“God uses you in the midst of your suffering,” Leila Abdallah tells me this week.
One year ago, most of us met Leila and her husband Danny for the first time and under terrible circumstances. The couple from Oatlands, near Parramatta in Sydney, became headline news after three of their six children were killed by a drunk driver on February 1.
Antony (13), Angelina (12) and Sienna (8) had been riding their bikes to get an ice cream. They died at the scene, alongside their cousin Veronique Sakr (11).
Trying to describe to someone what being in the midst of suffering looks like, you might point to the grief and pain of the Abdallah family. Yet when you catch even just a glimpse of the torment experienced by Leila during the past year, there’s something else that stands out. The way she and her husband have responded to what so many of us would consider unimaginable.
“When you read the Bible, Jesus said, ‘Carry your cross and follow me.’ He didn’t say we are going to have a good life … He asked us to carry the cross,” says Leila, who has been a Christian all of her life.
“When Jesus walked this earth, he demonstrated to us how we should live our lives.”
“For me, I look up to him. I think that if Jesus carried the cross, then I’m going to look to him, look at the glory awaiting us in heaven, and I want to carry my cross with dignity and a smile.
“Don’t get me wrong. I feel mixed emotions. I’m heartbroken. I miss my kids, especially coming to the one year mark. I was crying this morning; I cry ever day … but I have accepted my cross and I believe that if Jesus didn’t want my kids, they still would be alive. A miracle would have happened.”
Leila is right. The Bible does record Jesus telling his followers that to follow in his footsteps will include suffering, pain and the toll of rejecting a world at odds with his humble leadership. It’s just that many of Jesus’ followers – this writer included – hope that our faith won’t be put to the sort of test Leila and Danny Abdallah are going through.
But it’s through that very test that Leila has witnessed God using her and Danny. You would have witnessed it as well. Within what seemed like minutes of their children’s deaths, the Maronite Catholic couple – members of Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral at Harris Park – spoke clearly and powerfully about the forgiveness and peace that flows from God. And they were saying those things about the man who was charged with killing their children.
“The guy, I know he was [allegedly] drunk, driving on this street. Right now I can’t hate him. I don’t want to see him, [but] I don’t hate him,” Leila told the media during the days after the accident.
“I think in my heart to forgive him, but I want the court to be fair. It’s all about fairness. I’m not going to hate him, because that’s not who we are.”
Talk about people putting into practice what they claim to believe and live by.
Leila feels “like God used my lips on that day” with how she immediately spoke about Samuel William Davidson who, last October, pleaded guilty to four counts of manslaughter, as well as other charges. He will be sentenced in March.
Leila and Danny’s approach to Davidson has remained the same ever since. So much so that the first anniversary of the accident, February 1, will be i4Give Day. Created by the Abdallahs and supported by the Federal and NSW Governments, i4Give Day encourages everybody to know and practice that “there is freedom in forgiveness”.
Leila hopes that rather than remembering a tragedy, February 1 becomes an annual day “where you could find someone you can forgive or ask for forgiveness”.
Many people have asked the Abdallahs how they can forgive. Leila continues to point people back to her Christian faith – “forgiveness is essential to us Christians ” – explaining how parts of the Bible shape her outlook.
“Our Father has forgiven our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” says Leila, speaking of how she wants to live out the Lord’s Prayer. “[Also] Jesus last words on the cross were ‘Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And he asked us to forgive 70 times seven times … So I forgave [Davidson] because I trust God. He’s a justice God and I leave it in his hands.”
“God is great. God is good. God is giving us the peace of mind that they are in heaven. God is comforting us. He is close to the weary. If it wasn’t for my faith, I wouldn’t be standing where I am today.”
Leila fondly speaks of her three deceased children and their own faith. How Angelina loved praying and Antony wanted there to be a prayer room in the Abdallahs’ new home. To celebrate her eighth birthday, Sienna wanted to be “like Jesus, feeding the less fortunate people”.
“My children loved God so much.”
Before and after the February 1 accident, Leila and Danny’s values stayed the same – God and family. In that order. And Leila’s fierce bond with God even helped her to not blame him for what happened.
“When that accident happened to my kids, my love for God was so strong that I kneeled down to pray to my Father,” remembers Leila. “I [said to] God, ‘I’m crying over my kids. I’m upset.’ And God has revealed to me, ‘You’re upset about your kids – but how do you think I am feeling over the lost souls?’ If anything, that made me relate to him rather than blaming him.”
“God created the heavens and the earth, so how is God feeling about the people who don’t recognise him?
As they have done in the public gaze this past year, Leila again turns our attention back to faith and trust in God, through Jesus Christ. Her discoveries about who God is and how he relates with us have come through immense suffering on her part – but she’s willing to share insights that we all need to grasp.
This ongoing display of Christian hope through the Abdallahs has been noticed by everyone from close neighbours to people they’ve never met on the other side of the world.
“They reach out to me to tell me how much they are affected and how it touched them,” describes Leila about how people from “everywhere” have steadily contacted her family. Just as Leila and Danny have done a remarkable job of counselling other people going through grief, they too have felt loved and supported by family members, total strangers – and God.
“Grieving is already hard. Imagine having to add to it anger and bitterness?” asks Leila. “This is where you end up in mental [anguish]. But when you are grieving and you free up your heart – and you forgive others – and you surrender to God, God will send you the peace from above.
“God will carry you through it and God will give you the strength to deal with everyday life.”
Leila has relied a lot upon God to get through everyday life. “The cross does get heavy, of course, because this is your kids. It’s your life. You are aching and hollow. The most precious gift in life is your kids. The most expensive thing in life has been taken away from us; half of my kids have gone to be with the Lord.”
“Any time you feel that the cross is too heavy, just ask God and he will give you the strength to keep going and keep going and keep going.”
Leila finds strength in prayer, listening to worship music or opening the Bible. “When you ask God to come to you and touch your heart, he will give you the peace that comes from above.”
“The strength doesn’t come from within; this strength comes from God.”
Leila and Danny know life is for a relatively brief time so they want to live well for God.
“In everything we want to do, I just want to serve the Lord with all our hearts and honour God and our kids. Really, that’s what matters to us.”
“I’m a shy person but the reason that I do media is that it my chance to honour God on television and media. For people to see God … and what he wants us to be.
“I love my God. I love my God.”