For any mother who loses a son to a terrorist organisation fighting in Syria, the journey is one of deep pain and disbelief.
Each of the women below witnessed her son leave – but never to this dreadful end. The process of radicalisation was, in many ways, slow and unexpected. Very often, it was also linked to the young person’s troubled background and their yearning for purpose.
Christianne Boudreau welcomed her son Damian’s conversion to Islam, hoping that this would be a new chapter in his life after a difficult childhood. When Damian was just 10 years old, his father left the family and Damian went into seclusion, and, at 17, he attempted suicide by drinking antifreeze. Shortly after coming out of hospital, he started exploring religion, got a job and generally became more social. But more of his behaviour began to change too. He would only answer the phone outside, he wouldn’t eat with the family if there was wine on the table, and he justified killings.
Damian moved into an apartment with new friends and, eventually, left Canada, telling his mother that he was moving to Egypt to study Arabic. Boudreau later found that he had joined Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Her many attempts to convince him to come home were fruitless. In the end, she found out that Damian had been executed by the Free Syrian Army in Haritan, just outside Aleppo, through Twitter.
Karolina Dam contacted Boudreau after hearing about her experience. Her son Lukas had been a withdrawn child and his social interactions often ended in conflict. When he was 10, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder, but in adolescence, he got into further trouble with the law, particularly theft. His mother suspected he had joined a gang.
When Lukas got an apprenticeship at a local garage and started observing Islam, Dam was also pleased at the change. But through his co-workers, he started to observe more extreme interpretations of Islam – disapproving of her lifestyle. He was often still angry and dangerous, punching holes in the walls of his room. So his mother consulted social workers and had him institutionalised. However, Lukas ran away and started living in apartments around Copenhagen with Mobdro three older men. After Lukas turned 18, and after he was institutionalised again, he disappeared.
In the months after Lukas left, he was in regular contact with his mother citing his work on Turkish refugee camps. She later found out that he had joined Ahrar al-Sham, a faction based in Idlib province. But Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership was annihilated in an ISIS attack, and in the resulting chaos, Lukas joined ISIS as a fighter. Dam eventually heard that he had been killed through one of his friends and through a Facebook forum.
Both mothers have become outspoken activists in their own right, trying to make sense of their experience and that of others.
Christianne Boudreau founded two organisations, Hayat Canada and Mothers for Life, to help the parents of radicalised youth. She travels around Canada speaking to teachers, students and police departments about how to spot signs of change in friends and relatives.