AT THE FEET OF THE MOTHER
Jackie Sofia I'm Jackie Sofia, and you're listening to Kerning Cultures, a podcast dissecting the complex narratives of the Middle East through stories. Also in this episode, we do touch on the topic of suicide, so if you feel like this might be a trigger for you, make sure you take care of yourself. Okay. Let's begin.
Jackie Sofia Part one: At the feet of the mother.
How do you like to remember your son?
Christianne Boudreau I remember him as extremely loving, and caring. Adventurous. Curious. And always looking out for those that needed that extra bit of help. That's the part I remember most. There were no limits. What mattered the most was their heart. And that's what I admired most in him, and will still forever, no matter what.
Your first child, you're scared but you're excited at the same time. They don't come with a handbook. It's not anything that-that's easy, but at the same time, there's so many experiences that are so wonderful. I remember for him, he was an early learner. He was always interested and always curious in absolutely everything. He loved to cook with me in the kitchen, he loved sports, he loved music, and he taught himself to read at the age of four. So it was difficult trying to keep up with him. He was- he was always just so full of life.
And then, even in school, I remember getting called into the school because they were having a hard time keeping him engaged in class. He was finishing his work ten, fifteen minutes into a classroom setting, whereas everybody else was taking up to an hour to complete it. So of course, he wanted to continue entertaining himself, and that meant entertaining everybody else, and distracting them. So the principal of the school- this was in kindergarten, actually- asked me if I could stop teaching him at home. And I said, "No. There's- I'm not going to discourage him of his learning- his interest in learning." So that was something that continued in life. It was a challenge keeping him within the classroom, entertained or engaged at school. I got called in a few times, because he stood up to bullies on other kids' behalves. So, the teachers said, "You know, well, he's putting himself in-between, and we don't want him to do that." And I said, "Well, if teachers are there watching, he's obviously doing it for a reason." He felt frustrated that other teachers couldn't see that kids were being picked on, that they didn't try to stand up for them more, even back then.
It was a challenge but it gave us an opportunity to have open dialogues about it. We talked about it quite a bit, and I said, unfortunately not everything's balanced out for us, and that we have to pick our battles and be careful. And try to be diplomatic. We couldn't use violence. He became more and more frustrated with politics because, of course, with his own style of self-teaching and reading, and looking stuff up on his own, he saw that in the adult world it didn't stop there with just kids; it continued in the adult world, as well. And became much more frustrating for him. And he started acting out a bit. Became much more angry, sometimes more assertive, more aggressive in the way he was coming across. Become much more argumentative. And he would challenge adults on some of their beliefs- on some of their political beliefs. I tried to stay away from those conversations with him because, I said, you know there's no way we're going to ever win the debate. If they could find an argument to say, well, "We can only take one piece at a time," then they weren't holding themselves accountable or responsible for actions to try to correct it. And he felt that they were trying to back out of being responsible; of trying to hold governments responsible. Because at thirteen, fourteen, you don't really have a voice. Nobody really listens to you.
He'd been through a couple of traumatizing events. He lost a brother when he was only ten in 2001. And he felt quite helpless, but also turned into himself. Wouldn't talk about it. He started staying at home a lot more, not going out. He found it much more difficult to find his place within his peers, because they weren't interested in the same things that he was interested in. And his persona continued to change. So, for awhile he- he had this sort of jock attitude, and then it was more of a hip-hop, kind of gangster attitude. He kept trying to change that persona, I think. Trying to find where he fit, and not really finding it. And eventually, just closing himself off in the house. He quit school. Didn't want to go out anymore without hiding his face. He just had no interest and more and more often he wouldn't even leave the home for different family events that we were going to. He just wanted to stay at home in his own space where he felt safe.
He had just turned sixteen when he quit school, and he had tried to do it online. In the beginning his marks were extremely high, and he just didn't have the self-discipline to maintain that study. And at some point he just cut off from that as well.
He attempted suicide the day after his seventeenth birthday. I'm sorry.
It was very tough, and it felt like I'd lost the battle, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't want him to become another statistic. And at the hospital they put him in intensive care, and told me to call my family and- who lived in France. They said if he survived, he was likely going to be a vegetable, and not pull out of it. So they said, it's best that you call a family. And it was a long distance to go so, it was a shock to the system. We had a lot of supporting friends and family, and everybody stayed close. But I had to fight with the hospital. Once he came out of the coma, they wanted to release him, and again with no follow-up. So, it was one more battle. And he stayed in the hospital for about two months working with a psychiatrist, and it became very frustrating because at the age of seventeen, they didn't have to release any information to me. He was on his own medically. Legally, there was nothing I could do unless he signed off on a release that they could speak to me about everything that was going on with his care.
He was always looking for deeper meaning at this point, because he survived that suicide attempt, and it was such a serious attempt. And because he shouldn't have walked out of there, I think he believed that there was something else he should be doing. Another purpose somewhere else, some- something more. And that's when he started trying to seek it out. He's trying to, again, find that place, that footing.
At that point the psychiatrist had said, if he comes home he'll slip back into that agoraphobic state of mind, and it's best that he- he gets his own place. He gets out on his own; starts to work, starts putting his life back together. It wasn't long after that that he converted.
He became much more grounded, he was getting out, he was building a social life. So for me, that meant I didn't have to worry as much. He was looking towards a future. And with a stronger faith, he was less likely going to try suicide again. That he had connections, roots with people. And to me, I'd always raised him to be open to all faiths, all religions, all cultures. And what was mostly important was him finding that peace within himself. It didn't matter why- where it was coming from for me. It was the fact that he- he seemed so much more at ease. So much more at peace with himself, and working towards that future. Building a life. I was proud of him. Absolutely proud of him.
And I didn't start seeing a shift in any of his behaviors until 2011. And it started gradually. He grew his beard out. He started putting his activities with his youth group that he was with ahead of the family time. When he first converted, he would still celebrate Christmas with us, because of his younger siblings. He would still celebrate his birthdays, because it was- meant family. If I was having a glass of wine at the table, it didn't affect him. It didn't bother him. He understood. He was accepting. But, bit-by-bit, he started shifting away from that. So he didn't want to celebrate his birthday anymore. He didn't come to Christmas celebrations with us anymore. He would stop coming to the dinner table if we had wine at the table, so I had to make sure if he was going to be there for dinner, I didn't have any. In fact, I wanted to take him out for supper one night, and I remember him specifically choosing the restaurant, because he wanted to make sure the waitresses had enough clothing on. He didn't want it to be a temptation. He found that a lot of restaurants in Calgary, the waitresses wore skirts that were too short, shirts that were too low-cut. And that bothered him. So, little shifts like that started to happen. Phone calls that he would take, started taking them outside. Instead of bringing his new friends home, he stopped seeing anybody. If they picked him up when he was- for- coming to the house for a visit, they would pick him up around the corner. So, those were the small shifts that I started to see in the beginning. And then, the aggravation and the agitation when he started becoming argumentative about conspiracy theories, and having more than one wife, or things that the West were responsible for. That was hard to take. Quite often I had to stop him and say, "This is family time. I don't want to get into an argument. We'll agree to disagree. I don't believe those things, you know that. How I raised you is completely different, so let's just leave it at the door please." And that's how we left it.
He brought up the conversation in the Summer of 2012 that he was considering going to Egypt to study Arabic. He wanted to eventually become an imam. But quite honestly, I don't think I ever took it seriously. He had had an opportunity to live with his grandparents here in France when he was passionate about cooking, and study with a chef here when he was sixteen, and he wouldn't leave. He didn't want to be far away from his family, especially his younger. He had a- a huge love and attachment to his younger brother. Very protective. There was a big age gap. And so, I didn't quite believe that he would ever do that. There were a lot of times that Damian had ideas he was going to do different things. But if it was a grander plan, it never came to fruition, especially if it meant going far away from the family. So I wasn't really concerned about it happening, or I didn't believe it was going to happen. Not until the day before he left, when he hugged me for the last time. That's when I thought, he's- he's really going to leave. And when he called me the next morning from the plane, I still believed he was going to Egypt.
Actually, about a week after what I thought he'd- he'd arrived in Egypt, in Cairo, we- he sent me an email to say he'd arrived safely, and that was- that that was about it. That he would get a hold of me as soon as he got a sim card for his phone. And then we started talking on the phone every two or three days. It was a regular basis. He sounded relaxed. I asked him how school was going, I asked him how the other students were. He said, mostly he missed my home cooking, but other than that, he was settling in quite well. He really enjoyed it. It was a great experience. He enjoyed meeting all these new friends he was making, he was quite happy and settled. And he sounded still, just like my son. And when he asked about home, asked about you know, various recipes and such, he sounded like he had never changed. He was actually much more relaxed than he had been just before leaving.
It was about a month, and I hadn't heard from him, and I started getting really concerned, because he would text message me and I would call him back, so that I had the long distance package that could cover that. And that same day was when the Security Intelligence Service showed up on my doorstep, and said, "Actually we believe he's not in Egypt. We've been watching him for almost two years, and we're of the understanding that he's actually flown into Turkey and since crossed over the border into Syria, and that's why you likely have not heard from him."
Michel Coulombe Currently, CSIS is aware of over 130 Canadians who are abroad in support of extremist activities, including approximately 30 in Syria alone. The number of individuals overseas are in constant flux. Their motivation are difficult to ascertain, and their movement across sometime isolated terrain are difficult to track. Honorable senators, this problem is not unique to Canada. Countries around the world, and our closest allies are grappling with the same issues, and there is no simple solution.
Christianne Boudreau About a month later, at the end of February, I finally got a text message from him, and that's when I looked up the country code that was the phone and realized that, yes indeed, it was Syria. So when I called him later on that evening, I confronted him. I didn't say that the Security Intelligence had come to the home. I didn't want to scare him off. And I said, "The country code on your phone says it's Syria." And that's when he came clean with me. I had to jump on the computer, try to understand more. What was this about? What was this fighting? Why would he go there? And that's when I realized a lot of kids from other countries were starting to leave to join this war, with terrorist organizations. And I just- it was a lot to take. I spent hours upon hours looking for him. I Found martyr sites with photographs- horrible, horrible photographs and videos- just trying to find him to see if he was alive or dead. I just needed to know.
He was a very private person. He never participated in any of those videos or propaganda videos. And the only photograph I have of him in Syria was the one that he used on his Facebook account, that he didn't use to share any propaganda. So, he just wasn't that type of person. He kept everything close to himself. He, in fact, said it was between he and God, and that he was there to save women and children. That was his purpose for being. He needed to have a strong purpose in life, and that's what it was.
So nobody knew or understood what was happening, that the realization wasn't there. It wasn't common knowledge that our young kids, our young adults, were traveling overseas to fight as part of this war. So I think they thought I was a little bit off my rocker, or- or afraid to discuss it. Didn't know what to say, didn't know how to approach the issue. The one psychologist I did find was through the authorities and even he said, "I don't know what to say. I- I don't understand this phenomena. It's not something I've come across. I'm not quite sure how to- to work with it."
Close friends- I was very fortunate, I have the most amazing people in my life, very strong, very supportive, and they knew Damian what he was like, and they didn't judge any of us. So, they were wonderful. But the rest of the world had another opinion. They saw it as "terrorists." They saw it as- that I guess the whole family must've raised him that way, and- and so it's just as much our fault. We were to blame. The authorities didn't want me speaking out in public. They didn't want me talking to other families. They wouldn't share contact information. And they tried to keep me quiet. So it was- it was really challenging. Really really tough and lonely place to be.
I had stayed away from the computer for a period of time. Actually, Damian and I had lost contact in September of 2013. He'd become very distant, cold. Very aggravated every time I asked him and begged him to come home. So, it became a very big challenge communicating with him and the impact it was starting to have on his little brother. So, I had stayed away from the computer for awhile, trying to figure out how to cope with it. How to move on to the next step, how to help his brother, how to move forward. What would I do if he'd come home? Try to have that hope.
It was about quarter-to-ten in the evening. My phone rang twice, and it was a number I didn't recognize from another province. I thought it was a telemarketer. I was rather abrupt with him. With a- it was a journalist. He asked for a photograph of Damian, did I have a recent photo? I asked him why, and he said that he had received a eulogy on a tweet with Damian's Christian name, with a photograph of him, and he wanted to compare the two. I was shocked. I said, I had no idea. And he said, "Oh, you didn't know?" and I said, "Uh. No."
Click, and hung up. It was just, there it is, here it is, and I jumped on my phone trying to find anybody in the media world who might have some contacts in Syria to confirm it. I needed something to hang on to, because if I'm going to explain this to my younger son how am I going to tell him if I'm not sure?
The following morning, I was contacted by a friend of mine who worked with CBC Canada, and they were able to connect with a journalist they knew in Syria, who knew Damian, and they confirmed that he'd been executed by the Free Syrian Army.
Jackie Sofia How did you decide to respond in the way that you did?
Christianne Boudreau I realized this is something that's been going on for years. Kids were leaving and nobody was talking about it. Nobody was doing anything to protect families or help them. And they were leaving them alone in the dark. And with the younger children growing up in the world the way it was going today, it wasn't fair. It wasn't right. So something had to change. So I started to seek out other families that had gone through, so that we could talk about it openly without the judgment and have that support and connection.
CNN reporter A twenty-three year old woman from the US is being stalked. Close to joining ISIS and traveling to Syria. The woman's family contacted Boudreau and an intervention began. In less than two hours, in her Calgary home, three separate families reach out to her, desperate for help.
Christianne Boudreau First mother I was about to find was through the internet- media that she'd done. It was a mother in France, in Toulouse- Dominique Bons. And I remember waking up- it was five o'clock in the morning- going straight to my laptop, and she had just answered my email. And I remember reading it, just bawling my eyes out. I couldn't stop crying. The relief. Because everything she was saying in the letter, was everything I felt. And somebody finally got it.
And we said then, we need to put something together on an international level so that nobody feels alone ever again. I flew to Berlin to meet with Daniel Koehler. At the time, he was working in de-radicalization studies and such, and he offered to put me in contact with a couple of other mothers in Germany. Once we got into that room, and he saw how we were sharing stories, photos, videos, connecting on that different level, he said, "We need to do something about this, we need to give that strength to so many other people." So, through his experience, and along with our life experience, we combined that effort and that's how Mothers for Life came about. And we've grown into eleven countries now.
I was very fortunate in 2014 to have teamed up with Institute for Strategic Dialogue out of London, and we did Extreme Dialogue, which was a school project. So there are various films with various extremisms, and stories- various people's stories- along with some activities for schools to do and use with the youth. And we started off with two films. So, it was myself with my story and Damian's story, and Daniel Gallant, who's a former right-wing extremist. And now it's progressed on through other countries. So, they've developed in Hungary and in Germany, as well. And they've translated it into other languages, and it just keeps growing from there. So, hopefully, it's something we can see get into all the schools out there with the youth. So what I do is use the short film that I did to connect with them, to explain my story, to show them that emotional side. To show them the photographs and connect them to the other parts of my family. The impact that I've seen, even in a classroom where kids are brought to tears when they see the pain, and feel and get that there are other alternatives; that there are people that care about them, even if they're not related. That's a whole different level than anything government and politics can do.
If kids are going to have questions about it, and we're not going to talk to them about it, and we're not going to be open, then they're going to find it elsewhere. And they're going to find it with the people who are willing to talk to them about it, and it's not always the right answers or the right people. But by engaging the right people who are open enough, and honest enough, and emotionally connected to the youth, I think this way we're going to be able to reach them, and start giving them other options and solutions to deal with those emotional frustrations that they have.
We, as mothers, carried our children for nine months. Heaven, according to Islam, is found at the feet of the mother. There's that sense of nurturing, a bond and a connection that you don't get from any other way that is there before that child is even born. And to have that, to understand that, to feel that. The most important thing in life is about human connection. Relationships. We all need to be needed and cared about. We all need to feel accepted. These are important qualities in life, part of living. That's what gives us our strength and backbone, are those relationships. So that's what drove me to- to keep pushing forward. If somebody had done that for me, had talked about it sooner, brought it out in the open to the surface, Damian might still be here.
Jackie Sofia Thank you, to Christianne Boudreau, for sharing your story with us, and with our listeners, and with the rest of the world. This episode was produced by myself, Jackie Sofia, with editorial support by Alex Atack, as well as Razan Alzayani and Lilly Crown. Very special thanks to Gabriel Haurillon, Mohamed Khreizat and Jarrod Sport.
This piece was produced in partnership with News Deeply's Women and Girls Hub, as a part of their on-going series about women and radical extremism. You can find more at www.newsdeeply.com/womenandgirls
Please tune in next month for part two of our series on women and radical extremism. Until then.
Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, Issue 2 - Evidence - Meeting of February 3, 2014 (Ottawa, Monday, February 3, 2014)
MUSIC AND SOUND CREDITS:
“Just Blue Sky”, “Completely Lost” and “They Wait” by Lee Rosevere
“Stories about the world that once was” by Chris Zabriskie
“Forces” by Podington Bear
Produced by Jackie Sofia, editorial support by Alex Atack as well as Razan Alzayani and Lilly Crown. Sound mixing and mastering by Mohamed Khreizat.