in pain—I’m for the Lord, as I am.”

When one of Lucia’s relatives came to return her to Mosul, her mother beat him to the point of bleeding with a piece of wood and refused to let Lucia go, saying she needed someone to care for her kids. She eventually became physically abusive with Lucia too. This cycle continued until Lucia, still in sixth grade, was married to a Muslim Jordanian tailor more than 20 years her senior. 

Married and pregnant at age 14, Lucia continued searching for her earthly father. Knowing he’d come from India—which explained her caramel-colored skin—she wondered if he was a spy. This led her to attend a public execution of several spies, where Lucia lifted the condemned men’s hoods to examine their faces. When she returned home, she held a picture of her father and wept.

“I would hear from here two words, from here two words, from here two words on my father,” she says. “I wanted to gather a correct picture of my father—always the picture was cut off from me.” 

After the birth of her son, Lucia’s neighbors—a mix of Iraqi and Kurdish Muslim women and one Jewish woman—banded together to help her raise him. They supported her through the births of her daughter and second son as well; one of the women even nursed her daughter. After a few years at home with the babies, Lucia herself returned to school.

In the late 1970s the secret police instructed Lucia to appear at the ministry of residency and borders. Since her father had not been Iraqi, Lucia didn’t have Iraqi citizenship, which threatened her with deportation. 

“The first question they asked me [was], ‘Where is your father?’ I told them, ‘You are the ones who know, not me. I haven’t seen my father.’” As the interrogation continued, the officers asked Lucia many questions about her parents, driving painful barbs into her soul.  

On that day, however, Lucia gathered more information about her father. He had come from India with a British passport, the police told her, working as an electrical engineer for the Mercedes company. He spoke 12 languages and there was no proof he’d left Iraq. Years later, Lucia learned that his ancestors were Portuguese missionaries to the Arabian Gulf who’d eventually settled in Bombay.

 

A PROFESSION THAT GIVES

Many weekday mornings find Lucia in the sewing room at an evangelical church in east Amman, surrounded by industrial-grade sewing machines, an embroidery machine, cabinets stuffed with fabric and notions, a table for drawing patterns, and a mannequin in various states of dress. A spectrum of women come here to learn—Christian Iraqi women who’ve fled ISIS, fully-veiled Syrians who’ve escaped the civil war. Lucia sits among them, ready to help them practice what she’s taught in her sewing theory classes.

When asked why she enjoys her trade, Lucia responds simply. “Honestly, in sewing, I felt in it great love—love for others, because you’re giving, you’re making someone else happy.”

She also saw that through her profession, she could benefit others—which Lucia has certainly done. Since 2016, when she began teaching sewing to women who arrived in Jordan as refugees, she has trained more than 300 women and girls, equipping them to work from their homes as seamstresses in their neighborhoods. 

Lucia first learned to sew from the nuns in Mosul, but her learning really took off in secret, studying pattern design at a French institute in Baghdad and stealing techniques from her husband, who didn’t want her to learn anything about his trade.

“I made myself look like I was studying,” Lucia remembers. “I’d sit and glance over at him like this, watch how he worked, how he ironed, how he made seams, how he cut. He’d see me and say, ‘Why are you looking? Go and study, you know enough.’ I laughed. I didn’t say anything. He didn’t know I was sewing and that I had customers.”

After she completed her training at the institute, Lucia took a small loan and bought a sewing machine. But because she didn’t want her husband to know about her purchase, she immediately rented it out. Once she’d paid off the initial loan, she purchased a second machine, then a serger, then a pair of electric scissors, all the while covertly sewing blouses, skirts, and dresses for her delighted coworkers.

“It was all God’s plan and arranging,” Lucia reflects. “I didn’t know my husband was going to die and I would need money to raise my kids and handle the responsibility—but God knew and ordained my life so I could provide for my needs.”

 

 ‘JESUS WAS EVERYTHING’

Shortly after her police interrogation, Lucia met with Saddam Hussein to discuss her problem. Saddam and Lucia weren’t strangers—for a period of about six months, she and Saddam had passed each other on the sidewalk while going to work. Once he’d even made a surprise visit to her office building in his role as a parliament member. “He joked with everyone, laughed with everyone, not at all like he was a responsible one, a leader, a representative,” Lucia recalls. “He was simple and very humble.”

At her appointment, Saddam told Lucia she could choose any country for resettlement but that her children would not be able to leave Iraq with her. Lucia insisted she would not leave without them, eventually bursting into tears and throwing her documents in the air. 

“I wasn’t considered with the Christians, I wasn’t considered with Islam, not with the Arabs or the Iraqis, not even with the foreigners,” she says. “It was a painful thing—I was suffocated, lost in the middle of this world.”

A year passed. When she received a court summons, Lucia didn’t respond. When she was notified she had 48 hours to leave Iraq, Lucia marched to her neighbor’s home to use the telephone. “Please, give me Saddam Hussein,” she said.

“He’s with you, speaking.”

“It’s Lucia.”

“I know. Go ahead, Lucia.”

“I want you to give me citizenship.”

The next day Lucia went to Saddam’s office, where an assistant told her she would not be deported. But a few days later, at Iraq’s general security center, she sat in an interrogation room with an officer who accused her of breaking the law by overstaying her visa and not appearing in court.

When Lucia told him she’d appealed to Saddam Hussein, a second officer said he’d actually come from Saddam. “This woman—we’re not going to implement the law against her,” he told the first officer. “This is a respectable woman, and she was born in Iraq. She is considered Iraqi.” 

The first officer continued to question her, raising his voice as if she were a criminal, protesting that perhaps she was a spy. When she got home, Lucia was utterly exhausted. “While I was in the bathroom crying, I was fighting with Christ. ‘You see everything, you know everything,’” she remembers saying. “‘How do you tell us, “I am with you, always with you?’”

Then, one day, someone suggested Lucia read a portion of the newspaper. She grabbed a copy off a newsstand and sat on the sidewalk to read. The owner of the stand asked if something was wrong, and she handed him the paper. “It says that someone named Lucia, they’ve given her Iraqi citizenship,” he said. Lucia couldn’t believe it.

“I went home, I bought chocolate for the kids, I bought fruit,” she remembers. “The important thing is, all the money that was in my pocket—I spent it! I was so happy. I began to have hope for life. I started to have hope to live with dignity.”

After 18 years of marriage, Lucia’s husband died of leukemia after fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. Medically speaking, Lucia should have died before him; while in labor with her second child, the doctor told her she should see a specialist because her heart was very weak. Even after an accident in the late 70s, Lucia scoffed when doctors told her she probably had six months to live.

When pregnant with her fourth child, Lucia finally saw a heart specialist, who was aghast that she was expecting. He told her she would either have to abort the baby or be on bedrest for the remainder of her pregnancy—and even then he couldn’t guarantee that she would survive labor. Knowing she had to live to care for her other kids, Lucia received the abortion at six months gestation. “Until now my tears are for [my son],” Lucia says.

In 1982 Lucia had open heart surgery to repair a congenital defect and three smaller holes in her heart.  During surgery, though she was under anesthesia, Lucia heard the doctor exclaim to his assistants, “I don’t want a breath, not a sound! Be quiet!” A year and a half after surgery, Lucia rattled off to the doctor all she was doing—working for the Iraqi government, caring for her children. He listened, smiling, then told her how during surgery he had accidentally cut a major artery between her heart and lung. 

“Lucia, how it closed up, I don’t know,” he told her. “The vessel was sitting there, as it had been. Of course, it was the presence of Christ. Do you know Christ, Lucia?” 

When Lucia realized that Jesus had miraculously saved her life, she says she felt supernatural strength and joy. She describes how from that point, God began to renew her and she started to read the Bible and pray again.

 “See how much grace our Lord gave me, how much he cared for me?” Lucia says. “And I was always crying, ‘Where are you? You’re not with me. Where are you? You’re not caring for me.’ But he was caring for me. In every step he was caring for me. He equaled the whole family…. he was the father, he was the mother, he was the husband, he was the lover, he was the friend. He was everything. Jesus Christ was everything.” 

In the years following her husband’s death, Lucia quit her government job to develop her sewing business. She became well-known in her field, opening several workshops and working as the personal seamstress of numerous “personalities,” including the wife of Iraq’s secret police chief. She lived through the missiles of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing Desert Storm, the brutal struggles her sons faced during their military service in the 90s. Finally, in 2001, taking advantage of their Jordanian passports, Lucia and her adult children immigrated to Amman. 

 

CHRIST’S AMBASSADOR

One night during Ramadan 2019, Lucia sat with Syrian men, women, and children on the edges of a plastic mat covered with platters of chicken and rice and wedges of watermelon. After the meal, conversation turned spiritual, and one of the young men objected to basic Christian beliefs. Lucia listened, then responded gently but authoritatively, quoting the Qur’an about the nature of Jesus. As I listened, I recalled a time Lucia and I had sat in her son’s van, listening to the Qur’an on the radio. Lucia had told me she listened to the Qur’an regularly so she could build bridges in conversations with Muslims.

Lucia didn’t always have this approach to sharing. Though she’d always lived and worked with Muslims and even married one, she’d been like most Arab Christians, who tend to insulate themselves from deep interaction with Muslims. Lucia even says that when she arrived in Amman, she “hated” Islam, though most of the Muslims she’d known in Iraq had supported her financially and personally, even defended her from those who hurt her. 

“The small percentage that hurt me a lot,” Lucia confesses, “because of them I began to have hateful responses toward Muslims.”

In their new city Lucia’s daughter began to contact evangelical churches her friends had recommended, while Lucia mostly maintained her Catholic traditions. One day her daughter brought an American pastor to their home for dinner. Right away, in broken Arabic, he proclaimed to Lucia, “You are the bride of Christ!” Lucia says she fled to the kitchen and began banging pots around. “I’ve seen American films,” she thought. “I know they’re crazy in their emotions, but I didn’t know this.”

“The one thing that I am not able to ignore is his teaching: ‘Go and make disciples,’” she says. “Who am I to not share with them? Who am I to not pray for them, that he will provide for their needs? … Who am I to refuse to use the grace he’s given me?”

In other encounters, evangelicals encouraged Lucia to surrender her life to Christ. As someone who loved Jesus, prayed, and fasted, Lucia was offended by those who wanted to “introduce her” to him. When a church gave them a food box and offered her 200 Jordanian dinar so she could buy a sewing machine and work from home, Lucia bristled, suspicious they were trying to “buy” her. 

But as Lucia witnessed the sincere love of evangelicals, she softened and began to attend not just one but two churches, listening to sermons, participating in ladies’ meetings, going to retreats and conferences. She watched the foreigners in particular, impressed by their love for the poor, their great patience in outreach to Muslims. 

When the American pastor invited her to start teaching kids in AWANA, some of them Muslim, Lucia said, “No, I don’t love Muslims!” The pastor countered, “No, you love them!” Then Lucia remembered an Iraqi priest’s words to her long before, that she was a messenger, an ambassador for Christ. “The Lord will arrange for you great things,” he’d said. “He will use you.”

Easter 2005 Lucia told her pastors she’d surrendered her life to Christ—and from that time she dove deeper into ministry, teaching Sunday school, learning how to share with Muslims, and visiting Iraqi refugees. Eventually the Jordanian secret police took note and told Lucia to leave the church. With great sadness, she did, putting her ministry on pause until 2008, when she connected with another local body. She studied two years in their theology courses, as well as participating in visiting ministry.

When she got to Amman, Lucia says she had nearly forgotten her sewing skills. Once, while visiting her daughter’s workplace where she was employed as a seamstress, Lucia stared at the gowns. “Believe me, in that moment I felt like I didn’t know anything,” she says. “Nothing.” 

After hearing about her professional experience in sewing, a British couple in Lucia’s church interceded for her. Through their prayers, Lucia says God worked a miracle, restoring her memory that had been erased by the trauma she’d lived through in Iraqi in the 90s. In 2016, she began to teach basic sewing skills, pattern construction, and more advanced techniques to women from all backgrounds.

Teaching is just one side of Lucia’s ministry. In a culture where hospitality is paramount, visiting is the other, crucial element. Lucia visits as many of her students as she can; in this way she gains access to entire families, assessing their physical needs and gauging their spiritual interest by telling parables and prophet stories. She admits she cannot not talk about the fatherly love of God, which she craved so long as a child.

“The one thing that I am not able to ignore is his teaching: ‘Go and make disciples,’” she says. “Who am I to not share with them? Who am I to not pray for them, that he will provide for their needs? … Who am I to refuse to use the grace he’s given me?” 

In Jordan, proselytization or “inviting” someone to leave Islam is illegal. Lucia never does this, though, and she’d be the first to say so. Rather than asking people to convert, she invites all to experience an intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Using stories of the prophets recognized by both Muslims and Christians, she traces God’s plan of salvation and emphasizes how he always provides a sacrifice for sins. 

Though high blood pressure, diabetes, and an untreated mass in her chest sometimes slow her physically, Lucia’s approach to relationships is always proactive. She recounts how once a younger woman serving with her complained about always having to call the women. 

“You need to be a servant and love Christ,” Lucia instructed her. “You are the one who takes the initiative, you are the one who goes, you are the one who follows up. Yes, this is what they need, so that you will make clear the love of the Lord to them. This is what I’ve learned from ministry and what I’ve lived.”