American who freed Canadian girl calls on world to repatriate children stranded in Syrian camps

·8 min read
Children look through a chain link fence at the al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, March 8, 2019. (Issam Abdallah/Reuters - image credit)
Children look through a chain link fence at the al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, March 8, 2019. (Issam Abdallah/Reuters - image credit)

The former U.S. diplomat who freed a 4-year-old Canadian girl from a detention camp in Syria Friday is calling on Canada and other countries to repatriate all of the children still stranded there.

Peter Galbraith said he also wants Canada to bring home the girl's mother. He said he doesn't believe she was radicalized and the Kurds controlling the ISIS detention camp in northeastern Syria agree with him.

At least 23 Canadian children — most of them under the age of six — remain in detention camps in Syria, according to Human Rights Watch. Many are living in al-Roj and al-Hol, where hundreds of adults and children have died from the fighting in the region, or from a lack of medical care or unsanitary conditions, the group said.

Galbraith said the children are "completely innocent" and not responsible for what their parents did, or their ties to ISIS.

WATCH | The Canadian mothers inside an ISIS detention camp:

"All governments should make an effort to try to get their children back," said Galbraith. "I also think it's possible to distinguish between those those women who are no longer radical and those who still are.

"Certainly the mother of this little girl is somebody who, in my opinion, is not radical."

Canada is a laggard among nations when it comes to repatriating children connected to suspected foreign fighters.

Kazakhstan has repatriated more than 600 of its citizens, mostly women and children, along with some suspected ISIS fighters. Russia took into custody dozens of orphans. Finland freed six children and two mothers last year. The Belgian government says it plans to repatriate dozens of children and is considering accepting some women with children on a case-by-case basis.

Children hold water containers in al-Hol camp, Syria, on January 8, 2020.
Children hold water containers in al-Hol camp, Syria, on January 8, 2020.(Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

The U.S. repatriated 27 Americans from Syria and Iraq last fall, including 10 charged with terrorism-related offences related to alleged support for ISIS.

Canada has helped to process paperwork in two cases so that families could repatriate Canadian children from detention camps in the region — but only after being goaded into action by the families, say human rights advocates.

'The circumstances were exceptional'

A Canadian man went to great lengths to bring his niece — a five-year-old orphan — to Toronto last year after her family was killed in an airstrike in Syria.

He flew to Syria to try to secure her release but was unsuccessful. The family then filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government arguing the girl's rights were being violated by Canada's refusal to help bring her back and issue her travel documents. It was only after those efforts that the Canadian government acted to bring the girl to Canada in 2020.

François-Philippe Champagne, who was the minister of foreign affairs at the time of the orphan's return, said today during an unrelated press conference that the government does not have a diplomatic presence in Syria and will not put consular officials in danger.

Champagne said that, in the case of the orphan, the government mounted a "very complex operation with the help of local authorities" to bring her back. He did not offer details.

"The circumstances were exceptional," said Champagne. "I think we have demonstrated compassion and we will continue, and there are always ways we're trying to support Canadians who are still in Syria."

Farida Deif of Human Rights Watch said the 4-year-old girl's mother made it clear to her group that Canada "was not willing to provide her with the necessary travel documentation to leave northeast Syria."
Farida Deif of Human Rights Watch said the 4-year-old girl's mother made it clear to her group that Canada "was not willing to provide her with the necessary travel documentation to leave northeast Syria." (CBC News )

CBC News spoke to Galbraith after his return to the U.S. He said the four-year-old Canadian girl's mother did everything she could to secure her daughter's release.

Galbraith said the woman contacted him in 2019 after his number was passed around the camp. He said he has a relationship dating back 35 years with the Syrian Kurds that allows him to negotiate with their leaders, and has arranged for the release of children from the camp in the past.

Galbraith said he got to know the Canadian woman in the Syrian camp over the past two years. The woman lost a brother to gun violence when she was a teenager, he said, which affected her "enormously." She was recruited by ISIS and taken to Syria by her husband, he said — a decision she regretted almost immediately.

"She told me that she realized she made a huge mistake the second she got to Syria and very much rejected the Islamic State ideology," said Galbraith.

Mother has 'good chance' of being released: Galbraith

Galbraith said there is a "good chance" the Syrian Kurds would agree to a request from Canada to repatriate the woman, adding the U.S. might be willing to help with her evacuation. The U.S. has been urging the international community to repatriate its citizens detained in Syria and hold them accountable for any crimes they may have committed.

But Canada has not agreed to repatriate adults trapped in Syria. So Galbraith focused instead on getting the 4-year-old girl to safety. That process involved years of negotiation and paperwork, culminating Friday in a visit to the camp by the girl's aunt.

Galbraith said he watched the woman say goodbye to her daughter and promise her that they would soon see each other again in Canada. But Canada has not indicated when that might happen — or whether it will happen at all.

"It was a very brave decision on the part of the mother to look after their little girl, one that showed just how much she loved her daughter," said Galbraith.

'There is a future for that child'

"It's wrenching for a child to be taken away from her mother. But there is a future for the child. I was just happy that I could make that happen."

He said that during the trip to Erbil, the capital in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the girl missed her mother and wanted to know where she was. She kept telling herself she would see her mother soon, said Galbraith.

The Canadian embassy in Baghdad sent a consular officer to Erbil to help complete all of the necessary paperwork, said Galbraith. He said the Canadian government did a "superb job of looking after this little one once the child was brought out of Syria."

WATCH | Ottawa played minimal role in securing release of 4-year-old girl from detention camp:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it clear yesterday that the federal government only provided travel documents — that the girl's release was the result of her family's efforts.

"This story was one where the family themselves took the initiative to bring the daughter to Canada. The mother remains in Syria," Trudeau told a press briefing.

Galbraith said he understands why governments wouldn't want to bring adults back who chose to join a terrorist organization and may have committed "unspeakable atrocities." He said he still hopes Canada acts to bring home the girl's mother, along with others the Kurds say do not pose a threat.

"I'm absolutely convinced that the child needs her, that she's a very good mother and that if she had the chance to come back to Canada, she would contribute to Canadian society," said Galbraith.

'Abandoned in a war zone'

Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch, said her group is in touch with the mother in Syria. She said the woman is struggling emotionally with being separated from her daughter for the first time.

Deif said the woman told Human Rights Watch that the Canadian government indicated it would not provide her with the proper travel documents to return to Canada.

CBC News asked Global Affairs Canada (GAC) whether it turned down a request to help the mother. In a statement, GAC said that due to privacy reasons, it wouldn't disclose details. It did say, however, that consular officials are "actively engaged with Syrian Kurdish authorities to seek information on Canadians in their custody."

"Given the security situation on the ground, the Government of Canada's ability to provide any kind of consular assistance in Syria remains extremely limited," wrote GAC spokesperson Patricia Skinner.

Deif said only two Canadian children have been repatriated from the detention camps. She said Canada's record on repatriating its citizens from detention in Syria is one of "failure."

"The remaining Canadians have been left abandoned in a war zone amidst a deadly global pandemic with no government plan to repatriate them," she said.

"It's been a piecemeal, case-by-case approach, where the family members here in Canada have to do all of the heavy lifting."

'Canada is really an outlier here'

Former federal lawyer Leah West, now a university lecturer on national security law and counter-terrorism, visited the camps in northeastern Syria in 2019. She said while she was at the refugee camp in al-Hawl, a riot erupted in which a woman was killed and seven others were shot. Just moments before the violence, West said, she was standing surrounded by a group of very young children.

"Canada is really an outlier here," said West. "Most countries in the world who've had citizens travel abroad have to some extent repatriated either children or large numbers of adults.The Canadian government is now losing control over this situation."

Leah said she expects to see "increased efforts" by those detained in the camps to smuggle themselves out — which means Canadians associated with ISIS could be left at large.