WASHINGTON – Until this week, Rebecca Sharibu never set foot outside of her village in northern Nigeria. Helpless and heartbroken, she boarded a plane for the very first time and traveled 9,000 miles to the United States on a desperate mission to secure her young daughter's freedom.
Leah Sharibu, 16, was kidnapped in February 2018 in a raid at her school by Boko Haram—a deadly Nigerian terror group with ties to ISIS. In all, the group abducted 110 girls.
One month later, the Nigerian government negotiated the release of every hostage with one exception: Leah, who was 14 years old at the time she was taken captive.
Boko Haram would not let her go unless she renounced her Christian faith and converted to Islam. Leah refused and was declared a "slave for life" by her captors.
"She chose faith over freedom when it would have been so easy to cave," said Dede Laugesen, executive director of Save the Persecuted Christians, a grassroots group that raises awareness of worldwide Christian persecution.
Rebecca endured six long months without any word about her daughter's wellbeing, unaware whether she was dead or alive. In August 2018, Boko Haram released a photo of Leah clad in a hijab along with a recording in which Leah can be heard pleading for her freedom.
"Immediately [when] I saw it, I just started crying and weeping," Rebecca said, recounting the first time she saw Leah's photograph. "On a daily basis, I am pained. I weep. I don't feel good, but I have no choice."
Rebecca is not alone.
Tears flow throughout the west African nation. About 2,000 Nigerians died last year in ongoing disputes portrayed by the media as a clash between farmers and herdsmen.
"We're here to let the world know what's happening, because they keep this narrative of herder-farmer conflict. It's not that way at all," argued Alheri Magaji, whose father was arrested and detained for 100 days. A village elder, he was removed from power during a Fulani militant raid.
Magaji equates what's happening to a deadly religious campaign with the goal of eradicating Christians.
"A bill was just passed by the National House of Assembly saying that preachers are going to be regulated and their licenses renewed every year," Magaji added. "We believe Kaduna State is a testing ground for what plans they have in Nigeria as a whole."
Magaji and others like Mercy Maisamari represent a younger generation of Nigerian Christians unafraid to speak out, even though it comes with great risk to their own lives now that Fulani Muslims have run the local, state, and federal government apparatus.
Save the Persecuted Christians and the International Committee on Nigeria organized a delegation of Nigerians to travel to Washington, D.C. to share their stories with leaders at the White House and Capitol Hill.
"Someone has to say what is really happening," explained Maisamari, who was kidnapped by Fulani militants and held hostage for 10 days. "If God says it's you, then you can't run away from the responsibility of being the one to talk."
"This really is a jihad that is raging in Nigeria and we are ramping up to a genocide," Laugesen warned.
Leah has celebrated two birthdays while in captivity. Her brave stand is encouraging others like Gloria Puldu, who runs the eponymous Leah Foundation – a group dedicated to secure freedom for Leah and other girls like her.
Puldu's vocal advocacy in the U.S. has caught the attention of Nigerian officials, who visited the foundation's local office and informed staff they would like question her when she returns.
"As a Christian I'm not afraid. I want to stand for my faith, on behalf of my people," Puldu explained.
The Family Research Council's Tony Perkins has chosen Leah Sharibu as the cause he will personally champion as the newly-elected chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Still, it is perhaps the biggest understatement to suggest Leah's courage affects no one more than her own mother – who's lifeless face reflects a pain no parent should ever bear.
"She did an amazing thing by refusing to renounce Christ, and I'm very proud of what she has done," Rebecca said. "I'm not sure if I was even in her position at 14 years old that I would have even done what she has done."
Pain and prayer now fuel Rebecca's passion, prompting the boldness to ask for help from any and all who will listen.
"I have come to plead with your government—to plead with Pres. Donald Trump. My son's name is Donald. So Donald Trump I need him to help me have my daughter released," she sobbed. "Leah needs to be home like the other girls who are back with their families."