Alberta woman, 19, left home to fight ISIS militants in Syria

Four months after she graduated high school, Shaelynn Jabs went to Syria to join the fight against ISIS, where she took part in a women’s revolution few westerners have even heard about.

Shaelynn Jabs wanted to save lives, but she ended up on the front lines fighting militants

Shaelynn Jabs says many times during the months she fought with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, she thought she might die. (Courtesy of the Jabs family)

Four months after she graduated high school, Shaelynn Jabs went to Syria to join the fight against ISIS, where she took part in a women's revolution few westerners have even heard about.

Her mother dropped her off at the airport. They both found the courage to say goodbye, knowing they might never see each other again.

Many times during the months she fought with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, the 19-year old thought she might die. Once, on a rooftop, she was scouting for ISIS militants, hoping to stop them before they got close enough to lob a hand grenade. 

You just shoot. You don't even think about it.- Shaelynn  Jabs

"We were hearing on the radio about every five minutes one of our guys getting picked off," said Jabs. "My female commander got shot, and then my German friend got shot in the head."

Peering through the scope on her rifle, she could clearly see the militants faces.

"You just shoot," said Jabs. "You don't even think about it. Because you don't want to die and you don't want your friends to die."

She shot at the enemy but said that part is simply too "hard to talk about."

Wanted to save lives

Jabs didn't go to Syria to kill militants. She just wanted to save lives. But she soon joined the fighting, she said, because "you have to fight before you can do any medicine."

In her final two years of high school, she used online resources to learn how to treat combat wounds.
Shaelynn Jabs says while she shot at the enemy, it's too "hard to talk about." (Courtesy of the Jabs family)

Early on in Syria, a friend was shot in the chest, so Jabs grabbed some plastic from her pocket to create a chest seal, to stop the bleeding. Once she used the barrel of a rifle to stabilize a broken arm.

After one particularly bloody battle, there were many fighters who couldn't be saved.

"There were a lot of people that just bled out, because no one knew what to do," said Jabs, who was told some could have been saved had there been a front-line medic. "Instantly I had to go, I had to go and do something more."

That's when she picked up an AK-47.

"A big part of it was because I wanted to be part of the women's revolution," she said.

Moving through the villages, she saw up close what the women's lives were like, and was thankful that the YPG had created special units to give those women the chance to join the fight, to make their own decisions.

"There are even female commanders now," she said. "And this is completely unheard of in the Middle East, to have women fight for themselves, and fight for their families and their futures."

Tried out for boys' football team

The journey that took her to one of the most dangerous places in the world began in Drayton Valley, a central Alberta town of 7,000, where Jabs was the first girl to ever try out for and make the boys' football team. They're called the Warriors.

Apart from that, she said she was like many other teens. Until she learned on the news that militants were beheading people, and decided the world wasn't doing enough to stop them.
'Just because it's not happening in our country, doesn't mean it's not our war,' Jabs says. (Courtesy of the Jabs family)

She considered sending money. Then online she found the Lions of Rojava, a Kurdish group recruiting western volunteers to join their fight against ISIS.

She began corresponding with the group. Eager to help, she "jumped the gun," surprising even her recruiters. In October, as an email landed in her inbox suggesting she travel the following month, Jabs was already landing in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"It was freaky for me," she said. "It just looked like everything in the movies. I was like, 'Oh, my god, I'm actually doing this.'

Because she spent most of her money on the three-day journey from Edmonton to Iraq, she didn't have the cash for the four-hour cab ride to meet her contact.

Wandered the streets 

For almost two days she wandered the streets and slept where she could. A family brought her blankets, a stool and chai, and once the language barrier was bridged, offered her a free ride to her destination.

"It's something I've never, ever seen before," she said. "Such kindness. Raw kindness."

In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, Jabs met her contact and signed a six-month contract, "because they don't want to put all the effort in if you're not going to stay."

How could I do any less when they're dying?- Shaelynn  Jabs

It was an eight-hour walk to cross the border and reach the training academy of the Kurdish People's Protection Units, also known as the YPG. Training consisted of workouts and learning languages and other skills, such as grenade throwing.

Jabs said she was one of two Canadian women at the academy, and one of just five western women to ever join YPG.

"I got high-fived a lot," she said.

Many of her comrades considered her crazy, for being willing to die at such a young age.

"There are younger people over there fighting," she said. "Fifteen and 16 year olds. Just fighting to have the same rights that we do. Like, how could I do any less when they're dying?"

Decked out in green army fatigues, holding an AK-47, her  baby face peering out from dozens of photos, Jabs doesn't seem much older.

Points to Paris attacks

Asked why she went, she said: "Just because it's not happening in our country, doesn't mean it's not our war." She pointed to the Paris terror attacks last November that killed 130 people.

"Like, that could happen in Canada at any moment," she said.

"If it happened to us, we would want all these people to come help us. We would want to know we're not alone in the world. And that's how come I think it's so important to show the Kurds that we're there for them. That the world cares that their families are dying."

Just because it's not happening in our country, doesn't mean it's not our war.- Shaelynn  Jabs

Brenda Jabs traces her daughter's interest in the military back to the day veterans visited the kindergarten class. After that, all her daughter could talk about was being a soldier, like her grandfather and great-grandfathers, so she could help people.

"She gets it in her mind what she needs to do, and then she's like a bull in the China shop going for it," said Brenda Jabs.

Mom spent two years fighting her daughter's plan. Then gave up and embraced it.

"You can't stop an adult from doing what it is they have to do," she said.

Mother prayed

During the six months Shaelynn spent in Syria, mom and daughter messaged and video-conferenced whenever Wi-Fi allowed them to. In between, Brenda prayed.

"I look at my daughter like she's a hero," she said. "How can you not be proud of her for helping people?"

Shaelynn Jabs greets her mother at the Edmonton International Airport last month after returning home from Syria. (Courtesy of the Jabs family)

Coming home last month wasn't part of the original plan.

Jabs said she was with a small advance unit fighting to reclaim ISIS territory. They were drinking tea with villagers when they drew fire.

A suicide driver slammed his truck into the building they were hiding behind. The explosion destroying four buildings.

"The rubble and debris hit me in the back of my head and my ear ruptured," said Jabs. She was bleeding everywhere, her head, her nose, her ear.

'Women and children screaming'

"All I heard was women and children screaming in the background. And I saw the dad who was trying to pull his wife out of the rubble. And then everyone was yelling that there were kids under there. We tried to unbury it as fast as we could.

"Not one of our people died. It was all civilians," she said, her voice quavering.

Her shattered eardrum left her unfit for duty.

"We always thought we were never going home," said Jabs, who last month returned to Drayton Valley, 130 kilometres southwest of Edmonton. "It was a surprise the day they told me I was."

I value my life. I value all life. But if it is in my path to die for those people, then I will.- Shaelynn  Jabs

Public Safety Canada said it is a criminal offence to leave or try to leave Canada to participate in the activities of a terrorist group such as ISIS, or commit an act of terrorism.

"The YPG, however, is not a listed terrorist entity," wrote spokesperson Jean Paul Duval. "As such, Canadians fighting with the YPG would not be captured under this legislation unless that individual committed a terrorist act as described in Canadian law."

The Lions of Rojava did not respond to CBC's request for comment. Their website is now closed with a message that reads: "We are unable to bring YPG volunteers into Rojava at the moment."

After an operation to repair her eardrum, Jabs plans to return to Syria. Even if her hearing is not restored, she said she can resume hospital duties.  

"The Kurdish people are very brave and strong people, and they deserve the world," she said.

"I'm not saying I don't value life. I value my life. I value all life. But if it is in my path to die for those people, then I will."

@andreahuncar  andrea.huncar@cbc.ca