‘It became clear they had been told not to trust me’: How Alison Azer briefly reunited with her abducted children
Marie-Danielle Smith | May 23, 2017 9:44 AM ET
Alison Azer: Mother of four abducted children
OTTAWA — For more than a year, she ached, and searched and struggled to reach her four children.
But when Alison Azer finally came face to face with the little ones her ex-husband had ripped from her arms and spirited across the globe, instead of running to her, they were full of caution, and mistrust.
‘There are four Canadian kids being held captive in a war zone and no one seems to be doing anything about it’
<img src="http://wpmedia.news.nationalpost.com/2016/08/1323035.jpg?quality=75&strip=all" alt="" height="162" width="216"><br />
Dr. Saren Azer 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. Today, he’s holed up somewhere in northern Iraq.” <a href="http://news.nationalpost.com/features/there-are-four-canadian-kids-being-held-captive-in-a-war-zone-and-no-one-seems-to-be-doing-anything-about-it" target="_blank">Read more</a><br />
In the up-close gaze of someone else’s cell phone camera, her preteen daughter called her a liar.
Still, during the tightly controlled visits that followed in northern Iran late last year, Azer finally started to feel like a mom again. She felt joy, squishing together with her kids in the backseat of a car. Bathing her youngest son, who still remembered the toys from their Comox, B.C. bathroom. “We were almost there,” she said.
In an interview with the National Post this week, the mother whose children are now caught up in the Canada-Iran relationship shared the story of her fraught November trip for the first time.
It was August, 2015 when Azer’s ex-husband, Saren Azer, left Canada with the kids for a trip to Europe. When they didn’t return, a B.C. court granted full custody to his ex-wife and a warrant went out for his arrest. They landed in a Kurdistani village in Iraq and eventually resurfaced in Iran, the country from which Azer had fled to Canada in 1994, saying he had been tortured and securing refugee status.
Azer spent three months in Kurdish territory trying to track down her kids to no avail. Back in Canada, she launched public campaigns urging the Canadian government to help bring them back.
A full 15 months after the abduction, Azer obtained a two-week visa for Iran. She was on a plane within 10 days with a close friend who spoke Persian and also knew her ex-husband.
Christina Ryan, National PostAlison Azer holds up a poster showing her four children Sharvahn,11, Rojevahn, 9, Dersim, 7, and Meitan, 3, that were abducted by their father Saren Azer.
Based on Iranian court documents, Azer knew the children and their dad had been living for several months in a city called Urmia, in the northwest. Iranian foreign officials were aware of Azer’s case and facilitated a one-hour visit with her kids in Urmia on Nov. 21, the day after her arrival in Tehran.
“My knees buckled and I couldn’t see straight. And they had to bring a chair over so that I could sit down. I couldn’t believe that after all this time, at the end of the day, I would hopefully see my children,” she said.
Conditions were placed on the visit at an Urmia hotel. The children’s aunt and cousin were in the room the whole time, and the cousin, in his 20s, was holding up two cellphones, Azer said: one that had an open line to Saren Azer, who was in his car outside, and one that was videotaping the entire exchange.
But there they were, intact: the two older girls, now pre-teens, Sharvahn and Rojevahn; the two younger boys, Dersim and Meitan. They’d changed. The last time Azer saw Meitan, he was three.
The older children were especially guarded, she said. Azer said parents of other abducted kids had warned her of an alienation effect. “But nothing prepared me for the degree to which they withdrew from me,” she said. “It became clear to me that they had been told not to trust me.”
Sharvahn was “quite distant and quite reluctant,” Azer said. “My oldest daughter, she wouldn’t speak to me. But at one point she said, ‘Well, it sure took you long enough to get here.’” The 12-year-old accused her mother of being a liar.
Azer found herself trying to “prove” to her children that she’d tried to come after them in Iraq. While staying in Kurdistan, Azer recalled meeting a boy, Diyarko, who had befriended her son, Dersim. She had sat with the boy on his parents’ carpet, next to a kerosene lamp, collecting anecdotes. In November, she asked Dersim if he remembered the child, if he remembered Diyarko’s father bringing him a jar of Nutella from a big city. He did.
Before the hour was up, Azer called her parents, who are in their 80s, in Calgary. They spoke to their grandsons for two or three minutes. But the girls “were just not ready.”
FacebookSaren Azer abducted his children to Iran in 2015.
And before the hour was up, Azer showered the kids with gifts she had shopped for in Canada. “Clothes, movies, stickers, books, art supplies.” She bought Saren’s favourite chocolates, coconut Ferrero Rochers, as a gesture of goodwill, and perfume for his sisters, too. “Two huge suitcases.”
Azer has a copy of hotel security footage, which her friend helped to obtain. It shows a bird’s eye view of the exchange. “I haven’t brought myself to be able to watch that,” she admitted. “I remember not being able to get out of my mind that I might not see my children again.”
An INTERPOL red notice, similar to a warrant, is still out for Saren Azer’s arrest. But last summer, Iranian authorities cleared him of kidnapping charges.
Still, for months, Alison Azer had been trying to go through the Iranian legal system to get custody of her children. She engaged a lawyer to act on her behalf and argue for custody.
A pair of in-person court appearances in November did nothing to reassure Azer about the Iranian justice system, however. It was during the second of these, in which a judge appeared to favour her ex-husband’s point of view, that one of the children, Dersim, was asked if he’d rather live with his mother. “Dersim jumped off my lap and went over to his dad and said, ‘No, Papa, no, I’ll stay with you,’” she said.
This appeared to move his father emotionally, she said. “By that point I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere through the legal system. I said, ‘Please, Saren, take us for lunch. Let’s go have lunch together.’”
Azer saw her kids several times over the course of a few days, including at their house, but always under supervision. “Saren let me know that there were listening devices in the house and that we were being followed,” she said.
InterpolThe wanted photo of Dr. Saren Azer issued by Interpol.
There were difficult moments. Sharvahn, the eldest, had difficult questions. “Using these lines that I really, really doubted were her own, she said, ‘Are you just doing this to be a celebrity, mummy? Are you just trying to get attention?’” said Azer. But there were light-hearted moments, too. Sharvahn started teasing her mom about how she was wearing her hair. “It’s too puffy.” Those moments felt real, Azer said.
On their way back to Azer’s hotel from lunch, on one of those last days, she said, the kids piled into the backseat with her as Saren drove. “They all wanted to sit with me. Nobody wanted to go into the front seat,” she said. Dersim wouldn’t let go of her. Saren asked if he would like to spend some time with his mother at the hotel. Yes, he said. Meitan said, “me too, me too,” Azer recalled. “It was like I was taken to Disneyland.”
The people at the hotel had gotten to know Azer. They had flags in the lobby from all over the world, and one of the hotel staff, Mohammed, handed a Canadian flag to Dersim.
Though still under the supervision of the kids’ cousin, Azer shared more-intimate moments with her boys. She clipped Dersim’s nails and washed his feet. Meitan asked for a bath.
“He started asking me for his bath toys from Canada. He remembered the ninja turtle with the blue scarf, and he remembered the whale,” Azer said. “And I bathed him and washed his hair, dried his hair, put cream on his legs. So for an hour and a half, I was a mom. I was a mom. And then it was over.”
There were attempts at negotiation. Saren Azer asked his ex-wife to stay in Iran rather than going back to Canada. But he wasn’t willing to come back to Comox, fearing arrest, and she would not stay, not least because of the way Iranian laws limit women’s rights.
“I would be in better service of my children if I returned to Canada and kept fighting for them from here. And it was very clear that that’s what I had to do. And very hard,” Azer said.
After stopping in Tehran to meet again with foreign officials, she crossed the ocean again. Although her ex-husband promised she would be able to speak with the children by telephone, she said he went back on the promise. Her only contact with the kids since then was a phone call on Christmas morning.
Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of a meeting between Azer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during which he told her the file would stay on his desk. Despite continued meetings with Canadian officials — including a meeting with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland in February, and a “good rapport” with Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford — little has materially changed.
Although she is still asking for Canadians’ support in pushing the Liberal government, Azer acknowledged this has become more than just a story about her family. The case is intimately connected with a Liberal campaign promise to re-establish a relationship with Iran. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had severed diplomatic ties in 2012.
This month, Canadian officials travelled to Iran for the first time since then, and according to Azer, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke on the phone with her counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and spoke about the Azer case. Canadian officials did not confirm or deny that the phone call took place.
“Canada remains deeply concerned about the situation of the Azer children,” said Natasha Nystrom, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada.
HandoutAlison Azer with her four children celebrating Christmas.
“While in Iran, Canadian officials raised a number of issues, including Canadian consular matters and human rights concerns. While privacy considerations prevent the government from commenting in detail on the specifics of this case, the safety and wellbeing of the Azer children are a priority.”
In the absence of contact with her children, those November memories persist for Azer. “I’m remembering what I wore, and what I ate, and my children, what their hair smelled like, how they felt under my fingers,” Azer said. “I am so grateful I was able to see my children and I’m more grateful that they were able to see me.”Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: mariedanielles