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Kidnapping or Rescue? The story behind the Azer abduction

It's been a year since Saren Azer, a Kurdish-Canadian doctor, secretly put his four children on a plane to Northern Iraq, and became a fugitive in a case that electrified social media. He is being sought by the RCMP and Interpol on abduction charges. This is a backgrounder on a dosmetic relationship that went terribly wrong, and an update.

By Claude Adams

In Alison Azer's words, the romance began as a “mutual fascination with ‘the other’.” He, the ambitious and brilliant Kurdish-Canadian refugee with dreams of changing the world; she, the attractive Prairie writer with a troubled past, now “thirsty for a vision of the world to replace the consumerist metaphors of my youth.”

They met in 1996 in Edmonton, where Saren Azer was working on a PhD in medicine. Two years earlier, he had fled Iran where he’d been persecuted for his activism. Alison was with the Alberta Lung Association, and she organized a ceremony at which Saren was being awarded a prize for his pulmonary research. She was dazzled by his intensity of feeling.

“It sounds silly now, but I was swept off my feet,” she says. “He was charismatic. He had a presence.” She was drawn to his “swarthy good looks.”

"I felt that 'pow'--a big immediate attraction. . . I learned from him about how little I know about the world."

It was the perfect fit. “He sought political refuge and found it in Canada,” she wrote later, “I sought personal refuge and found it with him.” Alison fell in love. Saren Azer, she believed, would give meaning to her life. And she would be at his side as he worked toward his medical degree, and his later humanitarian work in the refugee camps of Iraqi Kurdistan.

According to Azer family members, Alison secretly converted to Islam, gave up alcohol, began wearing more modest clothing and they were married in the year 2000.

Together they formed an organization called the International Society for Peace and Human Rights. She supported Saren while he studied and over the years, they had four children, all with Kurdish names: Sharvahn, Rojevahn, Dersim, Meitan. (They are now aged 4 to 12.)

As a humanitarian, she told friends, he worked in the spirit of Norman Bethune and Albert Schweitzer.

But over time the relationship soured. Saren’s zeal for humanitarian work began to overshadow the marriage. He was on the road a lot, obsessed by the need to help his Kurdish compatriots overseas. Also, Alison says he would "go ballistic" when she came into contact with other men.

When he was home, he was strict with the children. Saren and Alison argued, for example, about the propriety of the bathing suits Sharvahn liked to wear. He didn’t want the two girls swimming with boys. She says he was developing a dual personality: one moment the Kurdish traditionalist male, the next, the "free-thinking, Western-thinking man."

Alison’s initial attraction to “the other” in Saren began to wane. In December, 2012, after a bitter argument, she left the family home in Comox, on Vancouver Island, and took the kids to a women’s shelter in Victoria. She told police that Saren had threatened to kill her, and the kids were no longer safe at home.

No criminal charges were ever laid, but the breakup led to a legal separation, a divorce and a bitter two-year custody battle involving the courts, family therapists, and the RCMP. Saren calls it a “campaign of terror and hatred” that was damaging the children. Both parties accused the other of physically abusing them: medical documents show that the children suffered from eating disorders, sleeplessness, bed-wetting and developmental issues. One of the girls was found to have “expressed some suicidal ideation.”
Saren won the legal right to spend time with the children, but Alison was deeply distrustful and suspicious of his intentions. He says she even had GPS tracking devices hidden in their suitcases when they went to visit their father.
“We were surrounded, we were encircled, we were brutalized,” Saren told me in a Skype interview on May 13. “For others it might have seemed like just another case in family court (but) what I saw my children go through was nothing less than a terror.”
“Over the past three years . . . all the struggles with the ministry (of child and family development), all the struggles with the RCMP, all the struggles that were happening in our lives, it shattered their mental, emotional, psychological and physical health . . . They were so young and so impacted by that process to the point that I didn’t recognize them anymore.”

Saren began making plans. He was a highly-regarded physician on Vancouver Island—with a six-figure income; his research into pulmonary disease was winning prizes; and his international humanitarian work had even drawn the attention of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But, in his heart, Saren believed life in Canada was becoming untenable for him and the kids. He complained that the Canadian justice system was blind to their plight.

In August 2015, he made his move. During a holiday in Germany with the kids, Saren bought five one-way airline tickets to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. He promised the children a brand-new life, away from the trauma of the custody fight with their mother. The flight took the runaways into the war-torn Qandil Mountains, where Kurdish nationalists were being bombed by Turkish warplanes. It was a territory controlled by the nationalist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), effectively at war with Turkey.

A desperate mother went in pursuit. On the basis of information from police and sources in northern Iraq, and travelling with an Iraqi journalist, Alison tracked Saren and the kids down to a village in Iraqi Kurdistan. There, after negotiating her way through countless checkpoints, she received a frosty welcome from leaders of the PKK, a group considered by Canadian officials to be terrorists.

But the PKK elders denied that they were giving refuge to Azer and the children. They said there was nothing they could, or would do to help her in her quest. As they were leaving , Alison’s Iraqi guide was given a dark warning: Do not bring her back into PKK territory, if you know what’s good for you. He took it as a clear death threat.

Meanwhile, Saren Azer had contacted family members across the border in his native Iran, and someone from his family arrived by car to collect him and the four children. They were driven to the Iranian city of Mahabad, nestled in the mountains--the home of Saren’s mother, and other family members.

I was told they crossed the border openly, they were welcomed by Iranian authorities, and all five were eventually given documents affirming them as Iranian citizens. It seems that the issues which had prompted Saren’s flight from Iran more than 20 years earlier—his full-throated Kurdish nationalism—were forgiven. Within months, he found a teaching job in a university hospital.
Iranian civil law is highly patriarchal when it comes to child custody in divorce cases. In effect, the authorities believe he has broken no laws in seizing his children, as long as the mother is allowed to see them. Accordingly, Saren has invited Alison to visit the children whenever she likes. Meanwhile, the children have found what Saren calls their safe haven.

“Our daily life is filled with joy,” Saren told me in our Skype interview. “My children now are children. They sing, they dance, they laugh, they play. This is how a true childhood should look like, not in the waiting rooms of psychologists and counsellors. Not in the interview rooms of the RCMP.”

At school, they were learning the Kurdish language, along with Farsi and Arabic. There were also classes in English. There are videos of them at play, and taking part in traditional dances.

But to Alison, the picture Saren painted was all a sham. “What he’s doing,” she told an interviewer, “is the desperate attempts of a man who’s been on the run for nine months. He’s a wanted fugitive. He continues to cross borders illegally. And his actions speak to his desperation that he must be feeling knowing that authorities are circling in on him.”
She organized a social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter that vilified Saren and other family members, and she raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in a Canada-wide campaign to help her recover the children. In a 20-minute sit-down with Justin Trudeau, she demanded that the government put pressure on Iranian authorities to have Azer extradited, and the children returned. All it would take, she told Trudeau, was a forceful phone call to the Iranian president.

When nothing came of her efforts on Parliament Hill, she became the angry, desperate, hectoring mother, critical of the government’s inaction—its refusal to take matters to a higher diplomatic level. She also had strong words for the RCMP, who she believed weren’t doing enough to pursue their warrant for her husband’s arrest.

“I have had the unpleasant experience, the horrifying experience, of seeing this government from the inside,” Azer told The National Post. “I am furious.” She said officials were "asleep at the switch."

But most wounding of all was a claim by Saren that the children were content in their new life, that they had Iranian citizenship, and that they had no wish to communicate with Alison. Could they truly have become so alienated from their mother in a few short months?

“They’re children in captivity,” she says, somewhat defensively. “They need to be rescued, and they can’t rescue themselves. Canada needs to rescue the Azer children, my children.”

Saren sees it differently. “We are an ordinary family,” he told me. “Our important issues now are finding a car, looking after our cats, making our meals, cleaning our house. These are our issues, going to the parks, going to picnics, we couldn’t care less about that madness that goes on in Canada.”


Alison has told reporters that on June 12, Saren Azer was "arrested" in the province of West
Azerbaijan, but that charges of abduction against him were dropped because no one from
the Canadian government contacted Iranian officials.

That's not quite what happened, say sources close to Azer's family. In fact, two Iranian
officers in plain clothes arrived in a taxi at the university in the city of Urmia where Saren
was teaching.

They identified themselves as Interpol liaison officers, and asked Saren if he would appear
in court the next day. He was not arrested.

The next day, Azer appeared in court as instructed, and the appearance was very brief. In
response to a question from the judge, Azer said that his two boys were over the age of
three, and his two girls over the age of seven. With that, the judge said the children were
legally in the custody of their father, no crime under Iranian law had been committed, and
the case was dismissed. (The children were given Iranian birth certificates.)

Azer was told he was free to go.

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