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Waiting for Mariam: City hopes to greet Christian sentenced to death for her faith

By Ray Sanchez, CNN
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Plight of Sudanese Christian woman sentenced to death touches N. Hampshire city
  • Her husband, Daniel Wani, is an American citizen
  • He was one of the first South Sudanese refugees to resettle in Manchester
  • Southern Sudanese refugee Zakaria Aging: "We can't wait to see them"

(CNN) -- In Manchester, New Hampshire, a small community is waiting.

Men and women with ties to South Sudan hope to welcome home a neighbor's wife -- a Christian who made global headlines after a court in Sudan sentenced her to death because of her faith.

The plight of Mariam Yehya Ibrahim, her husband and two young children is a topic of prayer meetings and Sunday sermons, dinner-table talk and pleas to members of Congress from people in a city that has learned to embrace newcomers.

"We can't wait to see them," said Zakaria Aging, 35, who came to the United States from Sudan in 2000. "So many people have been waiting."

It's not clear how long they will wait.

MANCHESTER, NH - MAY 25: Pastor Monyroor Teng leads a prayer at the Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church. (Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - MAY 25: Pastor Monyroor Teng leads a prayer at the Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church. (Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

A court in Sudan overturned Ibrahim's death sentence a few weeks ago, but police arrested her again when she tried to leave Sudan to go to the United States. Now she's waiting, too. She's somewhere in Sudan, clutched by the anxiety of an uncertain future.

"I don't really know what's going to happen to us," Ibrahim told CNN by phone. "I just want stability for my family. Right now, it feels like I've gone from one jail cell to another. I'll go wherever we can all be safe and together."

Her ordeal is very much on the minds of people more than 6,000 miles away, in leafy New England.

People in Manchester who speak the Dinka language of South Sudan's major ethnic group dream of the reception they would like to host for her and her husband, Daniel Wani, a U.S. citizen who has lived in Manchester.

"You can't imagine how many people will be at the airport," Aging said.

They talk of dinner parties with spicy South Sudanese stews, thin kisra breads and basboosa semolina cakes for dessert.

They speak of Wani's one-bedroom apartment.

"Probably they'll have to get a bigger place with the kids," said Martin Ali, 43, executive director of the nonprofit South Sudan Community of New Hampshire.

Just a few weeks ago, Ibrahim thought she was free after a higher court ordered her release, but the 27-year-old mother, who gave birth in prison chains, was soon back in police custody.

Police accused her of falsifying travel documents in an attempt to fly to the United States with Wani, their baby girl and toddler son. They were taken into custody at the airport in the capital, Khartoum.

Amid concerns for Ibrahim's safety, the family has taken refuge in a safe house.

On Monday, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman reiterated that the family has the necessary documents to travel to the United States.

"We remain in close touch with the Sudanese Foreign Ministry to ensure she and her family will be able to travel as quickly as possible," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Seeking refuge from peril is a way of life scarred by one of the longest wars in Africa's modern history.

The fighting pitted a government dominated by Arab Muslims in northern Sudan against blacks in the south who followed Christianity and traditional animist religions. War started as Sudan gained its independence from Great Britain in 1956. A first conflict ended in 1972 but flared again within years. Civil war in Sudan killed nearly 2 million people from 1983 to 2005, when a peace deal silenced the guns. That deal led to a referendum that created South Sudan in 2011 as a nation independent of Sudan.

'Everybody comes following someone else'

Manchester -- with a population of about 110,000, the largest city in northern New England -- has long served as a resettlement site for refugees from dozens of countries who have been scattered throughout the United States by the State Department.

Since the late 1990s, more than 500 people from what is now South Sudan were resettled in New Hampshire -- the majority of them in Manchester, according to refugee advocates. The city was attractive for its availability of jobs and affordable housing.

Newcomers included southern Sudanese children taken as slaves during the country's most recent civil war along with a handful of the thousands of orphaned and displaced children, known as the "Lost Boys," who trekked hundreds of miles to neighboring countries to escape the violence.

"Everybody comes following someone else," said Monyroor Teng, pastor of the Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church, who arrived in Manchester in 2004 after spending three years as a refugee in Egypt.

In 1998, Daniel Wani, his brother Gabriel and sister Mary were among the first southern Sudanese refugees to resettle in Manchester.

"My first impression was the snow," said Gabriel Wani, who works with mentally disabled children and adults.

That first dark, harsh winter left such an impression that Daniel Wani considered moving the family to Texas, his brother recalled.

"We can't survive here," Gabriel Wani remembered his brother saying. They gave Manchester a chance only after a local doctor assured them they would acclimate.

Other impressions, Gabriel Wani said, included long stares from locals when walking in parks or stores; residents who rushed to shutter doors or windows when the Wanis passed by; police officers who would slow down outside their home as the Wanis stood outside.

"Today the police say hello," he said. "They ask how things are going."

But Gabriel, who met his wife in Manchester and lives there with their three daughters, insisted no other place in the United States makes him as comfortable.

He believes Ibrahim will agree - if only she can get there.

Meriam Ibrahim says she gave birth while her legs were chained in prison.
Meriam Ibrahim says she gave birth while her legs were chained in prison.

'I am a Christian, and I will remain a Christian'

Ibrahim's ordeal started when a Muslim relative filed a criminal complaint saying she had married Wani, a Christian, after going missing for several years. A Sudanese court considered Ibrahim a Muslim because her father was Muslim.

She was charged with adultery on grounds that a Muslim woman's marriage to a Christian man is illegal in Sudan. Ibrahim also was charged with apostasy, accused of illegally renouncing what was alleged to be her original faith.

In May, while about eight months pregnant, she was convicted. In chains, Ibrahim gave birth about two weeks later in a women's hospital in Khartoum.

She had been detained since mid-January. She refused to let go of her 20-month-old son Martin for fear she would never see him again.

At her sentencing, a sheikh told the court "how dangerous a crime like this is to Islam and the Islamic community," said attorney Mohamed Jar Elnabi, who represented Ibrahim.

"I am a Christian," Ibrahim fired back, "and I will remain a Christian."

Ibrahim was born to a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox mother. Her father left when she was 6 years old. She was raised by her mother as a Christian. Her father was Muslim, so the courts considered her the same, which would mean her marriage to a non-Muslim man is void.

Throughout the world, religious rights groups, humanitarian organizations and politicians, including both U.S. senators from New Hampshire -- Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte -- took up her cause. Amnesty International described Ibrahim as a prisoner of conscience.

"Our view...continues to be that she and her children have all the necessary documents to travel and enter the United States as soon as she is able to fulfill the government of Sudan's exit requirements," Psaki said.

Psaki said Ibrahim and her family remain in Sudan at an undisclosed "safe location." Police released her on bail June 26.

"I cannot understand it," Gabriel Wani said of delay in allowing the family to leave the country. "My brother is an American citizen and his kids are supposed to be American citizens."

A community finds its way

In New Hampshire, members of the southern Sudanese community said it wasn't unusual for men who are U.S. citizens to return to Africa to marry as a way to keep their culture alive.

Gabriel Wani said his brother, who became a U.S. citizen after he and his siblings settled in Manchester, met Ibrahim during a visit to Africa several years ago. A younger sister introduced them. They stayed in touch on the phone and via Skype. In 2011, they married.

Teng, the Sudanese pastor in Manchester, said his congregation is gearing up for the eventual arrival of Ibrahim and Wani and their two children.

"When what happened to Daniel and his family happened," Teng said, "they all stood up."

MANCHESTER, NH - MAY 25: Congregants greet each other after the service at the Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church. (Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, NH - MAY 25: Congregants greet each other after the service at the Sudanese Evangelical Covenant Church. (Photo by Lane Turner/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Other local churches -- Catholic and Episcopal -- attended by southern Sudanese newcomers have adopted the couple's cause, Teng said.

"We tell others that Daniel's family is not the first family to go through this," he said. "There were many other women who were killed for the same reason. No one talked about that. Mariam, she's a lucky woman. She has support."

Father Joseph Gurdak, pastor of St. Anne-St. Augustin Roman Catholic Church in Manchester, said parishioners have for years informally adopted southern Sudanese families. About 80 such families attend the parish. On the last Sunday of every month, a Mass is celebrated for new arrivals.

"When I first got here, the refugee families would say they would wake up in the morning and be so disoriented because it was nothing like what they had lived before," said Gurdak, pastor for seven years. "The pressures of work and living in a culture that is so different. Many came from camps and live in apartments that are not always the most beautiful apartments either."

He added, "It's a community still finding its way."

Support is important to Manchester's new arrivals.

Daniel Wani is board chairman of the South Sudan Community of New Hampshire, a nonprofit that provides translators, basic English classes, tutoring for children and outreach services.

On a recent Sunday, about 100 newcomers gathered at Teng's storefront church to pray for the daughter of Zakaria Aging, who was off to college in New York.

Aging, who escaped the war in Sudan, joined the Army seven years after arriving in the New England in 2000. He has since been deployed as an Arabic-speaking linguist numerous times to war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. He learned English at ESL classes in Boston, met his future wife in Manchester and eventually settled there with his family.

"When I arrived there were only two families here to help me," said Aging, who is studying international relations at Boston College under the GI Bill. "Now hundreds of people wait to help Mariam and Daniel."

Several years ago, Teng started offering the children of recent arrivals lessons in Arabic and their native Dinka dialect at a Presbyterian church. The goal was to make it easier for parents to learn English through their U.S.-born children.

The class, which started with a handful of pupils, quickly grew to nearly 50, he said. Three years ago, Teng started his own church in a vacant storefront with the help of another congregation.

"I want to help my community," he said. "I cannot run away from that."

Aging added, "Hopefully, it's not going to be so difficult for Mariam and her children because we are here."

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CNN's Nima Elbagir and Elise Labott contributed to this story.

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