“An impossible choice to make”: the desire of a Montrealer to repatriate her niece from the Syrian camp

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TORONTO – The question of what to do with Canadians who left the country to join ISIS and languish in camps along the Syrian-Iraqi border has haunted the federal government for years.
ISIS fighters, their wives, widows and children are scattered in camps in northern Syria or held in prisons. An estimated 35 women and children are in Al-Roj camp alone, and eight Canadian men accused of being IS fighters are currently being held in Kurdish prisons.

Last October, five-year-old Amira, who was living in the Syrian Al-Hol camp after losing her father and mother in an airstrike, was finally able to find her uncle in Canada. Amira was handed over by the Kurds to an official Canadian delegation in a Syrian border town.

Last week, former US diplomat Peter Galbraith traveled to northern Syria to pick up a four-year-old Canadian girl after her mother released her from custody at Al-Roj camp so that she can live with her aunt in Canada. In this case, the Canadian government only helped with travel documents.

For Leila Sakhir of Montreal, watching these two children be repatriated is a painful reminder of her own two-year-old niece, stranded in a Syrian camp.

“I always think of her and her mother,” Sakhir told CTV News. “I have two daughters… and I think of her in her tent, conditions so different and it seems so unfair, so inexplicable.

Sakhir fears that if she ever manages to get her niece out of the Al-Hol camp, it might be without the child’s mother – “an impossible choice,” she said.

Sakhir’s brother, Youssef, was one of many Quebecers who left Canada in 2014 and 2015 to join the ranks of IS abroad, where he eventually married a Moroccan woman and had a child.

“It was a real shock. It was a shock for my whole family, ”said Sakhir. “We just couldn’t believe it… I remembered I fell to my knees.

Youssef was killed in a bombing in 2019. One of the last photos Sakhir has of his brother is a photo of him and his baby girl.

Sakhir’s story was the subject of a documentary film titled “The Dust of Daesch” or “The Dust of ISIS”, chronicling his journey to find his niece and sister-in-law in Al-Hol, then the little time she spent with them inside the camp.

And although Sakhir admitted that there was very little public sympathy for those who joined the terrorist organization, she told CTV News that Canada must step up and fulfill its duty. for the sake of the children who are serving a sentence alongside their parents in the camps.

“They are not facing the situation right now,” Sakhir said of the federal government. “I think it’s not Canadian, it’s not what we imagine Canada would do – ignore them. ”

Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) have repeatedly criticized Canada for “appearing to deny effective consular assistance to detainees due to their alleged links to ISIS,” which the group said “could constitute unlawful discrimination ”.

According to HRW, “the indefinite detention without charge of Canadians amounts to guilt by association and collective punishment, prohibited by international law. Inhuman or degrading treatment in camps and prisons can amount to torture, ”and Canada“ is not taking adequate measures ”to repatriate its citizens, HRW said.

Queen’s University extremism scholar Amarnath Amarasingam told CTV News that “the moral thing to do in a wealthy first world country is to bring people back who are your citizens and bill them back to their homes. ”

“Then give support to the children who were there through no fault of their own, many were born in Syria, many were born in the camps,” he continued.

Sakhir, reflecting on her brother’s actions, told CTV News she throws the blame squarely on her feet.

“I blame him for everything, I blame him for that stupid choice, for having a child like this, for dying, for just about everything.

Government officials and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have said little about Canadian children and their parents held in these camps, continuing to argue that the security situation in the region limits Canada’s ability to provide aid on the ground.

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