Woman detained in Syria says Ottawa is forcing her to make agonizing choice in order to get her kids to Canada
When "Asiya" first heard that the Canadian government had agreed to repatriate women and children from detention camps in northeast Syria, she felt that safety was within grasp for her family -- only to have those hopes dashed a few days later in a call with a federal official.
CTV News is using the pseudonym "Asiya" for the 36-year old woman out of concern for her safety inside the Al-Roj camp. Asiya is married to a man from Ottawa who was working in the Middle East and travelled to Syria as a religious scholar, she said. They have three children under the age of nine. Their oldest son has severe autism and requires brain surgery. The middle child has burns down the back of his body after falling into a kerosene heater. She says the burns are so painful, her son can’t sit and cries when he puts on clothes. Their youngest daughter was born in the camp, months after her father was thrown in prison.
Last Thursday, Asiya said she received a call from a Global Affairs official saying her children are eligible for repatriation but she is excluded from the deal because she is not a Canadian citizen.
On Jan. 19, Global Affairs reached an agreement to bring back 19 women and children who had initially sued in federal court for repatriation. A day later, a federal judge ordered Canada to bring back four men languishing in Syrian prisons. They were alleged to have ISIS links, but have never been charged. The government is still considering whether to abide by the order or appeal it.
Neither Asiya nor her husband were part of those cases.
DEADLINE TO DECIDE
To get her children on the plane to Canada, Asiya said Global Affairs told her she must agree to relinquish custody. Asiya said the government gave her a deadline of one and a half weeks to decide.
“I have no choice. Either I lose them by not seeing them. Or I lose them here as the camp grave is full of young bodies,” said Asiya in a monitored phone call from the Al-Roj camp administration office.
According to Reprieve, a human rights legal advocacy group, Asiya is one of four mothers and 10 children caught in the same government-imposed dilemma.
“It’s one of the cruellest and inhumane policies we can imagine. It’s enforced family separation,” said Reprieve executive director Maya Foa in a video interview from London, England.
Global Affairs did not respond to CTV News’ request for comment on the case.
FATE OF FATHERS UNKNOWN
Foa said the Canadian fathers of these children are missing in Syria, perhaps killed during the civil war or held incommunicado in prisons. The children have never lived in Canada.
Foa said this is the government choosing to “rip these children from the one caregiver they know” to put them in the care of strangers and placing them at risk of “irreparable harm and trauma,” while leaving behind mothers who may not survive.
Foa has travelled to the camps at least 10 times to interview detainees on behalf of Reprieve and collect information to persuade governments to repatriate their nationals. There are more than 40,000 detainees from 57 countries in the camps. The majority of those living in the de facto open-air prisons are children, most under the age of 10.
According to Reprieve’s research, the majority of the women in the camps may have been trafficked.
“There are circumstances where women with particular vulnerablitieis are coerced or convinced into travel, not because they have ideological affiliation with ISIS, but because they have partners, fathers of their children,” said Foa. “The statistics in the U.K. show that 63 per cent meet the definition of potential victim of trafficking.”
Foa said she last interviewed Asiya in 2022 to prepare medical documents for her children to present to the Canadian government. Foa said the Middle East country where Asiya was born does not have a good human rights record. If Asiya and her children were to be repatriated to that country, Foa said there’s a possibility Asiya would disappear, be tortured or killed.
FOLLOWED HUSBAND TO SYRIA
In her interview with CTV News, Asiya said she was an engineer who worked in both New Jersey and Cairo. It was in Egypt where she met and married her Canadian husband in 2011. She said her husband is a religious scholar who travelled to Syria to research the Islamic State in 2015.
Asiya said she followed him to take care of him because she was worried about his health. The couple had one child at the time.
“He was getting sick. He was weak - he can’t even hold a camera. He has hepatitis and diabetes and genetic migraines. He can’t see at night.”
Asiya said that she has not seen her husband since 2019 after he was jailed by Kurdish forces and she and her children were placed in the camps.
CTV News has seen her husband’s birth certificate which lists his birthplace as Ottawa and shows that his parents once lived in the Vanier neighbourhood. She said her husband was previously held at the Ghwaryan prison, but does not know if he survived an attack on the prison by ISIS militants last January.
MORE LEGAL ACTION
As Asiya’s decision day approaches, more legal action is being pursued. Yoav Niv, a Calgary lawyer who argues cases in federal court, says he will be applying for a temporary resident permit to get the non-Canadian mothers to Canada.
Niv helped repatriate the first Canadian woman from a Syrian detention camp in 2021. He says Global Affairs' decision to separate children from their mothers in these cases is morally wrong and violates United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada ratified in 1991.
“In this case there has to be an assessment whether separation of these mothers from their children is in the best interests of the child. It’s our position that it’s not, fundamentally,” said Niv.
Alexandra Bain, with the Canadian organization Families Against Violent Extremism (FAVE), is also in regular contact with Asiya and other Canadian families.
Bain said Global Affairs has told 26 women and children that they will soon be on a plane home.
“My understanding is that they will be on an American military aircraft. It will take off one time, and the (non-Canadian) mothers have been told that if they haven’t made the decision since then they will be left behind,” said Bain.
More than 40 Canadians are currently in Kurdish-operated camps and prisons in Syria. Most of them are children, hoping for a way home -- desperate for an end to their abandonment.