Alberta woman back in Syria to fight ISIS militants

A 20-year-old woman from Drayton Valley, Alta., has returned to Syria to fight ISIS militants.

'I want the Kurds and the YPG and YPJ to know that they’re not alone in this fight'

Local woman leaves Alberta to fight ISIS

6 years ago
Duration 0:41
Shaelynn Jabs left Alberta at 19 to join the Kurdish forces to serve on the front lines against ISIS. After being injured in a suicide bombing, Jabs returns to Syria to rejoin the fight.

Shaelynn Jabs vowed she would return to fight ISIS militants when injuries forced her off the battlefield in March.

Now she is back in northern Syria training with Kurdish forces to serve on the front lines.

"I want to be in the very forefront of the fight," Jabs, 20, told CBC News in an exclusive interview before her departure from Drayton Valley, Alta., last month. "I want it to be known that they have my support."

It's her second tour, after first leaving Alberta for war-ravaged Syria a year earlier.

Just months after high-school graduation, Jabs — who had no military experience and had never traveled beyond Texas — set out on her own to one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Jabs said she carries a special bullet that she would use to shoot herself to avoid being taken prisoner.

In Syria, she joined the Kurdish People's Protection Unit (YPG), also serving with the all-female Kurdish faction known as the YPJ.

Jabs planned to work as a medic after researching online how to wrap tourniquets and treat bullet wounds, but soon found herself in combat.

Not long after her arrival, Jabs was asked to carry the casket of fellow Canadian John Gallagher, who reportedly died in a suicide bomber attack.

She didn't know him, but considered it an honour. It made her realize she could be next, she said, and she found that freeing.

"It made me able to do things without fear," said Jabs.
Jabs (left) helps carry the casket of fellow YPG soldier, Canadian John Robert Gallagher. (Facebook)

She recalled coming under attack with fellow YPG soldiers. They fired back. She watched one militant go down.

"I would rather it be them than my comrades," explained Jabs, adding the thought of killing someone makes her feel awful.

"But them killing innocent children, mothers, who have nothing to protect themselves, why should we just sit back and let that happen?"

During the skirmish, a suicide bomber slammed a truck into a building where she had taken cover, she said. The blast killed civilians, rupturing her eardrum, fracturing her skull and leaving her unfit for duty. 

In March, Jabs reluctantly returned to Canada, describing it as the "worst feeling in the world."

"I feel like almost a coward for being home," Jabs said from her Drayton Valley home, 130 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.  "I just want to be part of it. I don't want to be left behind. Because that's my team still fighting. Those are my people."

In some ways Jabs spent her summer like many her age. She worked at the local movie theatre, fished, swam, played pool, and hung out with friends.

She also practiced shooting, sought advice from veterans, underwent ear surgery and spent as much time as possible with loved ones, aware it might be their last chance.

All the while, she grieved the deaths of civilians and soldiers overseas as supplies ran out — her heart and mind still largely in Syria. 
Jabs (second from right) fought with the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), an all-women Kurdish military organization.

At a friend's party one night, the sound of a large pot dropping sent Jabs back into battle.

"I kind of just dropped to the ground, tried to reach for a gun that obviously wasn't there," Jabs recalled, feeling slightly embarrassed but also reassured — she was still combat-ready.

Finally in September, Jabs began packing for her second tour. She laid out the gear she had acquired.

Killing innocent children, mothers, who have nothing to protect themselves — why should we just sit back and let that happen?- Shaelynn Jabs

A new chest rig would carry her tools and ammunition. Some equipment came from the military vets she had "the honour of getting to know, who've been supportive," she said.

Jabs speaks passionately about all the reasons she believes her mission is worth dying for: so the Kurdish people can finally govern themselves; so kids can do "kid things" and finish school instead of picking up a gun to defend their homes and families; so women have the same rights and freedoms as she does.

"I want the Kurds and the YPG and YPJ to know that they're not alone in this fight," said Jabs.

"There are people across the world who think about them and actually care about their well being. I want them to know that."

'Happy to be back'

In September, Jabs retraced the steps she took a year earlier. She flew to Iraq, then walked into Syria.

In a brief Facebook message sent last week, Jabs confirmed she had arrived in Rojava, a Kurdish-controlled region in northern Syria. From there, she will join her unit, she said, before heading out to the next operation.

"I am happy to be back in Rojava," she wrote.
Jabs said she is willing to die for the Kurdish people.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said it is a criminal offence to leave Canada to participate in terrorist-related activity, but the YPG "is not a listed terrorist entity."

Jean Paul Duval wrote, "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." 

When asked if she thinks about the consequences to loved ones and those would-be rescuers should she ever be taken hostage, Jabs revealed she keeps a special bullet in her chest pocket.

"If I ever thought I was going to get captured, I would shoot myself in the head," she declared. "You must have seen the videos and the things that they do to people."

Jabs said she would not let that happen to her, or her family "and I'm not going to have someone have to come rescue me."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca                     @andreahuncar


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca