MONTREAL—Saeeda was at work when she got the message: “Mama, I’ve left to join ISIS.”
There are no words, Saeeda says, to describe how she felt on that November 2014 afternoon. It was as if her teenage daughter had just died and Saeeda’s life would now be defined in two acts: Before she learned her daughter left Canada for Syria, and after.
“I, I cried out. I yelled,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. I started to slap my knees . . . I just kept doing it.”
As concerned colleagues surrounded her, Saeeda went numb.
But the next week, when her daughter called and sounded desperate, saying she regretted what she had done, another instinct clicked in. Rather than mourning what felt like a death, she realized she might be the only person who could keep her daughter alive.
“I knew my daughter regretted everything . . . she realized from the beginning that what she had done was not good for her; she would pay for her mistake.”
Saeeda embarked on what would become a three-year mission to get her home. She would not break down again until this past November, when she got word that her daughter had finally escaped ISIS territory.
Her daughter, now 22 and a mother of two, is still in Syria, but in the custody of the coalition-allied Kurdish forces. Canadian officials are preparing to bring them home.
“(When) I knew she was with the Kurds, that’s when it hit me. That’s when I cried. I screamed all over again,” says Saeeda.
“Everyone thinks I’ve been strong and courageous. No, I haven’t been strong or courageous. It’s only because I was looking for a solution and I forgot the problem.”
Saeeda’s mission to save her daughter and granddaughters — a journey that took her from Canada to Germany and Turkey and introduced her to Syrian militias, activists, dissidents, and Canada’s security establishment — is portrayed in The Way Out, a documentary airing Sunday night on CBC TV.
Saeeda is a pseudonym and her daughter is identified in the film as “Amina.”
Her story is a rare and intimate portrayal of one mother’s fight to get her daughter away from Daesh, the terrorist group also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Daesh lost nearly all its territory last year to a coalition of Iraqi, Syrian, Kurdish and Arab forces, backed by international partners. But the conflict is far from over and while Daesh no longer occupies the land they once ruled, the group’s ideology dangerously lives on.
Countries whose citizens joined Daesh and now want to return home are grappling with how to handle those who lived among one of the most feared groups in the world. There will be straightforward cases where former members are prosecuted and jailed. But for others, where there is insufficient evidence to lay charges, authorities may seek rehabilitation programs or community-based options.
The federal government has said cases of “returnees” will be determined on an individual basis, but the issue, when publicly debated, rarely moves beyond politics into pragmatism.
When the Star first reported in December that Amina was in Kurdish custody, the case erupted during question period, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his government’s “multi-faceted approach.”
“The prime minister is using a broad spectrum that includes poetry and podcasts, and all kinds of counselling and group hug sessions,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer replied to a chorus of cheers and jeers.
Amina’s role with Daesh is unknown. But according to Saeeda and the information she has received from police, nothing suggests Amina went beyond being a wife and mother.
If she were charged upon her return, prosecutors would need to present evidence that she joined Daesh to “for the purpose of enhancing the ability of any terrorist group to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity.”
Saeeda is still not exactly sure how, or why, her daughter left.
She knows Amina, who was born in Montreal, paid for a flight to Turkey on a credit card that she didn’t know her daughter possessed, and police told her that Amina travelled with another teenage Montreal girl whom Saeeda had never met.
She knew that Amina was struggling at times, with school, her religion and her place within Quebec society. One day, about a year before her daughter left, Saeeda was leaving her office and she saw Amina at a bus stop wearing gloves and a chador, a traditional Islamic covering. She had never seen her daughter dress like this before and wondered what else she might be hiding.
Amina’s parents, who are divorced, were both born in Morocco, but met and married in Montreal, and while Muslim, the family was not religious.
“I could only see her glasses. She hadn’t covered her face, but the skirt and everything else,” Saeeda said. “I opened the door and I thought, ‘That’s her!’ I asked her, ‘What’s this?’ She said, ‘Oh! Oh!’ She was surprised because she hadn’t expected to see me.”
That was the first moment Saeeda worried what her daughter was doing outside their home. It was also 2013 and common in Montreal for young Muslim girls to suddenly don the hijab for the first time, not as a symbol of religiosity, but to protest Quebec’s “Charter of Values,” a proposed ban on religious symbols.
Montreal’s Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence highlighted this legislation in their 2016 report on violent radicalization in Quebec — which groups such as Daesh could exploit to encourage feelings of victimization. “Many of these young Muslim Quebecers saw the public debate on state religious neutrality not as a neutral debate, but as a further attack on the Muslim community,” the 84-page report stated.
Around the same time, Amina became increasingly obsessed with the attacks by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, and she watched heartbreaking footage online. “She was always in her room. It’s possible that she was watching (the footage) over and over,” Saeeda says.
Hicham Tiflati, an academic who has extensively researched the experience of young Muslims living in the West, and has helped counsel Saeeda, said humanitarian work is what initially pushed some young women into Syria and Iraq. “It was just mainly to help babies and other women who are suffering,” he said, “(not) migrating to a caliphate.”
If Amina was influenced elsewhere — online recruiters, or someone at the college where she was in her second year — Saeeda doesn’t know.
On the second-last evening before she left, as her mother watched TV, Amina put on an impromptu fashion show. “She tried on everything, almost every single thing she had,” Saeeda says. “She tried on her high heels that she had never worn, or wore just once for her graduation.”
“I thought maybe she regretted, like she had a change of heart, that she was going to go back to her old life . . . I never thought she was trying all these clothes on because she thought she would never wear clothes like that again.”
The next day Amina asked to spend the night at a friend’s house for a party. Saeeda balked, saying she would pick her up no matter the time, even if the party lasted until 3 a.m. But Amina, who had just turned 19, convinced her she would be fine.
That was the Thursday morning when she said goodbye. Saeeda had an uneasy feeling that only grew when she couldn’t reach her daughter by text that evening.
She wouldn’t hear from her again until she got the message that Amina was already inside Syria.
During her years living in Daesh territory, Amina moved to various cities across Syria and Iraq, but spent the most time in Raqqa. She told her mother that when she first arrived she had lived in a house for unwed and widowed women. Within a month, she was married to a German convert to Islam, who went by the nickname or kunya, Abu Salaheddin.
When she told Saeeda she was married, Saeeda begged her daughter to not get pregnant. But by November 2015, Amina had given birth to her first daughter.
Once again she called her mother distraught, telling her that she had delivered her baby by caesarean section, without proper anesthetic. She had been warned not to cry or make any noise. Afterwards both she and her baby were sick.
Weeks passed and Saeeda rarely slept, constantly checking for messages. She spoke only once to her daughter over Skype. “When I saw her she was crying, and I was crying. Sometimes we were looking at each other without saying anything. We were just crying,” Saeeda says. “But he was there, too. The husband was there. So we weren’t at liberty to speak . . . . But she cried the entire time.”
Meanwhile, without her daughter knowing, Saeeda talked regularly with RCMP officers, and by 2016 was talking by Skype with a militia group called Thuwar Raqqa.
Two members, who called themselves “Abu Shujaa” and “Mahmoud,” agreed to help get Amina out of Daesh territory and surrender to coalition-allied forces.
Thuwar Raqqa, or Raqqa’s Revolutionaries, is one of the Syrian militias fighting Daesh. Their intelligence wing has spies working within Raqqa-controlled areas, specializing in extracting those who want to defect.
“We fight ISIS on the ground, and this is one way to do it,” Abu Shujaa told Saeeda during one of their calls. “When I extract a person from the inside, ISIS loses a person, and I get some info that will help me move on the ground.”
“We want to go back to our country, and for Daesh to leave. Daesh distorted my Islam. Our main goal is to get rid of ISIS, so any defector is a win for us.”
But while joining Daesh may have been easy for Amina getting out was not.
Finding Amina was the first problem. After living in Mosul in Iraq for about 18 months, she had returned with her husband and daughter to Syria.
Women living under Daesh control are fully covered when in public and according to texts sent to her mother, it sounded as if Amina rarely left home. Thuwar Raqqa would need more information about the husband.
In the summer of 2017, Saeeda travelled to Germany to speak with members of the Syrian human rights group Sound and Picture. For years, the group had exposed Daesh’s crimes through footage and reports smuggled out by a network of undercover activists and journalists.
Brothers Mohamed and Aghiad Kheder agreed to meet and were able to identify a photo of Amina’s husband as one of Daesh’s “administrators” — and they told her he had a reputation for being cruel.
Armed with this information, Saeeda travelled to Istanbul to meet with Mahmoud from Thuwar Raqqa. At the time, the war in Syria was intensifying and the fight to liberate Raqqa from Daesh had begun.
Mahmoud told Saeeda that they had to move quickly, and if they did reach Amina, they would escort her and her infant daughter into Kurdish-controlled Syria where she would surrender.
Saeeda’s lawyer, Toronto-based Nader Hassan, had briefed Canadian security services on the plan.
Saeeda knew her daughter could be charged criminally, but prison in Canada was better than being held prisoner by Daesh.
Mahmoud told her his group’s spies would bring a video message from Saeeda into Raqqa. Once they found the right house, they would wait until Amina’s husband was out and Amina was alone to deliver the message.
But before they could find Amina, she was gone.
Saeeda returned to Montreal devastated. In Turkey, she not only felt physically close to Amina, she was as close as she had come to help rescue her.
Weeks went by with no contact.
Finally, Amina’s husband, Abu Salaheddin, sent a text. They were alive and in the town of Al Boukamel. Amina was almost eight months’ pregnant.
Saeeda knew she had to convince him to let her daughter and granddaughter go and sent texts for days, trying not to anger him. “I knew my daughter regretted going there,” says Saeeda. “I knew he was the problem.”
Saeeda could not tell Abu Salaheddin that she had retained a lawyer and was working with Canadian security officials. Eventually, as it became clear Daesh would soon lose Al Boukamel as well, he let Amina go.
A few harrowing days later, Amina and her daughter, escorted by Thuwar Raqqa, arrived in the Kurdish-controlled region of Al Hasakah. Amina gave birth to her second daughter while in custody.
Canadian officials say they are in contact with Kurdish authorities and have prepared travel documents for Amina and her daughters.
Hasan, Saeeda’s lawyer, said he is frustrated that Amina has been held for more than two months. “We have been very forthcoming with Global Affairs but we’re being told very little. They say they’re committed to bringing (Amina) and her children home but consular officials have yet to make any contact with her,” Hasan said. “I hope that petty politics does not stand in the way of repatriating three young Canadians who have already gone through so much.”
Amina’s fate back in Canada is unknown and the RCMP has made no comment about whether she will be charged.
Amina’s husband, “Abu Salaheddin,” is believed to be on the run in Syria. Saeeda has cut off all contact with him. Abu Salaheddin’s mother said in a telephone interview this week from Germany that she had not heard from her son since December.
Meanwhile, once again, Saeeda is waiting.
She has prepared a room in her apartment, filled with Amina’s old clothes, two cribs and a drawer of tiny Gap socks, onesies and sweaters, for the granddaughters she has never met.
She hopes her daughter is not charged but understands she could be.
“It’s like a child who falls victim to drugs, or prostitution, or a gang. It’s the influence. We’ve all given our kids a good education,” Saeeda says. “It just takes meeting one bad person to ruin your life.”
Saeeda says she has received support from the tight circle of friends and family who know what she has gone through. And she hopes the Canadian public will show mercy — but is bracing for the backlash.
“My daughter made a mistake,” says Saeeda. “She will have to come to terms with this.”
The Way Out, will premiere on CBC on Sunday, Jan. 21 at 9 p.m. Michelle Shephard co-directed the documentary with 52 Media’s David York. Follow Shephard on Twitter: @shephardm.