This month, Leah Sharibu from Nigeria turns 20. Her teenage years were spent mostly in captivity after bravely refusing to renounce Jesus. We caught up with her mother, Rebecca, to find out how she and husband are doing as they hold onto the hope that they’ll one day be reunited with their daughter.
“My request morning and night is that you keep praying for Leah, as you have been doing in the past," asks her mother, Rebecca
Shortly after being kidnapped by Islamic militants from their school in February 2018, more than 100 girls were gathered by their captors and asked, “Who is a Christian?”
One girl courageously put up her hand. Her name is Leah Sharibu.
“We rebuked her and said that we are all Muslims,” reported the girls afterwards. “But she refused. She raised her hand and said she is a Christian. They [the militant group Islamic State West African Province, or ISWAP] said, since she is a Christian, she must denounce Christ and accept Islam before she could enter the van. She refused and said she is a Christian and she would not accept Islam.”
It was an extraordinarily brave thing to do, because whilst all other girls were released a month after being taken, Leah remained held – as she has ever since.
When she was first taken from the Government Girls Science Technical College in the town of Dapchi in northern Nigeria’s Yobe State, Leah was 14 years old. Her birthday is 14 May and this year she turns 20. She becomes an adult having had most of her teenage years cruelly robbed from her.
"She refused and said she is a Christian and she would not accept Islam" Leah Sharibu
For Leah’s mother and father, Rebecca and Nathan, the heartache continues each day. Leah’s story is no longer in the headlines, though many Open Doors supporters are faithfully praying for Leah and her family. Earlier this year, Open Doors local partners visited Rebecca and Nathan in Dapchi to encourage them and pray with the family, and to let them know that Open Doors supporters worldwide continue to pray for them.
For Rebecca, the moment she heard that her daughter was not among those released is etched into her memory. “When all the parents ran to the school to see their daughters, I was told Leah is not among them. Leah was not returned. I asked the girls that came back, ‘How come Leah is not back?’”
It was then that Rebecca and Nathan were told of their daughter’s courageous faith – and what it had cost her.
“Since you will not accept Islam, you will be left here [as a prisoner],” the militants said to Leah, to which she defiantly replied: “I will not accept Islam because I am not a Muslim. I will remain here.” The girls told Rebecca that, after her declaration of faith, Leah was crying. “We were all crying as they put us in the van and left,” said one of Leah’s classmates.
Two months later, ISWAP released a video in which Leah begged for the government’s help and asked the public to ‘help my mother, father, my younger brother and relatives’. Two weeks later, the militant group warned that they would kill Leah, 15 at the time, if their demands were not met. After the deadline, ISWAP released another video saying that Leah would be their ‘slave for life’.
While there are frequent rumours about Leah’s whereabouts, and reports that Leah has been married off to one of the commanders and given birth to two children, her parents have yet to see or hear from her daughter.
“Only the video released some days after their abduction, that was the first and last time I saw her face and heard her voice,” says Rebecca.
Rebecca is so proud of ‘her Leah’, even while knowing that her daughter would be with her now if she had renounced her faith. “I am thankful to Leah for the decision she took,” she continues. “She refused to become a Muslim. Her strong faith makes me feel very happy.”
It’s a joy that sits alongside grief and agonising uncertainty. “Honestly, we are not happy,” admits Rebecca. “We are just managing our lives here.” But they don’t live in despair, helped by their unwavering faith. “God has been our source of strength in everything we are doing. Looking at my walk with God, I can say this is the time I became closer to Him.”
Like many persecuted believers navigating the absence of a family member, Rebecca turns to her community and the Bible for support: “Joining the women’s fellowship church, I have been really encouraged and strengthened,” she shares. “Staying alone at home will not strengthen or encourage me… Anytime I am worried, I read and recite Psalm 23.”
"Looking at my walk with God, I can say this is the time I became closer to Him" Rebecca Sharibu
Such faith not only gives Rebecca and her husband strength for each day but hope for tomorrow. “We are praying for Leah; nothing is too big for God to do. I know one day she will come back,” she says.
Leah’s mother also has a message for her global family who continue to uphold her family in prayer. “I want to say a big thank you to Open Doors who have been praying with us, may God bless you all. Our thanksgiving is the only thing I can give. I lack how best to say thank you,” she says. “My request morning and night is that you keep praying for Leah, as you have been doing in the past. I know that one day God will answer and rescue my daughter.”
Thank you also to the hundreds of you who have written a message of encouragement to Rebecca and Nathan. These have now been sent to the couple and they will be a tremendous source of encouragement to them.
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.