Canadian who spent two years in Syrian prison camps fights Ottawa to return home

·6 min read

OTTAWA — A Canadian woman who spent two years in Syrian prison camps, now stranded in northern Iraq, wants a judge to compel Ottawa to give her an emergency passport so she can return home.

In her application to the Federal Court, the woman says she has no identity documents and little cash, and fears for her safety living in an Irbil hotel with an expired visa.

"I am desperate in every way and want nothing more than to return to Canada," she says in an affidavit filed with the court.

The Canadian Press is aware of the woman’s name but is not publishing it at the request of her counsel out of concern for her safety and to protect the identity of her daughter, a minor.

The woman's young daughter, who was born in Syria, made headlines earlier this year when she came to Canada to live with her aunt.

During the summer, the woman believed she was on the verge of getting a travel document from Canadian authorities, enabling her to fly home to her five-year-old child.

Instead, RCMP officers turned up in Iraq last week and interviewed her for several hours over the course of two days, she says in the affidavit.

The woman's court application says the denial of a temporary passport violates her charter rights to enter Canada and to have life, liberty and security of the person.

Global Affairs Canada said it could not comment on the case because it is before the court, and federal lawyers have yet to file a defence.

The woman's effort to return home highlights the plight of several Canadians among the estimated thousands of foreign nationals held in Syrian camps by Kurdish forces that wrested back the war-torn region from the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The woman was born in Somalia, arrived in Canada with her family in 1993 and became a citizen in 2004. She grew up in Toronto and later moved to Vancouver. Feeling depressed and lonely, she dropped her post-secondary studies to work at retail jobs.

In 2014, she left Canada for Turkey, soon travelling to Syria.

"Shortly thereafter, I realized that I had been manipulated into going to that country," her affidavit says.

"While in Syria, there were several times that I tried to leave, but I was not allowed to do so. I was moved around numerous times. I was not allowed to speak to my family or friends. My phone was taken away. I was completely isolated from the outside world."

Her daughter was born in May 2016. The woman last saw the girl's father in 2018 and has been told he is dead.

In early 2019, mother and daughter arrived at Camp al-Hol in northeastern Syria. The woman describes the conditions as dismal. They slept in a flimsy tent, drank unsanitary water, and heard gunshots and screams at night.

She obtained a phone, speaking with her sister in Canada and Global Affairs Canada. Canadian authorities told her they could help with her return home only if she made it out of Syria, the affidavit says.

She and her daughter spent time in a bleak cell at a women's prison before being moved to Camp al-Roj, where conditions were slightly better.

She made phone contact with Peter Galbraith, a retired American diplomat who was helping women and children get out of the camps.

At one point, he asked if she would answer questions for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, beginning a 16-month period of co-operation with the FBI, Galbraith says in his own affidavit filed with the court.

The woman provided extensive information to the FBI both about ISIL suspects and about kidnapped American children, he says.

"For all of this period, I was the applicant’s main conduit to the FBI, posing questions on behalf of the FBI and relaying the applicant’s answers to the FBI," Galbraith says.

"I am also aware that from the FBI and the applicant that FBI agents interviewed the applicant on several occasions."

Galbraith says that, based on his dealings with the woman, it did not appear she was aligned in any way with the ISIL adherents in the camps, and that co-operating with U.S. officials placed her at risk of harm from militants.

Galbraith, who has American and Canadian citizenship, tells of how he arranged first for the daughter's release into the custody of the woman's sister. A few months later, fearing for the woman's safety, he persuaded officials to release her as well, and they headed straight to Irbil.

Galbraith says he used his connections with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to allow the Canadian to enter, and it provided her in late June with a 30-day visa.

He arranged for her stay in a hotel, expecting Canada would provide consular help to allow her to head home.

Galbraith says officials in Ottawa told him Canada would assist any Canadian who reached a Canadian diplomatic mission to return home.

"I do not know why Canada has reneged on this promise to me and one of its own citizens," he says.

"I never imagined that she would be stranded there by the Canadian government for a period of months. Candidly, I was surprised that the Canadian government allowed it to last for more than a couple of weeks," Galbraith adds.

"If Canada will not repatriate, it is very possible that the KRG will detain her and return her to Syria. There, she will be detained again in the al-Roj or al-Hol prison camps."

A Sept. 29 email from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, filed with the court by the woman's counsel, says the department was assessing her application for an emergency document and would try to respond within 30 days.

The woman says that during the Oct. 26-27 interviews, the RCMP asked about her time in Syria and one officer inquired about her plans upon returning to Canada.

"He explained that this was part of a 'threat assessment,'" she says. "After asking these questions, the RCMP officer told me that, given my answers and my presentation, it was his opinion that I was not a threat to anyone."

However, the Mounties said they had no authority to assist her return to Canada, which "was up to others in Ottawa," she says.

The young girl, meanwhile, wonders when she will see her mother.

"When I speak to (my daughter), she is sad and crying," the woman says. "She is always asking when I am coming home."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2021.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press

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