Finding Amira: Canadian meets orphaned niece in Syria but forced to leave her behind
Amira has been stranded in Syria since the age of four, when her father was killed while fighting for ISIS.
LONDON, U.K. -- After spending two weeks in northeastern Syria, a Canadian man finally got to hold his four-year-old orphaned niece in his arms. He was able to show her pictures of her grandparents in Toronto, and then he was forced to leave the country -- without her.
I have followed the plight of Amira for almost a year, stranded in a sprawling and miserable detention camp and put in the care of a stranger, until she was rescued by Kurdish officials and moved to an “orphanage.”
Her uncle told me he felt enormous relief when he finally got to hug Amira, and utter failure when he left her behind. He came with gifts of clothing and other necessities, things he’d bought over the months for precisely that moment. She seemed to know who he was -- probably because people in the orphanage had told her he was coming. She spoke mostly Arabic and some English.
Every day he was there, he said he pleaded with the Canadian government to help him bring Amira to Canada -- as he had for many months before that -- but it never happened.
Amira’s story is indeed troubling. Her entire family, mother, father, three siblings were killed in the last battle to destroy ISIS. Somehow, a photo of her made its way to Canada, and that’s how remaining family members learned Amira was alive, and alone, in the misery of al-Hol camp.
I persuaded her uncle to go public with his story, but he refused to appear on camera, or allow me to use the family name, worried about all the hate that comes with this kind of exposure. Through it all, he wrote incessantly to Global Affairs Canada, begging for help, sometimes in anger, always in frustration.
He had always threatened to go on his own to try and rescue Amira -- if Canada wouldn’t help -- and then he did. It’s a complicated journey, but he patiently made arrangements for crossing from Iraq into Syria. He traveled as a member of FAVE -- Families Against Violent Extremism -- a Canadian NGO set up to help the families of 40-odd Canadians stranded or imprisoned in Syria, most of them children.
The founder of FAVE, Dr. Alexandra Bain, has nothing but contempt for the government’s handling of Amira’s plight -- expressed in letter after letter to Global Affairs and the prime minister.
“Canada has one last chance to do what is right for this child, and show the compassion for which our country is usually known.”
“Her life,” she wrote recently, “is in your hands.”
Amira and her uncle had an hour together in crowded surroundings, before she was taken back to join the other children, perhaps expecting her uncle would return the next day and take her to Canada.
But that never happened.
Just days before, there had been extremely good news. At long last, Global Affairs had accepted Amira’s identity, removing the biggest obstacle in her struggle.
I won’t name the official who sent the note, but for the record, here is what she said:
“I would like to inform you that DNA testing will not be required, as the Government of Canada has now established Amira’s identity and links to Canada.”
For the family, here was the best part:
“This means that she is now eligible to receive Canadian citizenship.”
The uncle learned one crucial detail in his meetings with Kurdish officials. They told him they would be happy to release Amira, once a Canadian diplomat had travelled to the region to make a formal request.
That apparently was a red line. Canada has consistently argued the situation is too dangerous to offer consular services, even though many other countries have done exactly that.
In response to written questions, a Global Affairs spokesman told me Canada is “actively engaged on this case with local authorities,” but would not confirm Amira’s citizenship status.
“We are likewise in regular contact with the family of the child’s deceased parents and are working with them on this sensitive and complex situation -- driven by the best interests of the child.”
Amira’s uncle has not all given up. He left Syria with more determination then when he entered the country.
“I have travelled to the region at great personal cost,” he wrote in a final message to his Global Affairs case worker. “I am here to help my government bring Amira home.”
Canada almost stands alone as one of the countries that has refused to rescue orphaned citizens.
“I continue to be astonished,” he wrote, “by the lengths the Canadian government will go to deny my poor niece her basic human rights.”