Global Affairs Canada has confirmed that it is aware of Canadian citizens being detained in Syria.
That confirmation came Saturday after CNN reported that it had interviewed two Canadian women who had recently fled one of ISIS’ last remaining strongholds: the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria. The two women, who spoke fluent English, said they were from Toronto and Alberta and travelled to Syria at their husbands’ insistence.
With the help of U.S. airpower, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are currently fighting to rout ISIS from the village, which sits along the Euphrates River near Syria’s border with Iraq.
“Given the security situation on the ground, the Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in any part of Syria is extremely limited,” Global Affairs spokesperson Richard Walker said in a statement to CTV News.
“The Government of Canada is engaged in these cases and is providing assistance — to the limited extent possible.”
Canadian officials, Walker added, “have established a communications channel with local Kurdish authorities in order to verify the whereabouts of some Canadian citizens.”
“Reports of an agreement concerning the repatriation of Canadian citizens from Syria are false,” Walker stated.
‘EATING PRINGLES AND TWIX BARS’
One of the two women interviewed by CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman on Feb. 9 identified herself as 28-year-old Dura Ahmed of Toronto.
Wedeman spoke to Ahmed in a barren desert plain in eastern Syria, where scores of civilians and suspected ISIS members fleeing fighting in nearby Baghouz were being questioned after surrendering themselves to the U.S.-backed SDF.
With her face masked by a black niqab, Ahmed recounted how she came to Syria from Canada four years ago at her husband’s urging.
“I didn’t know anything about ISIS or anything,” she claimed in the CNN interview, speaking with a distinctly North American accent. “He said, ‘Just come and see, just come and see.’”
Ahmed described life in Raqqa, the one-time capital of ISIS’ so-called caliphate, in rather rosy terms.
“You’re there… you’re eating Pringles and Twix bars,” she recounted. “You don’t feel like you’re in a war.”
She also expressed little remorse for leaving the relative safety of Canada for perilous Syria.
“I believe in Shariah, wherever Shariah is,” Ahmed said. “Do I regret it? Coming, you mean? Like, no — I don’t. Like in the sense, I had my kids here.”
The fate of Ahmed’s husband remains unclear.
‘I WAS JUST TRYING TO BE AN OBEDIENT WIFE’
CNN also interviewed a woman who claimed to be a 34-year-old former graphic designer from Alberta.
The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said her husband had ordered her to come to the troubled country.
“He’s like, ‘It’s obligatory for you to come here — you have no choice,’” she recalled. Like Ahmed, she spoke with a North American accent.
“He’s like, ‘I’m telling you to come here and as a Muslim wife, you have to obey,’” she said.
The woman eventually relented.
“Even though it was really hard for me to do it, I had to,” she said.
While in Syria, the woman said she lived a sheltered life, even keeping her children indoors.
“I didn’t let them go to school… because it’s dangerous, it’s too many bombings,” she said. “And they don’t speak Arabic, so I taught them myself.”
The woman, who was travelling with her two sons, said her first husband — who she claimed worked as an ISIS cook — was killed during fighting. She also claimed to be pregnant with her third child from her second husband: a Canadian who was also killed.
“I was just trying to be an obedient wife,” she said.
‘BRING THEM HOME NOW’
It is believed that more than two dozen Canadians are currently being held in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria. Many, advocates say, want to come home.
Alexandra Bain is the director of Families Against Violent Extremism and Hayat Canada Family Support: groups that work with the families of those caught up in violent extremist groups like ISIS.
“It’s far better to bring them home now all together with a plan in safety and security than to leave them alone in the camps of Syria where they’re cold and hungry and sick,” Bain, who is also an associate professor of religious studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., told CTV News.
Canada, however, has so far resisted calls to repatriate Canadian fighters in Syria and their families, who could face up to 10 years in prison in the country if they were involved with groups like ISIS.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a senior research fellow at the London, U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo who researches extremism. Amarasingam says he understands the government’s stance.
“We don’t know what happens to them, we don’t know where they’d go next and we have no real eyes on them once they’re out of the prison,” he told CTV News.
Even if the detained Canadians managed to leave war-torn Syria, they would very likely be arrested and charged in neighbouring countries if they were affiliated with ISIS.