Wednesday 19 February marks two years since Christian teenager, Leah Sharibu, was kidnapped along with over 100 other girls from her school in Dapchi, Nigeria, by Boko Haram. Today, only Leah continues to be held captive by the group.
Open Doors interviewed Reverend Gideon Para-Malam, who has been walking closely with and supporting Leah’s family since the beginning of their ordeal.
He says, “When we received the news on 21 March 2018 that Leah was not released with all the other girls, many Christians were heartbroken. On the evening news I saw her mother slumped amongst the other parents who were rejoicing. The grief that her daughter was still with those men was too much to bear and she basically fainted. I took a good look at her and I felt the Lord telling me, ‘Gideon, you have to stand up for this family. Stand up for Leah Sharibu.’
“Now I provide pastoral care and support for the family, not necessarily as their local church pastor, but as a Christian brother who is concerned for the persecuted church in Nigeria.
‘THEY NEED REASSURANCE THAT GOD HAS NOT FORGOTTEN THEM’
“After we first spoke to Leah’s parents, I began thinking of the best practical support my wife and I could give the family. After a big traumatic event a person can easily feel isolated. We decided to invite them to stay with us. We can’t just pray for them from a distance, they need us to walk beside them so that they know they are not alone.
“So, we have built a supportive community around the family. I try to talk to them as often as possible and pray with them. When we talk over the phone, I use the opportunity to pray for them and Leah, to encourage and remind them that people have not forgotten about their daughter. They need reassurance that the world, and God, has not forgotten about their family’s plight, because it is true, people from all over the world are praying for them and for Leah to be returned.
“Her father calls me almost weekly and I can hear the expectation in his voice. He wants me to give them good news about Leah, about when she will be reunited with them. This is the difficult part for me, not being able to give them the news they so eagerly want. I pray that I can give them good news soon.”
‘UNCERTAINTY IS DIFFICULT’
Reverend Gideon says that, under the circumstances, her mother is ‘coping’: “But if we’re being honest, can you really be okay, knowing that your daughter is still with her kidnappers after nearly two years?” he says. “We don’t know for sure where she is and exactly what has happened to Leah – that uncertainty is difficult. From our interactions, I can only conclude that she is coping. She misses Leah and is concerned about her.
“Sometimes her mother has this distant look in her eyes and you immediately know that physically she is here, but her mind and spirit is with Leah. She has a supportive husband, but how much can one family endure?”
September 2018: Boko Haram releases audio of Leah Sharibu
Just before Leah’s first birthday in captivity, Reverend Gideon helped to arrange a press conference so that her mother could speak on behalf of her family and make an appeal for Leah’s return.
He says, “We are thankful that the press conference grabbed the attention of President Buhari. He saw Leah’s mother speaking, how she broke down in tears in her appeal to him, the president, to please do everything in his power to bring Leah home. This then led to President Buhari placing a phone call to her on 3 October 2018, promising to bring her daughter home. Unfortunately, Leah is still not home with her family. But it is important that that promise was made. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that the president has personally spoken to the family of a kidnapped victim in Nigeria.”
‘WE MUST PRAY CONSTANTLY’
Open Doors asked Gideon what supporters can do to continue to stand with Leah’s family.
He replied, “Firstly, we must pray constantly. This is also my commitment. It is important that we, their faith family, keep praying. The Bible orders us to pray without ceasing.
“I encourage the global community to pray incessantly. Pray that He brings Leah home. And in the meantime, we continue to pray for Leah to be strong. She is an example to all of us; she was kidnapped and because she refused to deny Christ and convert to Islam, she is now held against her will. We pray that God will continue to strengthen Leah’s faith and that the captors will be touched by Leah’s persistence and faith in God.
“Please pray for her parents and younger brother and all the other families that are affected by these kidnappings. Pray that the president and Nigerian government will act and put plans in motion to secure the release of Leah and all the other Nigerians who are held captive.
“Then, secondly, we must keep the conversation going about what is happening in Nigeria [and West Africa]… This is unacceptable and the international community should speak up.”
‘I CAN’T EVEN TELL YOU HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE BEEN TAKEN’
Reverend Gideon believes Leah is the face of a much bigger and terrible phenomenon taking place in Nigeria.
“It’s possible that there are hundreds of Nigerian women who have been kidnapped,” he says. “We only know a few by name. And make no mistake, it’s not only women but men and boys are kidnapped too, forced to fight for these militants in the name of Islam… It’s criminal, a human rights violation, and that is why I feel the government, and international community, need to do more about the ongoing situation. We need to protect our children, our women.
“Unfortunately, the ones that we can talk about, like Leah, the 103 Chibok girls and Alice Ngaddah (UNICEF aid worker), are the ones that we get to know. But because there are so many more of them, the government and world leaders should be challenged to act. Someone needs to take responsibility and help free these people. The government has a duty to account for them. They are citizens of Nigeria.
“The most heart-breaking part is I can’t even tell you how many people these terrorists have taken. When some of the women are able to escape, we get an idea of how many we have lost. However, this is not always possible. Mostly they just take groups of women - hundreds at a time - and they get lost in the numbers.”
Open Doors partners in Nigeria run trauma care programmes for Christian women who have been attacked or kidnapped, targeted for both their faith and their gender. Join the See. Change. campaign and find out how you can make a difference in the lives of these women who are doubly at risk of persecution.
‘GOD ALONE CAN TURN A SITUATION’
It can be easy to feel hopeless in a situation like this. But Pastor Gideon is confident in the God we serve.
“God’s promises give me hope. As Christians we must constantly remind ourselves about His promises, hold on to it and not give up. I believe God is a faithful Father. I believe in His timing. At the right time He will bring Leah and all the others who are in captivity home.
“Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Yes, certainly, it is not the captives who determine our footsteps, even if they believe they have the power. God is all powerful and sovereign. The Bible teaches us that the heart of the king is in the hands of God (Proverbs 21:1). God alone can turn a situation in the direction that He desires. It’s not easy to understand why these things are happening, but I believe God’s name is being glorified through Leah’s situation, even if we can’t see the entire picture.
“The story of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is a powerful reminder of how God can work to change hearts. Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den… I believe that Leah is in the lion’s den and at the right time God will bring her home. He works in ways that we don’t understand – Daniel and his friends’ faithfulness changed the heart of a king. So, perhaps this is another prayer, that God will stir the spirits of those Boko Haram commanders and soldiers, that they may see through Leah’s faith who the true Ruler is.
“So, I’m hopeful that one day Leah will return, and we will celebrate God’s glory, and the joy of her parents.”
Rebecca Sharibu: “Christians, don’t get tired of praying for my Leah”
‘YOUR PRAYERS GIVE US COURAGE TO PERSEVERE’
When asked what he would say to Leah if he could, Reverend Gideon offers an empowering message of encouragement: “I would tell her to not give up. This difficult time that you are in will not last forever. Affliction may come for a while, but it will not stay. I know it feels like this dark time will never end, but daybreak will come for you. I believe 2020 will be your daybreak. May God deliver you in 2020, alive and in good health. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. Don’t feel neglected. You are not alone. God is there with you. That is the joy of your decision to stick with Christ. He will not fail you. You will not be disappointed. Smile Leah, smile.”
To you, Reverend Gideon expresses his thanks for your continued support.
“Thank you for your prayers and for continuously creating awareness around the situation in Nigeria. The awareness you create and your prayers move the world towards action. It gives us courage to persevere. You give us a voice.”