Dersim’s front tooth was so wiggly that his mom, Alison Azer, doubted it would be there by the time her six-year-old got back. It was August 5, 2015, and Dersim, along with his sisters, Sharvahn, 11, and Rojevahn, 9, and his younger brother, Meitan, 3, were headed from their home in Courtenay, BC, to France and Germany on a court-approved two-week trip with their father, Alison’s ex-husband, Saren Azer. The kids took some goofy pictures—a close-up of Dersim’s teeth, Rojevahn doing her best muscle-man impression—and recorded messages for their mom, telling her how much they loved her and that they’d miss her while they were gone. Then she hugged and kissed them all several times over and watched them drive away. In the coming months, she would replay those messages over and over, holding on to the memories of that warm day last summer—because that’s all she has.
That was the last time she saw her kids.
Alison’s life has become an unimaginable nightmare. Saren is on the run with her kids, having first hid them in a remote village in northern Iraq and now in his hometown in Iran. Listed on INTERPOL’s wanted list, he is an international fugitive. Alison has travelled to Iraq twice, pled her case in person to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and amassed an army of supporters, including author Amanda Lindhout, who had been held captive in Somalia, and journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who was incarcerated in Egypt. There is an ongoing RCMP investigation, and Global Affairs Canada is also working to bring Alison’s four kids back. The Azer story is complicated: It involves a marital breakdown, a custody battle, a terrorist organization and a man whose motivations are not entirely clear. Though Saren recently posted rambling explanations of his actions on Facebook, he declined an interview with Today’s Parent when we contacted him on Facebook Messenger. The RCMP and the Canadian government are also refusing to comment.
But the fact is, 10 months later, Sharvahn, Rojevahn, Meitan and Dersim haven’t returned home. Their absence has left a hole in the lives of many people. There are kids who are missing their friends, grandparents yearning to see their grandchildren again and teachers who have had to mark students absent from September to June. At the centre of it all, heartbroken but determined, is their mother, who will clearly stop at nothing to get her kids back.
Slipped through a mother’s grip
Alison couldn’t stop her ex-husband from taking the kids to Europe. Earlier last year, Saren sought the court’s permission to take them on a spring break trip to Germany. Alison racked up $20,000 in legal bills fighting it, but Saren won out, provided that a chaperone would accompany them. Saren followed the court-ordered rules perfectly. Lynn Foster (the kids call her “Grandma Lynn”), who has known Saren for years, acted as a chaperone, and Saren made sure that the kids called their mom every 48 hours, as requested. With the success of that vacation, Alison knew the courts would likely rule in his favour again. This time, Saren wanted different conditions: check-ins every 72 hours and no chaperone. But Alison stood her ground, and the conditions from the previous trip were upheld.
After she dropped her kids off, she drove down to Goose Spit Park, a narrow strip of land that juts out into the Strait of Georgia, and walked along the sandy beach, trying to calm her nerves. “I tried to logically tell myself, ‘You were worried about the spring break trip and they came back,’” says Alison. “But there’s something in a mother’s heart that is beyond logic.”
She couldn’t shake her overwhelming sense of dread.
Her anxiety grew when they didn’t call upon arrival. She called her lawyer, who in turn called Saren’s lawyer, who contacted her ex-husband. The check-in call came later that day. Another call came two days later, from Paris. On August 11, they were still supposed to be in France, but they called from Germany and Alison was able to have longer-than-usual chats with them. Dersim was looking forward to his seventh birthday party, scheduled a few days after their flight home—he wanted to know if the bouncy castle and face painter had been booked, and they debated whether the cake should be chocolate with vanilla icing or vanilla with chocolate icing. Sharvahn wanted to talk about the progress her mom was making in decorating her room—she was finally moving out of the one she shared with her sister. With her youngest, three-year-old Meitan, Alison played a game where they repeated “I love youuuu” to each other in silly voices. But her conversation with Rojevahn was unsettling: “She said, ‘Mommy, I cried for what seemed like an entire school day,’” recalls Alison. Her nine-year-old told her that something just didn’t feel right. As Alison would learn from the RCMP months later, this was the day Saren had bought tickets to fly himself and the kids to Iraq.
Two days later, they called again, but there was so much background noise, Alison could barely hear them. When she asked if they could go somewhere quieter to talk, Saren refused. The phone went dead. That was the last time she talked to her kids.
The kids recorded messages for their mom before they left.
From happiness to hostility
Marriages break down all the time, but even those with the most acrimonious of endings usually start with a happy story. When they first met in 1999, Alison was struck by Saren’s good looks and charm and intrigued by his Kurdish background. She was working for the Alberta Lung Association, and he came to her office to discuss a gala she was organizing: Saren was being given an award for his research into asthma. It wasn’t long before Saren invited her over for dinner and a movie, and they started dating.
Born in Mahabad, a city in the Kurdish area of Iran, Saren came to Canada in 1994 as a political refugee, claiming that he was being persecuted for advocating Kurdish independence. When they met, Saren was working on his PhD in immunology and told Alison he was a human-rights activist. “He had an extraordinary story of resilience and survival,” says Alison. He had a passion for social justice and, through him, Alison learned about a world much different from her own life. “I fell in love with a highly charismatic, very attentive man,” she says.
Of her own volition, Alison converted to Islam in January 2002, just before they got married. Their first child, Sharvahn, was born in 2004, the year Saren was accepted into medical school. After Rojevahn was born in 2006, Saren became a Canadian citizen. A year later, he finished medical school. He immediately started travelling back to the Kurdistan region in Iraq, providing medical assistance in refugee camps (he didn’t even stay for his convocation). He was accompanied by Foster, who had become a supporter of his humanitarian work.
The dynamics of the marriage began to shift. Between the long hours Saren put in during his residencies and his humanitarian work in the Middle East, he was rarely home and wasn’t terribly involved in raising his children. His work in the refugee camps also started to affect him: It reminded him of his roots, and he became uncomfortable with some aspects of Canadian life. Alison says he became increasingly controlling of her, telling her how to dress and who she could spend time with. As their family expanded—Dersim was born in 2008 and then Meitan in 2012— this rejection of Canadian culture intensified: He wouldn’t let their kids celebrate Western holidays or birthdays, and the girls weren’t allowed to wear shorts.
Alison believes he wanted to move the family to Kurdistan. She remembers one conversation where he told her he didn’t think he could get a job in intensive care—a specialty he was pursuing—in Canada. When she asked why he was continuing with the program, his response was “This is our ticket back to the Middle East.”
Alison, who was born and raised in Alberta, had no interest in immigrating. Their relationship crumbled, and Alison claims he was emotionally and psychologically abusive to her and her kids. In 2012, she alleged that Saren threatened to kill her and fled to a women’s shelter. The marriage was over.
Caught in the middle
Divorces are often messy and painful, with each side wanting to assign blame and hold on to whatever advantage they can—and theirs was no exception. In 2014, Alison and Saren’s divorce was finalized and a comprehensive psychological evaluation was done as part of a report to divide guardianship and parental responsibilities. The result is a long, contradictory report—evidence of a family in turmoil.
There are accusations on all sides: Sharvahn, the eldest, told the psychologist that she used to be afraid of her father but wasn’t anymore. Both girls referenced an incident where they say they saw Saren tying Dersim up (though Saren denied this). Saren expressed concerns over Alison’s parenting, saying she was telling the kids things about him that weren’t true. He also felt that his cultural background, once embraced by Alison, was being vilified. Alison told the psychologist that she thought Saren was at risk of abducting the kids, citing his desire to return to the Middle East.
In the end, the psychologist’s recommendation favoured Alison: “Ms. Alison Azer is much more suited to the day-to-day parenting of the children,” she wrote. “Overall, she is more likely to make decisions that are in the children’s best interests as opposed to decisions that are impacted by her desires.”
After the evaluation, they split custody: Alison had the kids the majority of the time and was able to retain their passports, but Saren, a well-respected internal-medicine specialist at St. Joseph’s General Hospital in Comox, BC, at the time, saw them often.
Co-parenting was challenging, as their parenting styles were vastly different. For instance, Saren forbade Sharvahn to go swimming with her class at school—bathing suits, like shorts, weren’t allowed. Exasperated, Alison asked her daughter to let it go. “I got so tired of always having to fight with him,” she explains. It was Rojevahn who changed her mind. “She said, ‘Mommy, we left Baba so that we could have a life. We can’t let him win. You have to fight for us.’” In the end, Sharvahn got to go swimming, and Alison says her daughter later said to her “You’re my hero—please don’t stop fighting for us.”
The nightmare begins
August 21 will forever be etched in Alison’s mind as the day her worst fears came true. She was sleeping when, at 5 a.m., an RCMP officer who had been monitoring the situation knocked on her door and told her that her kids hadn’t boarded their return flight to Canada. Alison’s knees buckled and she blacked out for a minute. “There was this terror in me,” she recalls. “I just knew this wasn’t going to end anytime soon.”
Three days later, the RCMP issued a warrant for Saren’s arrest on the charge of abduction in contravention of a custody order. Sharvahn, Rojevahn, Meitan and Dersim are listed as missing persons, and Saren is listed as a wanted person on INTERPOL’s website.
Over those first few surreal days, Alison called the parents of Dersim’s friends, one by one, to tell them not to bring their kids over for the birthday party. She cancelled the bouncy castle and face painter. Friends and neighbours brought over food and coffee. People hugged and cried. Her sister, Elizabeth, flew in from Nova Scotia. In that way that we find things to do, even when the motions of life seem unbearable, Alison asked Elizabeth to put the new comforters she had bought for the boys—they were going to be sharing a room now—on their twin beds. Thinking of the worst-case scenario, she told Elizabeth to put the used sheets in a garbage bag in case they were needed for DNA evidence.
As days dragged on into weeks, Alison was in regular contact with the RCMP and the foreign affairs office. In mid-September, she made her first of many trips to Ottawa, where she met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who told her that they didn’t have any information about her kids’ whereabouts. (In an email, the department of Global Affairs Canada told Today’s Parent that it is working to secure the return of the Azer children but refused to answer our questions, citing privacy reasons.) Undeterred, Alison headed to Washington to talk to Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Representative to the United States, as she suspected that Saren might have brought the kids to the Middle East. Her hunch proved right: Abdul Rahman told her that they had a record of her kids landing at Sulaymaniyah International Airport in northern Iraq on August 15 and that they had shared this information with the Canadian ambassador in Jordan. Despite the official’s advice that she should let the authorities find her kids, she couldn’t just sit and wait. She decided to take things into her own hands.
The KRG was established in 1992, when the Iraqi Kurds gained independence from Iraq after the Gulf War. As a parliamentary democracy, it is eager to be seen as a progressive friend of the West, so it was with some hope that Alison flew to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistani region of Iraq, to meet with representatives from the KRG. They assured her that they would work to get her kids home, and she felt that they were sincerely supportive. After a week and a half, she flew back to Canada.
But by late October, she had stopped hearing from them. Every morning, as soon as Alison woke up, she got to work making phone calls, writing posts on Facebook and reaching out to whomever she could think of to raise awareness of her kids’ disappearance. A website was set up. In mid-October, the outreach campaign bore some fruit: A friend of a friend called and told her a rumour that a Canadian doctor had taken his kids into a village in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq and that he was looking for women to care for them. Qandil is rebel territory, held by a militant group called the PKK. Based in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, the PKK is fighting for increased independence for the Kurdish people. Public Safety Canada lists it as a terrorist organization, noting that its activities include attacking the Turkish military, diplomats and Turkish businesses at home and in some western European cities.
Alison knew that Saren sympathized with the PKK and had been involved with an umbrella organization of the group. News reports have also suggested that some of the money raised in Canada for his humanitarian efforts were diverted to the PKK. She was fairly certain that this Canadian doctor was her ex-husband, and this meant that her kids were living among terrorists in a region actively bombed by the Turkish government.
It was time to go back to Iraq.
Mom on a mission
Hysterical strength is the term that scientists use to explain how, in moments of high stress, average people can perform superhuman feats, like a mother lifting a car to save her child pinned underneath. Alison—a self-described “white, middle-class soccer mom”—isn’t someone you’d expect to venture into a volatile region like northern Iraq. While not exactly fighting off a bear attack or outrunning a car, she was prepared to do anything to bring her children home.
A friend of a friend picked her up from the airport in Erbil and arranged for a taxi to take her to Sulaymaniyah. That journey was a risky one, as the route was one that ISIS fighters have used. When the driver got into Sulaymaniyah, she met the man who was willing to help. As a way of protecting his identity, she only refers to him as “Businessman.” Over the coming weeks, he became sort of a big brother, driving her around, introducing her to people and helping her plan out her next steps.
She put up “missing children” posters, met with the Canadian ambassador of Iraq and continued to press her case with the KRG. Based on the intel she was able to gather, Alison decided to look in Rojava, a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria, where Saren had done some humanitarian work. But just as she was considering the dangerous crossing over the border, she got a lucky break: On November 9, the Kurdistan evening news picked up a broadcast news report from a BC station about the Azer kids’ abduction. The next day, she received an email with a photo of Sharvahn and Rojevahn. It had to be a recent snapshot because they were eating pomegranates, which were in season in Kurdistan. The message was written in Kurdish, but an English translation read “I’m about to make you very happy.”
Alison had an informant.
She and Businessman immediately started talking to the man who sent her the photo, and it was clear he wanted to help. Within hours, Businessman drove her two hours to meet her informant at a kebab restaurant on the way to Mawnan, a village in the Qandil Mountains where he had connections. Before entering the restaurant, Alison asked Businessman if he was going to take his gun in, and he suggested that she tuck it into her purse. It was one of those moments that felt more like a big-screen drama than real-life motherhood. “So here I am with a pistol in my handbag, about to meet an informant because my children are in armed rebel territory,” says Alison, who still sounds incredulous five months later.
But the safety precautions weren’t necessary: The man was clearly sympathetic. Married and with kids of his own, he covered her hands with his and there were tears in his eyes as he told her how he was furious at Saren for taking the kids away. Alison, with her few words of Kurdish, was able to communicate a bit with him and ask how her kids were. He told her that he’d asked Sharvahn where her mom was. The girl responded to him by saying “Canada” and began to cry.
For a few weeks, this man was Alison’s eyes and ears in Mawnan. He gave her GPS coordinates for where her kids were, which she shared with authorities and government officials. She also found out that Saren was defending his actions to the PKK (there’s a strong feeling in Kurdish culture that children should be with their moms) by claiming that she was in prison for drug addiction. But the PKK probably knew she was looking for her kids—they had been on the evening news and on the Internet. She also learned from sources that the leaders of the PKK wanted to meet her: If this mom wants her kids so badly, then where is she?
Going all in
Alison announced on her website that she knew the exact location of her kids and had shared this information with authorities. Given that the PKK is a terrorist group, negotiating with them is not a straightforward task. Despite having the exact location of the Azer kids for a few weeks, neither local nor Canadian authorities succeeded in getting them out of Qandil. If the PKK was interested in meeting her, Alison was game to go to them.
Heading up into the armed and tightly controlled Qandil Mountains wasn’t going to be easy, though, so she started looking for a fixer. A friend put her in touch with a local journalist, Bahman Tofeeq, who agreed to help her. Tofeeq, who works for an independent media organization in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, had never travelled into dangerous Qandil before, but he told Alison that he was willing to take her. “I just had a passion for the children and I wanted to help Alison,” says Tofeeq. “I saw it as something I had to do.”
In the early-morning hours of December 4, they headed up the mountains to Mawnan. Their Toyota Rav4 passed through seven armed checkpoints; Alison and Tofeeq reached Mawnan around 11 a.m. Just as they arrived, they saw a group of men sitting at the side of the road, drinking tea. As Tofeeq started to talk to them, one man recognized Alison from photos he had seen on the Internet. After making a few phone calls—presumably asking the PKK what they wanted him to do—he grudgingly brought her and Tofeeq into his home and introduced them to his wife and five kids. In Kurdish culture, you always feed a guest. They sat in a chilly room on cushions placed on a beautiful Persian carpet while his wife made lunch.
Despite the hospitality shown, the man was quite stern at first as they began to talk. He wanted to know if it was true, as Saren had told the villagers that she didn’t spend time with the kids and that she had maids and servants looking after them. He mentioned that Saren was a friend of the “Canadian president,” referring to a promotional campaign that Saren had been involved in because of his humanitarian work and praising the former Conservative government’s increased involvement in Iraq. “I just want the kids to come back,” she told him.
During the visit, Alison was able to spend time with the man’s son, who was about Dersim’s age. As she sat with him, she pulled out some books she’d brought and looked at one with him. She then handed it to him as a gift. “I can’t wait to see Dersim again so that I can show him the book his mommy brought,” he said. With village kids peering through the windows to see the “Canadian mom,” Alison was convinced that her kids must be close by. She could feel it in her bones—she says that her womb literally ached. (You know that keen sense of longing you feel after haven’t seen your kid all day? Multiply that by a thousand.) She still didn’t know if she would be able to see them. “I knew my kids would find out that I had been there,” she says. “That was more important to me than anything.”
Eventually, the man agreed to take Alison and Tofeeq to meet with the PKK so that she could make her formal request. “We were very hopeful,” says Tofeeq. They followed their host to a cement bunker, where 10 PKK soldiers stood guard. Against the backdrop of the Qandil Mountains and a stunning blue sky, Alison handed out the statement she had carefully prepared in English and translated into two Kurdish dialects. The PKK cadre left—Alison isn’t sure where they went—but when they returned an hour later, it was with bad news. They told Alison that the PKK wanted to help, but her kids were no longer there. Alison tried again to plead her case, but it was no use. The soldiers talked about how dangerous the region was and how they should leave as soon as possible—a not-so-veiled threat.
Having come so far, only to end up close but unable to find her kids, Alison immediately began to wail. But there was nothing to do but begin the drive back down the mountain.
Five months missing
With all her efforts to get her kids back ending in devastation, Alison felt that she had exhausted all leads in Iraq. “By that point, I had befriended the wife of the deputy prime minister, I had met with ministers, and I had befriended the wife of the counter-terrorism expert,” she says. “I worked it.” In January, she returned to Canada.
In a Facebook post, she wrote: “On the 150th day of my children’s abduction, I returned to Canada with the heaviest of hearts. I wouldn’t wish an hour of this nightmare on anyone. To all our Canadian and Kurdish friends, I extend my deepest gratitude for making space in your heart for the Azer children. I will never stop working to return my children to the home from which they were stolen.”
After returning to Sulaymaniyah, Tofeeq also kept working on getting the Azer kids back home. He wrote an article for NRT TV and contacted more than two dozen non-governmental organizations, journalists, politicians and activists, but he received an anonymous threatening phone call. “They said stop and give up the story and give up helping that woman from Canada,” he says. “I asked, ‘Why are you saying that? A mother of four children has a right to be with her kids.’”
Back in Courtenay, Alison shifted her focus from an on-the-ground grassroots effort to a strategic campaign. She engaged the media, met with politicians, attended candlelight vigils and gathered support from thousands of Canadians. Family and friends have rallied around her, planning events and raising money to help with her mounting travel and legal bills. Tens of thousands of letters have been sent to MPs, urging action.
Holidays hit her the hardest—they are a symbol of the life she fought for during the divorce. “We celebrated every holiday after I left Saren with the greatest of gusto,” she says. “I had a lot of years [of not being allowed to celebrate] to make up to those kids.” Now, when her kids’ friends have birthday parties, they place pictures of Sharvahn, Rojevahn, Dersim and Meitan on the table in their stead. The Friday before Mother’s Day, the kids who would have been Dersim’s classmates came to her house with flowers and heart-shaped lawn signs that they had made with messages of love and support.
The bedrooms are a half-finished project. Sharvahn’s new room is set up, ready for her return, and the boys have matching new Avengers comforters on their twin beds. The Barbie house is set up in Rojevahn’s new room, but her brother’s Lego and Pokémon cards still litter the floor. Alison worries about all the things her kids are missing: friends, school, lessons—the life they once had. She worries that her youngest, Meitan, now four, won’t even remember her. “I feel like a pumpkin carved from the inside out,” she says. “I ache. I would lie down here and die because life is so painful, but I can’t abandon those kids. I have to fight for them.”
In late April, the National Post confirmed that Saren is now living in his hometown of Mahabad, Iran, and ran a photo showing him attending a funeral. Sources have told Alison that Saren’s extended family came to get him and the kids from Mawnan (likely crossing the border illegally, as Saren had sought political refuge from Iran and wouldn’t be welcomed back), and other sources sent Alison pictures of her kids in the care of her ex-husband’s family.
Alison wasn’t quite sure what her next move should be, but then Saren did something completely unexpected.
Saren speaks out
The only news Alison had of her kids was through people in Iraq and Iran who were clearly sympathetic to her situation and sent her news and photos. Then, on May 4, her ex-husband resurfaced. In a Facebook account under an assumed name, he posted photos of himself and the kids and a video of them dancing at a Kurdish wedding. “To our friends, families and kind supporters anywhere in the world, we are well, safe and happy at last,” his inaugural post wrote. A few days later, on a newly created “Azer Children” community page, Saren detailed why he took his kids. “I would like to acknowledge to everyone…that I did breach a court order contrary to Canada’s family law. However, while the law is there as a general deterrent to keep peace and order, it does not mean that those same laws are always just. I broke the law to make a wrong right—a wrong that was jeopardizing four innocent lives, my children’s lives.” Saren goes on to describe ways in which he feels Alison’s parenting was lacking (claiming her parenting resulted in development delays and eating disorders) and that the justice system in Canada let him down by giving her primary custody of his kids.
And remember Foster (aka Grandma Lynn) who was supposed to protect the kids on the trip? She resurfaced as well. In defence of her role in the kids’ disappearance from Canada, she writes “I have been totally cleared by the police and have been totally cooperative with them at all times.” (She declined to be interviewed by Today’s Parent.)
Alison speculates that he is feeling cornered. “The more Saren talks and the more he writes, he is actually doing me a favour, especially if it leads to him engaging with authorities and authorities finding a way to negotiate with an international fugitive wanted on four counts of kidnapping,” she told me. (Indeed, early in June, Saren contacted the RCMP to say that the kids are safe.)
It is a testament to her tenacity that, through her grief, Alison is able to continue to pressure authorities and keep her kids’ faces on the evening news. As Saren launched his defence on social media, Alison’s efforts in Canada were ramping up as well. Three sold-out events with Amanda Lindhout took place in Alberta in mid-May to raise money and awareness. Two online petitions were launched: a parliamentary one by her MP, Gord Johns, and one on her website. She has embraced the hashtag #MakeTheCall, meaning a call to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to ask his help in securing the return of her children. It was by design that this petition and the social media campaign around it led up to the week of May 16, when she made her seventh visit to Ottawa this year.
After pushing for a meeting for months, Alison sat down with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and opposition leaders Rona Ambrose and Tom Mulcair on May 17. After months of being told that consular officials are “working on it,” she is reassured that the Azer kids’ file is now on the prime minister’s desk. Trudeau told Alison that her kids were a priority of the government but stopped short of agreeing to make any diplomatic phone calls. And so Alison will wait, rest, regroup with her supporters and plan her next move. It’s all she can do.
In quiet moments, she wonders what it will be like when she sees her kids again and thinks back to the last night she spent with them. All of them were crowded into her bedroom—Sharvahn and Meitan shared the bed with her, while Rojevahn and Dersim wedged mattresses onto the available floor space—because they all wanted to be close. Dersim, with his wiggly tooth, said to his family: “I’m so proud to be in this family. I know sometimes that I get angry and I say things I don’t mean, but I love all of you so much.” Alison sang her kids to sleep with the lullabies she has been singing since they were babies.
“It gives me so much comfort,” she says, “that the last night we were together, we were really strong and connected and loyal to one another.”