‘There are four Canadian kids being held captive in a war zone and no one seems to be doing anything about it’
Left: Then-prime minister Stephen Harper and Dr. Saren Azer in 2015 (PMO photo). Right: Azer with Jason Kenney in a photo the then-defence minister sent out to his 50,000 Twitter followers March 2, 2015.
Their story is almost a cliché.
Alison Jeffrey is a middle-class girl from the grasslands of Alberta. Raised by a “Red Tory” family, she was part of the PC youth movement, but after a degree in politics she went into business administration. Now, she’s organizing a charity gala in Edmonton.
Mother appeals to Prime Minister Trudeau to get her abducted... 3:25
Saren Azer is a Kurd seeking refugee status in Canada after fleeing persecution in Iran. He is passionate about Kurdish politics, but is also a doctor-in-training and a rising star in asthma research at the University of Alberta.
They meet at a professional event — he has been given a scholarship from her charity — and despite the cultural differences, or perhaps because of them, they have an instant connection.
“It sounds silly now, but I was swept off my feet,” says Alison. “He was charismatic. He had a presence.”
Alison Azer has been searching for her four children Sharvahn, 11 Rojevahn, 9, Dersim, 7, and Meitan, 3. They’re now believed to be somewhere in war-torn northern Iraq. (Christina Ryan/National Post)
Within three years Alison becomes Mrs. Azer. The couple moves back and forth between Alberta and British Columbia as Saren builds his career and they have four children — two girls and two boys.
A happy love story.
Except that over time, Saren, who is Muslim, becomes increasingly rigid in his beliefs and consumed by Kurdish politics. He wants to move the family to the Middle East.
The marriage falls apart and an acrimonious custody battle begins. When Azer takes the kids on a “holiday” he never returns. Alison would later find out they are in a remote village in Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
If this sounds like an all-too familiar plot, there’s a twist.
Thanks to his work with Kurds in Canada, Alison’s ex-husband has his own Tory ties. He has figured prominently in the Conservatives’ public relations push to intervene in Iraq. As defence minister, Jason Kenney praised him to his 50,000 Twitter followers. Saren was even welcomed into the prime minister’s office and warmly greeted by Stephen Harper.
But when Alison asks Kenney and his team for help getting her children home — not once or twice, but four times — they refuse to meet her.
Western countries have certainly intervened in the Middle East for citizens’ welfare: British diplomats forced the extradition of two Kurdish men involved in the honour killing of a young British woman; pressure from Sweden was behind a Kurdish military operation to rescue a teenaged Swedish girl from Islamic extremists.
But while law enforcement agencies have stepped in to help Alison — the RCMP has issued a warrant for Saren’s arrest, and Interpol has sent out a “red notice” to police agencies around the world — there has been no action from the Canadian government. Not from the Conservatives. Not from the new Trudeau team.
It has now been more than six months since Alison’s children disappeared.
“There are four Canadian kids being held captive in a war zone and no one seems to be doing anything about it,” says Alison. “Canada has a lot of clout in this region right now with the Kurds. It is time to use it to bring my kids safely home.”
A security image shows the Azer children entering northern Iraq on Aug. 15, 2015.
Saren Azer came to Canada in 1994.
He was raised in Iran, but claims he was jailed and tortured there on three occasions — twice for articles advocating an independent Kurdistan, once for organizing a Kurdish cultural event.
Saren Azer at the Foothills Hospital, Calgary, in 2008. At the time, he was president of the International Society for Peace and Human Rights. (Postmedia Network files)
When he fled, he eventually made his way to Calgary and applied for refugee status.
Officials handling Saren’s claim told him he could expect permanent resident status in about a year. He enrolled in English courses and became active in Canada’s Kurdish community.
But Saren soon came to the attention of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. They alleged he was linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a terrorist group better known as the PKK.
The PKK has been embroiled in a long, brutal guerrilla war with Turkey, first to establish an independent Kurdish state, now for greater Kurdish autonomy within Turkey. Over almost four decades, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the fighting, and thousands of Kurds have fled to places including Iraq and Syria.
CSIS contended that Saren advocated “the use of violence” in the Kurdish cause. He vehemently denied this, and claimed CSIS had harassed him and his friends, tapped his phone, broken into his apartment and stolen his computer files.
Despite security concerns, Saren was allowed to stay in Canada on a student visa. He moved to Edmonton to do medical research at the University of Alberta, and eventually built a network of supporters, including professors, human rights activists and MPs such as the New Democratic Party’s Svend Robinson, the Reform Party’s Rahim Jaffer and Liberal MP David Kilgour.
He was like a kid in a candy shop. (Here), he could speak Kurdish, he could write Kurdish — he was put in prison for (that) in Iran — so when he came he was excited and contacted people from all over the world who would support Kurdish culture and identity.
But CSIS’s warnings continued to hold up his application for permanent residency in Canada and, in turn, the hope of Canadian citizenship. He was told if he travelled outside the country he would not be able to re-enter Canada.
This, Saren said, hindered him from attending international medical conferences. He was also fed up with what he claimed was continued CSIS surveillance, so he filed a complaint with the spy agency’s watchdog, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC).
Saren’s lawyer, Shirish Chotalia, later acknowledged that when he first arrived in Canada, CSIS had good reason to put him under surveillance.
“He was like a kid in a candy shop,” she told the National Post. “(Here), he could speak Kurdish, he could write Kurdish — he was put in prison for (that) in Iran — so when he came he was excited and contacted people from all over the world who would support Kurdish culture and identity. And some of those people were pro-PKK.”
Saren Azer shown in Calgary on June 21, 2002 (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press)
But Chotalia also said that CSIS hadn’t done a proper assessment of Saren. If it had, the spy agency “would have realized that this man is nothing other than an enthusiastic peace-loving academic.”
In a report released in 2000, SIRC said the spy agency was indeed wrong about Saren. Information they had collected was out of date, the watchdog claimed. “There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the complainant has ever been anything other than a peaceful law-abiding individual,” wrote former Ontario premier Bob Rae, then a SIRC member.
Even after the endorsement, the Canadian government was reluctant to grant Saren landed immigrant status. Two years later nothing had changed. It wasn’t until Robinson began lobbying on Saren’s behalf that the Liberal government stepped in and CSIS’s objections were set aside.
Fast-forward a few years, though, and life was looking up for Saren Azer.
Met Dr Saren Azer,who's doing tremendous work w/ Canada's Kurdish community et al to supply medications to Iraqi IDPshttp://t.co/8qCeLZAYsl
Jason Kenney (@jkenney) March 02, 2015
He had met and married Alison. And while taking care of their children — Sharvahn, now 11, Rojevahn, 9, Dersim, 7, and Meitan, 3 — Alison had used her salary and some of her registered retirement savings plans to finance Saren’s medical education.
In November 2006, Saren became a Canadian citizen. In May 2007, he became a physician.
He could now travel unhindered. But the international medical conferences he had previously talked about didn’t seem to be his main priority. Instead, six months after he became a citizen, he began making trips to the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq — many of them to Qandil, a mountainous area near the Iraq-Iran border that serves as the command centre for the PKK.
In the fall of 2008, Saren told Alison he had been asked to join the Kurdistan National Congress, an umbrella group in Europe founded by the PKK to support Kurdish independence. She voiced her disapproval, warning that would spark another CSIS investigation. Alison also told him he was ignoring his children as the Kurdish independence cause consumed his time.
Documents show Saren went ahead and joined the congress. His trips to Qandil continued. In 2010, he told Alison he had spent several days with Murat Karayilan, the PKK’s leader and, according to the U.S. government, a significant foreign drug trafficker.
By this point, Saren and Alison’s marriage was near the breaking point.
Alison had converted to Islam before they were married. The wedding ceremony was conducted by an imam; she wore traditional Kurdish dress. Now, though, Saren ordered Alison to go through her closet and remove any clothes that didn’t reach her wrists or ankles. He objected to their daughter, Sharvahn, taking swimming lessons because of the exposure of a bathing suit.
In May that year, Saren took the family on a trip to the Kurdistan enclave in northern Iraq. He introduced them to his mother and siblings, and the children visited what the Kurds call Martyrs’ Hall, a shrine to the more than 3,000 fighters who died in battle with Turkish forces.
Alison Azer and her children.
Saren also visited refugee camps, and blamed Alison for keeping him in Canada and away from his refugee work.
He would later say that his privileged life in Canada had blinded him to the hardships that plagued the refugee camps in northern Iraq. “I’d lost touch with the reality I once lived in. It was an awakening, an honour, to be in the camp again and help.”
By December of 2012, the Azers’ relationship hit a new low. Alison alleges that Saren threatened to kill her and the kids. The RCMP in Comox, B.C., where the family had moved for Saren’s work, charged him with uttering threats to cause death or bodily harm. Alison, meanwhile, fled with the children to a women’s shelter in Victoria.
The charges against Saren, who denied he had made any threats, were eventually stayed, but the marriage was over — the court noted that “cultural differences” played a significant role — and the couple began a lengthy custody battle.
Dersim, 7, Rojevahn, 9, and Sharvahn, 11, at a wedding.
Alison was made primary caregiver. But Saren, known as a respected medical doctor and humanitarian, was eventually allowed to see the children several times a week.
Around the same time, Saren’s humanitarian work came to the attention of the Conservative government.
Canada had been training Kurdish forces as part of the international coalition against Islamic extremists in Iraq. But as training came under fire in the House of Commons, the government needed allies to bolster its campaign. Saren, a former Kurdish refugee now helping his people from Canada, seemed an ideal partner.
In March, 2015, after meetings with Kenney and Harper, Saren was featured prominently in one of the government’s promotional videos. He praised the Conservatives for the Iraq mission, which he said would save countless lives.
“Staying silent in the face of the tragedies unfolding in Kurdistan is not an honourable act,” he told a meeting of Kurdish youth in Ottawa.
While he was fighting for his Kurdish compatriots, however, Saren was also fighting for greater access to his children, including a request to take them on a trip to Germany.
Rojevahn Azer with her mother Alison.
Alison had opposed the request, citing her concerns about Saren’s alleged involvement with the PKK and the possibility he might try to abduct the kids.
But Saren forced the issue through the legal system. Alison was served with a notice to bring the children’s passports to a court hearing; a judge called for a report from the couple’s parenting coordinator, Morag MacLeod.
MacLeod reported that despite the ongoing turmoil, the kids were well adjusted, and both Saren and Alison were loving parents and attentive to their children’s needs. But she also noted the kids weren’t keen to go to Germany.
Sharvahn told MacLeod she didn’t want to travel with her father: “I don’t trust him.” She alleged that her father told lies, had hit her, and had tied up her brother as punishment. She complained that her father refused to let her swim.
Then the children learned that their live-in nanny, Lynn Foster, would come with them to Germany. MacLeod’s report noted the trust and love the children had for their 71-year-old “Gramma Lynn.” The kids changed their minds about the trip.
I didn’t want them to go, but my legal bills were piling up.
Foster was not just a nanny. A long-time colleague of Saren’s, she had accompanied him to northern Iraq to help in refugee camps. In a 1995 opinion piece in the Calgary Herald, she voiced her support for the Kurds, accusing Turkey of a “scorched earth policy,” annihilating villages and conducting executions.
Sharvahn, 11, and her mother.
A recommendation was made to allow Saren to travel with the children and Foster as long as they followed strict protocols, such as checking in with Alison at specific times. Already facing a $20,000 legal bill, Alison reluctantly followed her lawyer’s advice to not challenge the trip.
Saren took the children to Germany for 10 days. He followed all the rules perfectly — then requested another trip over the summer to France and Germany, once again with Foster.
“I didn’t want them to go, but my legal bills were piling up and with one successful trip under his belt the courts would have been inclined to favour Saren,” Alison says.
This time, though, when the kids arrived in Europe they missed their first scheduled phone call and it took a complaint to Saren’s lawyer to prompt one.
A few days later, Rojevahn, the couple’s nine-year-old, called, upset. “Mummy I cried for two hours last night,” she told Alison. “Something just doesn’t feel right.”
The next call was made from a street in Cologne. It was difficult to hear, but Saren refused to move for better reception. Then the line went dead.
There was no call at the scheduled time a few days later.
Alison immediately went to the RCMP in Comox with the court order that had been violated, but was told they could do nothing.
The next day, she called the RCMP again, this time asking police to check with Saren’s brothers in Canada.
On Aug. 17, an RCMP officer called Alison to say Saren’s siblings assured him nothing was wrong. The children would be back in Canada as scheduled four days later.
Instead, at 5 a.m. on the day the children were due home, an RCMP officer knocked on Alison’s door; the children had not boarded a return flight from Europe.
Alison’s lawyer was in court within hours and a judge granted her sole custody and guardianship of the kids. But by then all she could do was wait — and beg for information.
The wanted photo of Dr. Saren Azer issued by Interpol.
She posted her story on social media, and challenged Foster on Facebook about what Alison felt was her lack of action on the trip. Foster said that as soon as she learned the children were missing she notified German police and the Canadian embassy. But “with regard to the safety of the children, you know as well as I do,” she added, “that they are with their father who loves them with a depth and passion that is beyond the understanding of most Westerners.”
Minister Kenney meets with thousands of Canadians every year, and does not inquire about whether they are involved in personal or family disputes.
With Saren now a fugitive, the politicians who gave him glowing endorsements were in retreat.
In a September email to Postmedia, Kenney’s office pointed out that the minister didn’t know much about Azer when he posed for photos and praised the physician publicly.
Alison Azer in Chestermere on March 8. (Christina Ryan/National Post)
“Minister Kenney meets with thousands of Canadians every year, and does not inquire about whether they are involved in personal or family disputes,” wrote Kenney’s spokesman Daniel Proussalidis. “In this instance, Dr. Azer was described by people in the Comox Valley area, and members of the Canadian Kurdish community, as a highly regarded physician and humanitarian.”
Harper’s office also distanced itself. Asked by Postmedia about vetting Saren, Conservative Party spokesman Stephen Lecce responded only that “the government has met with many groups and individuals who are working to assist victims” of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Then-minister of state for foreign affairs, Lynne Yelich, would only say that the government didn’t know where the children were.
Alison decided to see what she could find out herself. She flew to Washington, D.C., to meet the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative Bayan Rahman.
Rahman told her the Canadian government did in fact know the children had been taken to Iraq. She read a diplomatic note sent to Bruno Saccomani, Canada’s ambassador to Jordan and Iraq and Harper’s former RCMP bodyguard, which indicated he had been told by the Kurds that the children landed Aug. 15 at the airport in Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Alison was stunned. Faced with what she considered indifference from the Canadian government, she headed directly to northern Iraq.
At 5 a.m. on Dec. 3, Alison and a hired Kurdish driver set out along the narrow, winding roads to the Qandil mountains.
She had already travelled to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, and then on to Sulaymaniyah, talking to Kurdish officials and meeting anyone who might have any information about the whereabouts of her children.
Sharvahn Azer at a soccer game.
It had taken her months, but eventually Alison found someone who had security photos of her ex-husband and the children arriving at the Sulaymaniyah airport in August and could confirm they had been taken to the PKK’s stronghold.
To get there, Alison and her driver trekked through mud and snow, stopping at checkpoints with armed Kurdish guerrillas. Her driver introduced her as the “mother of the four children,” and told the soldiers she wanted to meet the PKK.
The gunmen understood; Alison’s story had been carried on a local television station and in Kurdish newspapers.
After three hours of driving, Alison reached the place where she believed she would find her children. Outside, in front of brown buildings and streets of slush and mud, men sat in plastic chairs and drank tea.
Alison asked for the local leader, a village elder.
After introducing herself with the proper greetings in Kurdish, she was invited to the elder’s home. She knew she was in the right place when his son told her he had played with her oldest boy, Dersim. But as they ate a sumptuous lunch, kids peering into the house to catch a glimpse of the Canadian, the elder began to question her.
I thought they would at least recognize my humanity as a mother.
He wanted to know why, as Azer had told him, she didn’t take care of her children. He also wanted to know whether she would move to Sulaymaniyah for the sake of the kids.
Alison explained that her ex-husband’s claims were false. And yes, she said, she would be open to whatever needed to be done, wherever, to get the children to safety. She was then taken down the road to meet a group of PKK guerrillas at a nearby bunker.
Meitan, 3, celebrates a birthday.
Alison presented a carefully worded declaration asking for the return of her kids. She acknowledged the PKK’s strong support of women and children, and made it clear she respected Kurdish culture — her children had strong Kurdish names, she had kept her husband’s last name and she taught her children about Kurdish tradition.
When she was done, the officer in charge asked for photos of her children and Alison handed him a police flyer with pictures of all four.
He left the bunker, but returned a short time later, with the flyer rolled up in his hand. Dr. Azer may have been in the area, the officer conceded, but he was no longer around.
Alison believed the officer was lying. But she pleaded once again for her children’s return.
“I am but a poor mother,” she said passionately.
The guerrillas were unmoved. The village elder cast his eyes downward: “I am sorry,” he said. “Good luck.”
Following Kurdish customs, all Alison could do was shake each man’s hand and wish him well. But as she left the village her composure crumbled. She had travelled more than 10,000 kilometres, so close to her children — yet they remained out of reach. She began sobbing.
“I didn’t think they would give me my kids that day,” Alison said later. “But I thought they would at least recognize my humanity as a mother.”
Kurdish sources would later tell her that Saren was indeed in the Qandil mountains, but there was a natural sympathy for the doctor here. He was seen as a friend of the “Canadian president.” He had provided medical aid at Kurdish refugee camps and promised to build a hospital. One Kurdish media outlet suggested Alison had fabricated the kids’ abduction.
For the rest of December, Alison continued to meet Kurdish officials and beg for help. Nothing.
I want Canada to do something that we don’t often do as Canadians and that’s flex a little muscle
While Alison was in Iraq pleading her case, her supporters were ramping up a campaign of their own — sending more than 30,000 letters to the government demanding action. A Facebook page started to highlight the children’s abduction had 2,600 followers.
The Liberals were newly in power and Alison’s supporters hoped they would step in where the Conservatives had not. They knew Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s strategy for Iraq hinged on the Kurds and that he planned to provide them with weapons, millions of dollars in aid and more Canadian Forces advisers.
From left to right: Dersim, 7, Sharvahn, 11, Rojevahn, 9, relax in British Columbia.
Instead, the six-month anniversary of the children’s abduction on Aug. 15, came and went.
Nine days later, Alison went to parliament. NDP MP Gord Johns urged the Liberals to do more to secure her children’s release. Other MPs gave her a standing ovation.
Omar Alghabra, parliamentary secretary for Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, did respond: “I want to take a moment to recognize Ms. Azer’s strength and commitment,” he said. “I want to assure her and the House that we are very committed to the return of her children safely at home.
Still, there has been no action.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s military has ramped up its war with the PKK, bombing within five kilometres of where Alison’s children are believed to be.
Alison Azer in Chestermere, Alberta. (Christina Ryan/National Post)
The Canadians can have an impact, she says. Troops now in Kurdistan are stationed about 100 kilometres from where she believes her children are being held. And in the next several months, our aircraft will deliver loads of weapons to the Kurds and more military personnel will arrive to train Kurdish soldiers.
“I want Canada to do something that we don’t often do as Canadians,” she says, “and that’s flex a little muscle.”
Until then, Alison keeps pushing. Next week, she hopes to meet Kurdish Interior Minister Karim Sinjari in Washington. After that, she is planning a luncheon for MPs in Ottawa.
And every night, before going to bed, Alison sings a lullaby. It’s the same one she sang to her kids before they left in August — a Scottish ballad her parents sang to her.
“That’s my way to be with them each night, to connect with them,” she says. “It’s a way to end the day and prepare me to continue on for the next. I’m not going to stop until my kids are home.”
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