Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Maya Wani saved her mother’s life.

In late 2013 and early 2014, her mother, Mariam Ibraheem, was on death row in Sudan. The pregnancy resulted in a stay of execution. She credited her survival to a “loving God,” but is also thankful for her struggles as well where they have led.

Ibraheem spoke at her parish, St. Matthew, Virginia Beach, Tuesday, May 1, at the fourth annual banquet benefitting Hope 4 Life, a mobile pregnancy resource center for women and families facing crisis pregnancies in Hampton Roads.

Ibraheem, one of three children, was born in a refugee camp in eastern Sudan to a Christian mother and a Muslim father who was an abusive alcoholic. She was 6 when her parents divorced, and her father abandoned the family.

Later, while living in a Muslim community as a child, the family had to adopt some Muslim customs or else be ostracized. For example, Ibraheem had to wear long dresses and cover her hair because boys would make cruel jokes, throw stones and call her a boy for wearing  pants and a top.

Her mother encouraged Ibraheem and her siblings “to stay close to God and ever trust in him” despite any hardships.

Ibraheem, 30, said a “blessed period” in her life was the three years when she lived with the Missionaries of Charity in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, while studying to be a doctor. One week before graduation in 2010, her mother had an accident. On her deathbed, she told her daughter God would help her through the grief because “God can use the most challenging circumstances to build faith and bring us closer to him.”

Ibraheem married Daniel Wani, a U.S. citizen, but three months after the wedding, he had to return to the United States.  She was six weeks pregnant. He returned when their son Martin was seven months old.  Sudanese officials, however, declared Ibraheem’s marrriage invalid because Muslims were not   allowed to marry Christians. Although Ibraheem identified herself as a Christian, in Sudan she was seen as Muslim because that was the religion of her father.

After a three-month trial, she was sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery (because of the invalidity of her marriage) and to death by hanging for apostasy. When a medical review during her incarceration revealed the pregnancy, she was granted the stay.

“I was not planning to have another baby at that time, but God had other plans,” she said. “Only thanks to this miracle child, a great blessing from God, am I alive today because only thanks to my daughter Maya was the judge willing to delay the execution until her birth and two years of nursing.”

While praying on her first day in jail, she said she felt God put his hands on her head and said,  “You are not alone.”

“While I was in prison, I was always praying and always talking to God,” she said. “I heard his voice many times, and I knew he was with me always,”

Prisoners slept in cramped quarters on the floor among swarming mosquitoes. She was kept in shackles.  Food was bad. Water was often unclean — if there was water at all. Daniel was often able to bring necessities like clean water for Martin, but other children were naked and slept in their feces and urine. One or two children died every day, she said. Yet her heart was always at peace.

“I never asked why this happened to me. Instead, I always thought, ‘Thank you, Lord, for choosing me to do this. I am so grateful to be blessed by this for as you said, ‘Blessed are ye when men should revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be glad for great is your reward in heaven,’” she said.

Maya was born May 27, 2014, at seven months. It was so dark that the midwife had to use a flashlight while Ibraheem, wearing shackles, lay on the bare floor and delivered her daughter without any medications or disinfectants. A female guard kicked her during labor, complaining that because of her, Sudan was being criticized by world opinion.

Unbeknown to her, a campaign to free her was underway. Human rights organizations had become involved, and the U.S. and several European countries were pressuring Sudan to release her. Eight months into her incarceration, Sudan did so.

After delays due to broken promises of Sudanese officials, Ibraheem and her family flew to Rome where they met with Pope Francis who blessed them. They continued their journey to the United States where they arrived in July 2014.

She concluded her presentation with advice: “There is purpose and meaning in every struggle and every challenge that comes before us. Even when the meaning is not clear, God is with us. Accept suffering as an opportunity to love.”