Six weeks after arriving in the United States, Hassan Abduraheem takes a seat in the back pew of Tar Wallet Baptist Church. Tucked into the woods along a country road in rural Virginia, the church holds about 50 worshippers.
On this cold November Sunday, Abduraheem and his family of eight noticeably increase the congregation's size. They do their best to follow the unfamiliar English of the old Baptist hymns, which are very familiar to their new neighbors. And they share the hymns from their former home — Sudan.
Standing in a single line in front of the altar, the family fills the church with Arabic song.
"Unbelievable," Abduraheem says repeatedly, as he describes his journey from a crowded prison cell in Sudan to a fixed-up house on the farm of his new pastor. "Unbelievable" seems like the only word that could describe the turn his life took, thanks to a Facebook post and a U.S. congressman.
Abduraheem's work as a former pastor is not outlawed in his native Sudan, but Christians are a minority in a diverse country that has suffered through multiple civil wars. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, there has been "an escalation in the Sudanese government's persecution of Christians," since the 2011 secession of South Sudan.
Abduraheem says his work was spreading the gospel; the Sudanese government accused him of espionage, and he was detained along with two other pastors in December 2015.
"The first day when they took us to the prison, they beat us," he says softly.
Abduraheem was shifted from prison to prison. For five months, he wore the same clothes he was wearing when he was arrested. His eyes became damaged from the harsh prison light. Yet, despite constant interrogations, just two meals of beans a day and a tiny cell with barely enough room to sleep, he says the worst part of prison was not knowing.
"It was a very hard time for me, thinking of my family, because I [didn't] know anything about them," he told VOA in his first media interview in the United States.
But even after numerous delays to his trial and an eventual 12-year prison sentence, he couldn't shake a sense of faith.
"No one told me, but I had the peace that something [was] going [on] outside," Abduraheem says.
An enormous effort
Far away from Sudan, a Facebook post telling Abduraheem's story reached just the right person.
"I didn't know any better, so I got in my car and drove to the Sudanese Embassy and asked to speak with the ambassador," Representative Tom Garrett, a Republican in Virginia's 5th Congressional District, told VOA. Garrett first saw the story on the Facebook page for Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian organization whose African regional director was imprisoned with Abduraheem.
It was the first time a member of Congress had spoken to the Sudanese government in 10 years, according to Garrett's office.
After thousands of messages, hundreds of work hours and a trip to Sudan, Garrett collaborated with nongovernmental organizations to free Abduraheem in May 2017. The congressman also worked to secure humanitarian parole status to bring the pastor and his family to the United States.
"I commend the Sudanese government to the extent they were willing to acknowledge that mistakes have been made in the past, and there's a need to reassess how religious minorities are treated. That's progress," says Garrett, a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
It's also an opportunity to advance the relationship between the United States and Sudan, he adds.
"As a result of sanctions dating back to the nineties, Sudan is eager to distance itself from a dark past," he said in a statement.
Building a new life
Abduraheem and his family visited the congressman in Washington, D.C., last month to see where their life in the U.S. became possible. While it was their first time in the American city, it also was a new experience for their congressman.
"You can love a bill, you can believe in a bill, you can advocate on behalf of a bill, but you can't say a prayer with a bill, have dinner with a bill, shake hands with a bill. It was sort of surreal," Garrett says of meeting Abduraheem at the airport.
Five churches in Garrett's district banded together to fix up a home for the family, launching a GoFundMe page to pay for food, clothing and other expenses while the family waits for work authorizations. In the meantime, family members have been adjusting to the incredible change of leaving Sudan to build a life in America.
For them, everything is new — from discovering constant running hot water to buying winter coats for the snow they will soon see for the first time. But those immense changes are grounded by Abduraheem's certainty.
"Even though it is hard for us to leave our country, I think it is also better," Abduraheem says of his family. "I don't want them to grow there and go through a lot of difficulties like I went through it. Here, I know they can have a chance."