It took time and patience to negotiate access to the al-Hawl refugee camp in eastern Syria. A few cups of tea, a group photo with a Kurdish intelligence officer, and after a couple days, permission was granted.
Al-Hawl is a vast sprawl of tents providing shelter to more than 40,000 people, including the families of ISIS fighters—the so-called “Brides of Isis.” It is a favourite term in the British tabloids.
We went looking for Canadians.
After crossing from northern Iraq, it took five hours of slow driving to get to the camp, across lush green land dotted with oil wells and Kurdish military checkpoints. Many checkpoints.
When ISIS fighters swept into Iraq and Syria in 2014, seemingly out of nowhere, a good part of this territory rapidly surrendered. It was in the ancient city of Mosul that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rose in a mosque and declared the creation of Dawlat Islamia, the Caliphate.
It has now all but collapsed, the last fighters surrounded in a tiny corner of eastern Syria on the banks of the Euphrates River. Many of their wives and children ended up in al-Hawl.
A Kurdish official told us to wait in a small room and he would bring the Canadians to us. “How many?” He asked. “Two?”
I told him to bring as many as he could find and their children if they wanted.
More journalists were waiting to meet other wives of Isis fighters. The Kurds are happy to co-operate. They have enough problems without becoming the permanent jailer for 1,500 foreign women and children.
A short time later four women showed up, surprised to be meeting journalists. Two had their faces covered, two did not.
After an hour of discussion, Aimee from Alberta and Kimberly from British Columbia agreed to be interviewed, if I would not use their last names. (Within 48 hours Kimberly was identified in a New York Times interview. The conditions had obviously changed.)
Both were concerned that speaking out would cause problems for their families back in Canada, and hurt their chances of going home.
For the next 90 minutes I listened to their stories of life inside the Caliphate; of death and marriage, of running and hiding, and finally of escaping.
Aimee married her Jordanian-Canadian boyfriend, converted to Islam, and followed him to Syria with their two young boys—lying to her family about where they were going.
“He just wanted to live under the Islamic state,” she told me. “You have to be obedient to your husband so that’s what you do.”
At some point, she says, he became a fighter and that’s how he was killed.
Some women tried to leave, Aimee did not, though says she thought about it.
“The thing is you can’t…it’s trouble.”
Eventually she agreed to marry a Bosnian fighter, though it didn’t last long.
“Like you go to a place and you put your name in. What you want in a husband and they find a like a suitable match for you. He spoke English, so I said okay.”
Three months later he was killed and she is now carrying his child.
About regret and bad choices?
“It’s hard,” she says. “I can’t say I regret. The child in my stomach I don’t regret.”
At one point Canada was preparing to let these women return, but that stopped abruptly several months ago, according to Kurdish officials. Now they languish in the misery of the Al-Hawl camp, which is becoming more crowded, chaotic and unsafe.
Through it all, she hasn’t wavered from her adopted faith.
“I love being a Muslim. I feel like it keeps me grounded. I have no problem with Islam.”
Kimberly is older, 46, and converted to Islam many years earlier. She spoke of being depressed and vulnerable when she agreed to meet her husband-to-be in Syria. They had met over the internet. At the time, she said she was enrolled in a nurses training program.
“I guess I wanted to do something, and to help in some way. Looking back now, I think maybe I needed help. I don’t think I was able to make any rational decisions.”
She flew to Turkey and entered Syria.
“I knew I was going in, I didn’t know how deep into Syria. And what my options would be for returning. That’s where the plethora of lies would come in.”
She divorced her husband, she said, “when I learned what kind of man I was married to.”
Here the story twists and turns through a maize of running, hiding, whispering, a second marriage to a man from Trinidad, and a month in prison. She spoke of being picked up late at night, taken away blindfolded and ordered to sign her own death warrant if she tried to leave.
“I got out after a lot of interrogation that I hope one day I’ll be able to forget.” Her voice trailed off at the point.
She broke down momentarily over the subject of regret and her desire to return home to Canada and her family.
“I hope that some time and with some help that I can just live a quiet life.
“I wish that I hadn’t got caught up in a world of lies, secrets and fear.”
Watch W5's documentary 'Jihadi Brides' on CTV, Saturday at 7 p.m.