Year 2 in Boko Haram captivity—Leah Sharibu’s family pastor: ‘God’s name is being glorified’

February 19, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Africa

February 19 marks the second anniversary of the kidnapping of Leah Sharibu and her fellow students from their finishing school in Dapchi, Nigeria. While all the girls were released one month later (except for five who died during the ordeal), Leah remains in captivity because of her refusal to convert to Islam. Over the last two years, Pastor Gideon Para-Malam has walked closely and counseled with Leah’s parents, Nathan and Rebecca, and her siblings. He recently sat down with our team to share how the Sharibu family is doing, address ongoing rumors  and encourage the Open Doors community to continue to “pray incessantly” for Leah and her family.   

Below, we share his interview.

Pastor Gideon Para-Malam has walked closely and counseled with the parents of Leah Sharibu for the last two years.

Rev. Gideon, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. What is your relationship with Nathan and Rebecca and how did it come about?

When we received the news on the 21st of March 2018, that Leah was not released with all the other girls, many Christians were heartbroken. On the evening news I saw Rebecca Sharibu slumped amongst the other parents that were rejoicing. The grief that her daughter was still with those men was too much to bear and Rebecca 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.”

From there, I made contact. 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.

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, have 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.

I am also thankful for Dr. Gloria Samdi-Puldu from the Leah Foundation, who has, with my wife, been a great support for Rebecca. The support of women is important. There are times when only another woman, and mother, can understand what Rebecca is going through.

Nathan 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.

Can you tell us how Leah’s parents, Rebecca and Nathan, are doing? 

Leah’s mother is doing okay under the circumstances. But if we’re being honest, can you really be okay, knowing that your daughter is still with her kidnappers after nearly two years? We don’t know for sure where she is and exactly what has happened to Leah—and that uncertainty is difficult.

Sometimes Rebecca has this distant look in her eyes, and you immediately know that physically she is here, but her mind and spirit are with Leah. Nathan is a supportive husband and father, but how much can one family endure?

The incessant media requests they receive are also tiring. You can imagine how many phone calls they receive. Journalists from all over Nigeria and the world call them, wanting some kind of quote or update. It is a difficult situation and maybe too much for Rebecca at the moment.

Recently, news circulated that Leah is married off and has given birth. Can you comment on that?  

I’ll say that we view the news more as rumors. Yes, the stories are circulating, but it has not been confirmed through video or photos. Truthfully, this is not the first time these rumors have surfaced, and we need to be careful and mindful of sharing such information. It can easily demoralize the Sharibu family who have already been traumatized. But whatever the truth is, we will keep encouraging Leah’s family.

When I heard the stories, it was a difficult decision whether or not to share it with Nathan and Rebecca. If it is true, then surely, they would be heartbroken for their daughter who is still a teenager. And if the news was false, it would unnecessarily cause them further trauma. We decided to only address it once it was reported by mainstream media.

When I spoke to Nathan, he accepted the news in good faith, but we knew it would be difficult for Rebecca.

Are there any developments in the situation?  

So, just before Leah had her first birthday in captivity (May 19, 2018), Rebecca came to visit us in Jos. This gave us the opportunity to arrange a press conference so Rebecca could speak on behalf of her family and make an appeal for Leah’s return.

We are thankful that the press conference grabbed the attention of President Buhari. He saw Rebecca speaking, how she broke down in tears in her appeal to him to do everything in his power to bring Leah home. This then led President Buhari to place a phone call to Rebecca on October 3, promising to bring her daughter home. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that the president has personally spoken to the family of a kidnapped victim in Nigeria.

The media coverage not only got the attention of President Buhari, but also of Boko Haram—in August, six months after the kidnapping of the Dapchi girls, Boko Haram released an audio recording of Leah pleading with the president to facilitate her release.

The stories of Leah having a baby came amidst ongoing negotiations. And, of course, the news that the aid workers were released earlier this year, gives us hope. But the situation remains sensitive, and we don’t want to say or do anything to jeopardize the negotiations.

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What can we as their faith community do for the Sharibu family and Leah?

First, we must pray constantly. This is also my commitment. It’s important that we, their faith family, keep praying. Speak their names. The Bible orders us to pray without ceasing. We know that God can release her in His sovereign power, but He wants us to persistently and faithfully ask Him. We do not always understand His ways, but we trust He knows best. He is our Father and He has a plan much bigger than we can ever understand.

I encourage the global community to pray incessantly. Pray that He brings Leah home. We may ask, is it God’s will that Leah is released? Yes! But when? Only He knows. And in the meantime, we continue to pray for Leah to be strong. We pray that God will continue to strengthen her faith and that her captors will be touched by Leah’s persistence and faith in God.

Nathan and Rebecca Sharibu

Please pray for Nathan, Rebecca and Donald (Leah’s younger brother) and all the other families 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 that are held captive.

Then we must keep the conversation going about what is happening in Nigeria [and West Africa]. The rumors about what has possibly been done to Leah and the other girls like her are horrifying. It is sexual and spiritual abuse. This is unacceptable, and the international community should speak up.

Would you agree that Leah is the face of a much bigger and terrible phenomenon taking place in Nigeria? 

Yes, this is true. It’s possible that there are hundreds of Nigerian women that have been kidnapped. 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 not only Boko Haram; the Fulani [militants] are also responsible for kidnappings. These terrorists claim kidnapped girls marry them in the name of Islam, that they have converted them. The reports say that the women are used as sex slaves. It’s criminal, a human rights violation, And that’s 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 Loksha 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. The government has a duty to account for them. They are citizens of Nigeria.

The most heartbreaking 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.

The situation seems almost hopeless. What gives you hope?

God’s promises give me hope. As Christians, we must constantly remind ourselves about His promises, hold on to them 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 that are in captivity home.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Yes, certainly. It is not the captives that 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 (Prov. 21:1). God alone can turn a situation in the direction 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. I believe that Leah is in the fiery furnace and at the right time God will bring her home. He works in ways 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 through Leah’s faith, they may see 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.

If you were able to speak to Leah right now, what would you say to her?

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.

is there anything you would like to say to Open Doors supporters?

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.

This interview was edited for the sake of readability and security.

Leave prayers for Leah, Nathan, Rebecca and Donald Sharibu

Open Doors calls on the worldwide Church to continue praying for Leah Sharibu and her family.

  • Pray that God brings Leah home in His time. Pray that the government will secure Leah’s and all kidnapped believers’ release.
  • Pray for strength for Leah and her family. Ask God to put people in their paths who will encourage them in their faith.
  • Pray that God will stir the spirits of Boko Haram commanders and soldiers and that the scales on their eyes would drop off as they see the one true God.
  • Please don’t give up praying for Leah, Nathan, Rebecca and Donald. Speak their names each day.

Open Doors is calling on the international community to urge Nigerian President Buhari to continue his efforts to liberate the hostages held by Boko Haram, including young Christian girls such as Leah Sharibu and the missing Chibok girls who are still held captive. And to create a position within his government for the sole purpose of maintaining an active family liaison and an open and accessible channel of communication with the traumatized parents of the hostages.

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