On a snowy December night, at a holiday party in Boston, Anna met Raffi. Their meeting seemed like divine providence or perhaps a dose of destiny. Their time together was magical until about a month into their blossoming relationship, when she learned that he was a devoted Muslim who practiced Islam.
They both live in Western Massachusetts and have asked to tell their story under pseudonyms, to protect their families.
"Initially, I was scared," Anna said. "Raised in a Catholic home, I didn't know what to think."
Like Anna, some Americans would be shaken by such a revelation. Islam is purportedly one of the most misunderstood religions in the West, and for many, the Islamic faith is still inherently linked with terrorism and anti-American sentiment from the Middle East. But being rational, spiritual, educated and in love, she endeavored to understand the truth in being a Muslim.
"I learned. I read books and watched videos," she said. "I wanted to understand what Islam really meant. I discovered so much and found that many Muslim people truly understand their faith and it impressed me."
Through education and patience, she soon developed a respect and deeper understanding of Raffi and his faith. So when he asked for her hand in marriage, she accepted.
But breaking the news to her parents nearly brought her relationship with Raffi to an end.
"When I first told my parents, they were very upset," she said. "They made me watch the movie, ‘Not Without My Daughter,' and it terrified me."
Released in 1991 and based on a true story, the movie shows the escape of an American citizen and her daughter from her tyrannical husband in Iran.
"I understood [why they did that]. They were affected by the media and television," Raffi said. "They didn't know me, and the things they heard about Muslims and seen Muslims do were quite bad. They love their daughter, and they were afraid for her."
Despite her parents' uneasiness, Raffi and Anna soon married.
And she has now embraced his faith as well.
"I went to Catholic school from first grade to graduate school," she said. "My parents go to church every day, not just on Sundays. My parents are devout Catholic people and raised me the same. I never thought I would change, and Raffi never asked me to change. But the more I learned about Islam the more it resonated with me. There were so many similarities between [Catholicism and Islam] that it wasn't that much of a transition for me."
Both religions hold annual fasts, such as Lent for Catholics and Ramadan for Muslims. Both the Qu'ran and the Bible hold Mary in high esteem, and both religions believe that worship of their God should be continual and daily.
"I was very sick once." Anna remembered. "I had a cyst the size of a football that had to be removed. Raffi told me to say Hemdu Lellah. I thought, that might work for you, but I don't think it will for me."
"It means ‘Thank God' in Arabic," Raffi explained. "She was sick and in pain. She couldn't see what there was to be thankful for. But perhaps God put her in that situation to avoid something worse. It's like, if you get a flat tire today and are late for work, don't get upset. The flat tire was put there to possibly prevent you from a more serious accident down the road. Perhaps that flat tire saved your life."
"It was about four years into our marriage that I really started to lean toward Islam," Anna said. "I began observing Ramadan more and appreciating the meaning. I began praying more. It is a different way of thinking. It's freeing.
"It is still a work in progress for me," she said, "but I believe being Muslim is for me. It is the way I wish to live my life. Since I've embraced Islam, I feel as though things in my life have been tweaked and perfected."
Her parents have struggled with her decision.
"I love them, but sadly this still causes strain on our relationship," she said. "Sometimes it's really good, then something will happen in the news and it will be hard again. But they try, and they even send us flowers on our anniversary."
"I'm not worried about it," Raffi said with a wave of his hand. "I will continue to give them time and patience. We will not give up. In time they will know who I really am, and they will truly love me."
His family in Morocco have embraced and welcomed her with open arms, and they visit his home country as often as they can.
"His family loved me immediately," she said. "They are amazing people, and there is never any judgment. They are my family, and I love [visiting] them."
What she would say to someone who might not understand the Islamic religion or her decision to embrace it?
"I don't have all the answers, but I would say, educate yourself," she said. "Search beyond the images that some media outlets might represent."
After 16 years of marriage, Raffi and Anna are still going strong.
"Islam teaches that all things are a part of God's plan," he said. "We believe we were meant to meet each other, we were meant to fall in love and we were meant to be married."
"This is our happily ever after, " she said, "and it will be forever improving."
On the Bridge
Multicultural Bridge and Berkshires Week have partnered to create a column and a blog that will share voices and stories from all corners of the county and the world.
Meet a professor of languages from South Sudan, a mother from Peru, a rancher from Becket and many more neighbors, at www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.