The Current

One mother's mission to save her daughter from life as an ISIS bride

In 2014, a 19-year-old woman, born and raised in Montreal, left her entire life behind one day to join ISIS in Syria. Her mother embarked on a perilous mission to bring her home.

The Way Out: Promo

6 years ago
Duration 1:06
A Canadian mother's mission to free her daughter and granddaughters from ISIS.

Read Story Transcript

Saeeda was leaving work one evening when she passed a woman wearing a chador, a full-body veil worn by Muslim women. She recognised the woman — it was her daughter.

What she did not recognise was the way her daughter was dressed. Saeeda's family is Muslim but to her knowledge her daughter, Amina, had never worn religious attire before. Shocked, she confronted Amina on the street, asking what she was doing, and ordering her to go home and change.

Within months, Amina had left Canada in secret, to join Isis in Syria.

Saeeda, as she is referred to in the documentary, travelled to Turkey trying to track down her runaway daughter. (Wes Legge/The Way Out)

In 2014, Amina was just a normal 19-year-old who had been born and raised in Montreal, Que. She was in her second year of college, popular with a lot of friends, and interested in fashion and "teenage girl things."

When she left all that behind to join ISIS, her bewildered mother embarked on a three-year mission to bring her home. That story will be told in The Way Out, a documentary airing Sunday on CBC-TV. Their identities are not being disclosed: Amina and Saeeda are pseudonyms used in the program.

"Almost as soon as she went over, she called and said she regretted it," says Michelle Shephard, the national security correspondent at the Toronto Star, who co-directed the documentary.

Saeeda told Shephard that Amina was panicking, and had no idea how bad it would be.

"She said in that first call: 'Where are you, I'll come get you,'" Shephard tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, but that Amina refused, saying that it would be too dangerous.

The Way Out: Phone Call

6 years ago
Duration 0:43
A Canadian mother receives a call from her daughter, telling her she's left to join ISIS.

Saeeda and her daughter stayed in contact via text message, using Skype only once to speak (though Saeeda said they did little more than cry). During the filming of the documentary, Shephard has only met and spoken with Saeeda, never with Amina.

In the months after she arrives in Syria, Amina is married off to an ISIS recruit from Germany.

When Saeeda found out, Shepard tells Tremonti that "She begged her: 'Please, please. Don't get pregnant.'"

"Very soon after, she was pregnant," recounts Shephard.

She gave birth in Mosul, to a daughter who is now around two years old.

"She text her mother saying it was horrible, that she had to deliver the girl by C-section, but that they didn't have any drugs for her, or proper drugs," Shepard says, "and she was warned that she couldn't cry out or show any emotion, because you weren't allowed to do that in ISIS territory."

Back in Canada, Saeeda was cooperating with the RCMP and CSIS, but they could offer little information, as the security services don't have a strong network on the ground in Syria.

The stigma associated with joining ISIS, both within the Muslim community and wider society, left her isolated and incredibly lonely.

"She was very angry," Shephard says. "But she's still her mom, and she wanted to get her back."

Saeeda meets with Mohammed Khehdr from Sound and Picture in Germany, to find out about Amina's husband. (Michelle Shephard/The Way Out)

Saeeda enlisted the help of two groups to try to get her daughter home. One of them was Thuwar al-Raqqa, an anti-ISIS Syrian militia aligned with coalition forces. The other was Sound and Picture, a group that works to document human rights abuses at the hands of ISIS and other extremist groups.

Defecting from ISIS is dangerous, amounting to a death sentence according to Shephard. But going into ISIS territory to extract people is just as deadly.

Shephard was struck by how these groups try to fight ISIS "one person at a time." She spoke with members, asking why they risk their lives.

"We fight in various ways. We fight ISIS on the ground," said one man. "Every person we get away from them, every defector, is one less person. It's a win for us."

For every person they do get out, they also get a little bit more information on ISIS operations, weakening the terror group further.

The Way Out: Call with CSIS

6 years ago
Duration 1:20
Journalist and director Michelle Shephard gets a call from CSIS while in Germany filming The Way Out.

Saeeda travelled to Germany and Turkey seeking a way to bring her daughter home. But as U.S.-led forces closed in on ISIS strongholds, it became harder to pinpoint her location.

As Thuwar al-Raqqa prepared to extract her from Raqqa, Amina was forced to flee the intense bombardment that would eventually liberate the city.

Weeks went by without word.

Suddenly, a message arrived from Amina's husband, giving Thuwar al-Raqqa their location.

The Way Out: Into Hell

6 years ago
Duration 0:33
Saeeda describes her need to get her daughter and granddaughters home, speaking over images of ISIS destruction.

The group swooped in. Amina's husband agreed to let her leave, and after a harrowing journey out of ISIS territory, they reached Kurdish forces.

Amina is still in Kurdish custody, while Canadian authorities negotiate her return.

But that return is an uncertain future for Amina, and the two granddaughters that Saeeda has never met.

"There's not a doubt in my mind that she's a victim," Saeeda's lawyer, Nader Hasan, tells her in the documentary.

"We'll continue to make that point to Canadian authorities," he says. "But at this point I can't tell you with any certainty how the Canadian crown prosecutors and RCMP will ultimately regard her, and we have to be alive to the possibility that they will charge her criminally."

Back in Montreal, Saeeda has prepared a room for the granddaughters she has never met. (Michelle Shephard)

Shephard says that Saeeda has already prepared a room for her new granddaughters, and is hopeful of reuniting her family, but understands what's at stake.

"For me, this is a story about one mom's struggle and what she went through," says Shephard. "It humanizes a problem we talk about so often in such black-and-white terms."

"But I think how Canada reacts to this case also speaks volumes. So often, how we react politically, or in policy, to the current problem, often makes the problem worse."

"[Saeeda] supports her daughter. She loves her daughter. She wants her to come back. But she also understands the reality of the decision that she made, and what a horrible, horrible mistake to make."

The Way Out will air on Sunday, January 21 at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar.