By Mark Ellis –
Canadian mom Christianne Boudreau let her son Damian explore other faiths as he grew up in Calgary, Alberta.
“I have always been a firm believer that somebody’s faith is their own personal journey and they need to find what works for them,” she says.
She and her husband divorced when Damian was 10. After the divorce she discovered her husband was an atheist, something he hid during their marriage. But she doesn’t think her husband’s lack of faith had any influence on her son.
Christianne lost Damian’s younger brother to crib death in 2001. “That nearly destroyed me,” she recalls. “I went through depression. I went through anger; I went through hating God.
“I was put on medication but it did nothing. Only when I reunited myself with my faith again, did I find the strength to put my life back together and move forward. I had to go within myself and rely on my faith, to find the strength to put one foot in front of the other.”
She attends Central United Church, part of the United Church of Canada, a welcoming and inclusive organization. In their statement of beliefs, they say:
“The Bible is the shared standard for our faith, but members are not required to adhere to any particular creed or formulation of doctrine.”
A few years after the divorce, Damian began to resist Christianity. “By the time he was 14 he started questioning my beliefs and started questioning the Bible said there were too many contradictions, and it didn’t sit well with him. He said there were too many hypocrites in the church and he had difficulty with that. He stopped coming to church with me.”
After exploring other faiths, Damian converted to Islam when he was 17. Initially, Christianne’s attitude was supportive. “At least he found something to follow, his faith, something to identify as his own,” she concluded.
Then Damian moved out of the house and began to connect with other Muslims.
All of a sudden everything started to change. By the time he was 20, his behavior became “strict and stringent as far as his practices. He was pulling back into himself.”
“The phone calls became very private; he would take them outside,” she recounts. “A couple times he got argumentative about religious beliefs. He wouldn’t sit at the table anymore if there was a bottle of wine there. He refused to join the family for Christmas.”
Christianne admits to her naiveté. “I didn’t understand what extremism was. I had heard of gangs before, but that was all I had been introduced to. I studied cults in school, but didn’t recognize this was what was happening to him. It saw it potentially as another shift. He had gone through some depression and I was afraid he was beginning to get into depression again.”
His agitation and anger confused her. “I thought he would find his way again and I needed to have patience.”
In November 2012, Damian left Canada for Egypt, ostensibly to study Arabic and become an imam. “To me, anybody at that higher level of the faith, that is a good thing,” she reasoned.
Christianne received an email letting her know he arrived safely and was registering for school. “I talked to him on a regular basis. He said the food upset his stomach and he missed my home cooking. We joked around. He said studying was going well. He had made some friends. Everything was going fine.”
On November 23rd, 2012 they talked. At the time, the Syrian civil war was raging and protests had erupted in Cairo after President Morsi’s government announced the president had been granted unlimited powers.
“I’m concerned about the chaos going on in Cairo,” she told her son.
“Don’t worry, I’m nowhere near the city of Cairo,” he reassured her.
They spoke by phone a month later and then there was complete silence.
In January 2013 Christianne received a phone call from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) inquiring about her son.
“I’m sorry, He’s not here; he’s away in Egypt studying right now,” she told them.
“We have some concerns,” the man on the phone began, as Christianne’s knees suddenly got weak.
They showed up on her doorstep and started asking a lot of questions.
“This doesn’t pertain to him because he’s in Egypt studying Arabic,” she protested.
“Here is the thing,” one of the men leveled with her. “We’ve been watching him for nearly two years. We feel he’s gone to join a terrorist organization. He is not in Egypt. He was flown into Turkey and has since crossed the border into Syria.”
She learned that Damian first went to a terrorist training camp in Turkey run by Jabhat-al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate.
The agents from CCIS were with Christianne for two hours. They warned her not to tell anyone because he was connected with “bad people” and if it got out they would come after her and her family. She had two other children in the home at the time, eight and 11-years-old.
The news hit Christianne like a ton of bricks. “I was vomiting when they left,” she says.
Weeks went by and Christianne heard nothing from her son. His phone appeared to be shut off.
Out of the blue she got a text message from a new number associated with him. She looked up the area code and discovered it was a Syrian country code.
When she called him she confronted him about the area code.
“What the heck?” she asked.
Then he came clean. “It is not like you think,” he told her. “There are terrible atrocities going on here. Women and children are being murdered and tortured. They are being badly treated. Somebody needs to stand up and protect them and nobody is doing anything about it.”
She argued with Damian. “Come back…you won’t be a help to anybody if you’re dead.”
She hung up the phone dejected, knowing her pleading had fallen on deaf ears.
She discovered later they had taken Damian’s passport after he arrived, so it would not have been easy for him to turn back. His bridges had been burned.
Christiane wanted to find somebody to kidnap him and bring him back to Canada, face the authorities and even go to jail, if necessary. If he was locked up he would be safe, she thought.
In her frustration about the matter, Christianne went public with a reporter. When Damian found out he blew up with his mother on the phone.
“I didn’t hear from him until September 2013, at which time there had been a lot of infighting and he crossed over from Jabhat al-Nusra to ISIS.”
The Canadian intelligence service also got mad at her for going public. “We have to protect the image of our country,” they informed her coldly, “and if you do this and it destroys our image we will do whatever it takes to repair it or will throw you under the bus if we have to.”
Then came an awful phone call from a reporter one night, asking if she had a recent photo of Damian. “He said he wanted to compare it to a photo in a eulogy tweeted out by ISIS. He didn’t even stop to think to ask if I knew. He just wanted his story.”
Her heart sank, fearing the worst. A friend connected with the government texted her the next day. “I’m hearing rumors and they’re not very good.”
“I’ve heard the same rumors. I need to know if its true,” she texted back.
The woman got in touch with a journalist she knew in Syria and they confirmed the dreaded news. Damian Clairmont, who had assumed the name Mustafa al-Gharib, was injured in battle and subsequently captured and killed by a faction of the Free Syrian Army forces in Aleppo.
Authorities in Canada gave Christianne one hour to round up her family to share the news before journalists released the information more broadly.
“I was completely numb. I had to go rescue the kids from school, shut off the TV, and get everyone locked in the house,” she recounts.
She had a longstanding appointment with a psychologist for her youngest son that morning, so she brought him in to help her share the news.
During the crisis, her walk with God meant everything. “This time I was strong in my faith,” she says. “He leads me every day. When I think I’m ready to give up, he puts something in my path.
“I didn’t go into depression; I knew I needed to go into something positive to save other lives. I knew it was a test I needed to pass.”
Christianne is working with Mothers for Life, a global network of parents who have experienced violent jihadist radicalization in their own families.
“I want to get help for kids before they go down that path. The family connection is important to help pull them pull out. We all need to start educating ourselves, reaching out to our neighbors, building stronger communities,” she says.