'Child's life at stake,' says uncle awaiting Canadian orphan's fate in Syria
Published Monday, June 24, 2019 10:21AM EDT
LONDON - Australia is the latest country to rescue orphans who were stranded at the notorious al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria, the children of parents who joined ISIS and were killed.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced eight children had been freed from “a bleak and complicated situation” after secret negotiations through aid groups.
Whenever that happens, there’s a family in Toronto that thinks, ‘Okay Canada, it’s your turn.’
Canada has been aware of four-year-old Amira’s story for a while. Aware, but unwilling it seems to do anything about it. Family members say they have run into roadblock after roadblock in their efforts to bring the orphan to Canada.
- Exclusive: Amira's uncle speaks with CTV News
Amira’s story is tragic, no matter what you think of her parents and their decision to leave Canada and join ISIS. As Amira’s uncle in Toronto told me: “She’s only four. She hasn’t done anything wrong. She was born into these conditions. She has no control over her circumstances.”
Mother and father killed in an air strike. Found wandering alone in the Syrian town of Baghouz as it was being bombed from the air. Taken to al-Hol camp where she is now living with a surrogate family. Her relatives in Toronto say they have no idea who’s looking after her or what condition she’s in. They fear the worst.
Canada’s Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale rightly described her situation as “horrendous.”
“Time is not on our side,” says her uncle, whose efforts to bring Amira to Canada have been a series of exasperating setbacks. He’s afraid to give his full name or show his face on television. His family has already received threats.
“She’s seen terrible things in her young life,” he says. “There’s a family here waiting for her. There’s opportunities waiting for her. This is a child’s life at stake.”
Amira’s uncle has been regularly making phone calls and sending emails to a case worker in Ottawa, assigned by Global Affairs to deal with the families of all the Canadian women and children being detained in Syria. By one count, there are 28.
The answer is always the same. “Our ability to provide consular assistance is extremely limited.”
If it’s too dangerous in eastern Syria for Canada to send in diplomats, why isn’t it too dangerous for other countries? Sweden, France, The Netherlands, have all sent officials into Syria on missions to rescue their orphans. Exactly what Amira’s uncle is asking Canada to arrange.
In a recent email to his caseworker, he once again implored the government to act, and act urgently. “The Trudeau government has recently made much of Canada’s generosity to Syrian refugees—surely it would be consistent with this boasting for us to take (in) one more little girl?”
Amira can’t speak for herself, but others can, and their description of the camp is grim. Worms in the water. Unbearable heat and sandstorms. One mother’s text messages obtained by CTV News depict the daily cycle of sickness, misery and fear.
“The water is so salty that my daughter sweats and has white salt marks all over her scalp and body. The same water trucks that clean out the toilet stalls are the ones that fill the drinking water tanks.”
This mother has a tent of her own and sends messages by What’s App. It’s not safe to make voice calls because the Kurdish guards could come at any moment.
“There are scorpions and snakes all over because we’re sitting on a desert. But when kids get stung or bitten or have allergic reactions, the hospital says we don’t have the right medicine.”
She eats red lentils, white rice, bulgur and dried chickpeas supplied by an aid agency. No fruit, no vegetables, no milk or eggs for children already starved and malnourished from the siege of Baghouz.
That description is corroborated by Mari Mortvedt, who was sent to the camp as part of a Red Cross relief team.
“We see children that are malnourished, that are not getting enough water, so they are dehydrated. And on top of this, many of them have injuries from mortar shellings, from bullet wounds that have been left for months without getting proper surgical care.”
“It’s hot and it’s dusty,” Mortvedt told me. “It’s always very difficult for the children, especially the children below five years old.”
The Trudeau government has shown scant interest in allowing these women—ISIS wives—to return to Canada, even to face criminal prosecution. Their children are collateral victims, and certainly in danger. That seems undeniable.
The string of desperate text messages ended this way.
“We talk among ourselves every day. We are depressed and losing hope. I feel like our government is ignoring us and leaving us to die here.”