For most of us, Mother’s Day marks an annual occasion for celebrating the blessings of family. While celebrations will be different this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, most of us can still look forward to a family video chat, surprise bouquets and gifts, and the promise of hugs and kisses for mom and grandma once the world returns to normal.
Global celebrations of Mother’s Day take place on different Sundays in various countries. For example, in faraway Nigeria, mothers are traditionally honored on the Anglican Church’s traditional “Mothering Day.” But thanks to the influence of American advertising and social media, some West African families may find an excuse to celebrate mothers all over again on May 10.
However, one Nigerian mother, Rebecca Sharibu, will not be celebrating. Sharibu doesn’t know where her daughter is. She has no idea when or if she’ll see her again. In fact, she’s isn’t even sure whether – as has been reported – her almost 17-year-old daughter is now a mother herself.
Leah Sharibu, Rebecca’s daughter, was one of some 105 female victims kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists in February 2018. Leah, a Christian, was abducted in a terrifying raid along with her Muslim classmates at Dapchi Girls' Science and Technical College.
So violent was the attack that four or five girls died during a harrowing truck journey to the radicals’ encampment. Then, following a month of terrifying captivity, after enduring death threats and other abuses, the surviving girls were freed by their captors on March 21.
All but one.
As families eagerly gathered to reclaim their girls, parents scanned the crowd for their daughters’ familiar faces. Rebecca and Nathan Sharibu were there too, searching hopefully. But Leah did not appear. Rebecca collapsed in despair.
It was soon made clear that Leah had not returned home for one simple reason: The other girls were all Muslim. And Leah had refused to renounce her Christian faith.
When she heard that her classmates were being set free, Leah asked one of them to carry a note to Rebecca Shirabu. “My mother you should not be disturbed,” she wrote. “I know it is not easy missing me, but I want to assure you that I am fine where I am… I am confident that one day I shall see your face again. If not here, then there at the bosom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
A month later, in Washington D.C., President Donald Trump met with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. During a press conference, Buhari admitted that, of all the girls kidnapped from Dapchi school, one still remained in captivity. That was, of course, Leah, although he didn’t mention her name. Trump pointed out that there was a very serious problem with Christians being killed in Nigeria and something had to be done about it. Buhari nodded.
Yet sadly, not much has changed. Massacres of Nigerian Christians continue until today, and Leah Sharibu remains a captive.
Last summer I met Rebecca Sharibu in Washington D.C. She had come to seek help from the United States. Her heartache was etched on her weary, unsmiling face.
When I asked if she’s been given any information about her daughter’s condition, she shook her head. “We don’t even know where Leah is,” her friend translated. “We have not seen her. We have not heard from her. I have no idea.” She was near tears, but after a moment, she composed herself. “I have come here to plead with your government and with all the people: Please do whatever you can…”
About six months later, on January 26, 2020, a Nigerian news source The Cable reported that Leah Sharibu was “impregnated by one of the commanders of the sect, and she was delivered of a baby four days ago.” Of course it was impossible to confirm the story, although it implied that Leah is probably still alive.
In its recently released 2020 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that the U.S. Government “Designate Nigeria as a ‘country of particular concern,’ for engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), and continue to designate Boko Haram as an ‘entity of particular concern’ for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” USCIRF Chairman Tony Perkins has personally advocated for Leah Shirabu as a “prisoner of conscience” for refusing to renounce her faith.
Even those of us who live a world away from Nigeria may not be able to physically welcome home our own children and grandchildren this Mother’s Day. Still, we’ll probably hear their voices on the phone or see their faces on a video feed before the day is over. And we’ll keep reminding ourselves that there’s always next year. Sadly, this is not the case for Leah and Rebecca – and many other moms and daughters around the world.
As we enjoy a different kind of Mother’s Day this year, let’s add a special moment of reflection to the occasion, remembering the story of Rebecca and Leah Sharibu. May their prayers for a miracle be answered. And may they be reunited – soon and very soon – safely and with great joy.
Lela Gilbert is Senior Fellow for Religious Freedom at Family Research Council, and a Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.