Windsor, Ont. mother feels helpless in parental child abduction

It's been six months since 32-year-old Khawla Khalifa has been able to hold her two oldest children.

"It's the most heartbreaking thing in the world. It's a struggle to get out of bed everyday," said Khalifa from her Windsor, Ont. home.

In the midst of divorce proceedings, her husband, Achraf Zeidan, took their kids to Lebanon without her knowledge — something Khalifa said she doesn't know how he made happen. 

"I had their Canadian passports. I still have them. I have their Palestinian travel documents. They were in my possession and they still are," said Khalifa. "How he was able to get out of the country with or without those documents, I have no idea."

Windsor police made public a Canada-wide arrest warrant Thursday for Zeidan, in relation to parental abduction. 

According to Khalifa, all three of her children - three-year-old Zein Eldin, eight-year-old Fawzi and five-year-old Dina - had spent a weekend in April at their father's house. The parents shared custody after Khalifa had filed for divorce in January.

"At seven o'clock, his sister dropped off my youngest son, Zein Eldin, and she told me my other two children were on the way. [She said] they were watching a movie and they were going to be a little late," said Khalifa.

Khalifa said after 20 minutes of waiting she found an email on her phone from Zeidan, "saying that he had taken them to Lebanon and that he wasn't coming back."

While she's thankful one of her children was left with her, she said nothing can replace the other two. 

"They're on my mind every second of every day," said Khalifa. "I don't wish [this] for my worst enemy."

The day after Khalifa's two oldest children were taken to Lebanon, she called Zeidan and was given "less than a minute" to speak to her kids.

"They told me that they want me to go to Lebanon. They don't want to be back to Canada," said Khalifa. "It's just the way he's brainwashed them. I don't know what he was telling them when they were here with him over the weekends, but he has them brainwashed."

Feeling like a 'hostage' in Lebanon

Prior to the couple's separation, the family temporarily relocated their family to Lebanon. According to Khalifa, Zeidan "wanted to help his dad in his construction business."

The plan was to try living in Lebanon for a year, to see how it went. Khalifa found work in Lebanon in mid-2017 before her then-husband followed in early 2018.

Khalifa alleges that her husband's behaviour changed and he started becoming aggressive.

Khalifa isn't worried just about how Zeidan is treating the children, but also about her five-year-old daughter, Dina, who has a brain tumour and needs to make occasional trips to Sick Kids Hospital for treatment.

Sanjay Maru/CBC

"Me and my daughter were back and forth during that time we were in Lebanon because she needed to be monitored for the brain tumour," said Khalifa, who visited Canada three times in 2018.

Khalifa said she felt like a "hostage" in Lebanon when she asked their father if the two sons could accompany Khalifa during her daughter's medically-required visits to Canada — but Zeidan refused.

"He was using the kids to keep me in Lebanon against my will. That's when I realized that I needed to get out and I needed to get out with the kids or else I probably wouldn't see the kids ever again," said Khalifa, adding it wasn't until December 2018 that she found a "rare opportunity" to flee back to Canada with her three children.

"He let me visit my brother in the UAE, so that was the only time within that year that I had access to my passports and the children's passports," said Khalifa. From the UAE, she fled to Canada.

According to Khalifa, the detective assigned to her case has not been able to determine exactly how Zeidan, was able to go to Lebanon with her three children — but Khalifa's lawyer confirmed the children entered Lebanon on Palestinian Authority passports.

"To get those, he had to sign my name on an application because we still are legally married," said Khalifa. "He must've forged my signature and got those passports."

The father's side of the story

CBC News spoke to Achraf Zeidan, who is currently wanted on a Canada-wide arrest warrant for two counts of parental abduction and one count of disobeying a court order.

Zeidan agreed to an interview over the phone, but did not go into details concerning the specific type of document he used to exit Canada.

Reporter: "How were you able to leave Canada?"

Zeidan: "I will not give any details about this question, but all I can tell you is [being] a dual citizen is not a crime. I have a legal document that allowed me to exit Canada to go into a "transit" country and to enter Lebanon.

Reporter: "What is that legal document?"

Zeidan: "Just a passport."

Reporter: "What did you have to do to apply for that?"

Zeidan: "Pass."

Zeidan acknowledged he fled to Lebanon with two of his three children without his ex-wife's knowledge in April 2019 — but said the situation is no different than when Khalifa fled to Canada with all three children five months prior.

Sanjay Mary/CBC

"The victim in this is me — and the kids, the ones who were kidnapped to Canada from their home. And now, her and her family are moving to social media. They're cutting the story to make themselves the victims," said Zeidan.

According to Zeidan, the two oldest children have spent most of their lives in Lebanon and consider that country as their home.

"They're back to their normal activity to schools. They go to karate. They go to swimming. They go to all of these kinds of activities," he said.

Sanjay Maru/CBC

Khalifa believes the kids have been "brainwashed" by their father to consider Lebanon as home.

All three children were born in Windsor, Ont. and hold Canadian citizenship.

Zeidan said it's "just a matter of time" before he returns to Canada, but he did not specify when. He said his plan is to show Windsor police evidence of why he fled to Lebanon with two of his children in the first place — because of allegations that Khalifa's father threatened his life.

"Based on that, I decided to leave the country and save myself and save my children," said Zeidan.

Looking for government assistance to see her children

Khalifa said she has reached out to Global Affairs Canada in an effort to get her children back, but the organization has not performed a single "welfare check" on them.

"I don't expect the military to go into Lebanon and take my children by force, but I expect them to help and maybe pick up the phone at least and talk to these government officials over there and tell them the situation."

Global Affairs Canada would not disclose details of this specific case to CBC News upon request due to "provisions of the Privacy Act."

"Child abductions are some of the most difficult consular situations that the Government of Canada responds to and are a profoundly difficult and damaging experience for both the children and their families," Global Affairs Canada said in an email to CBC News.

"Global Affairs Canada is aware of this case. Consular officials are in contact with local authorities and are providing consular assistance."

But for Khalifa, the clock is ticking for her two oldest children to return to Canada.

"They are only eight and five. My daughter has a brain tumour and I have a letter from the hospital explaining her situation and the urgency for her to return. And my son also has some health issues," said Khalifa.

"Not only are my kids helpless, I feel helpless in getting my children back. It's devastating."