They are four young women you might meet in any average Canadian setting: at a university lecture, in an elevator at work or picking their kids up from school.
But they’re also being held in a detention camp for the families of ISIS militants on the other side of the world. They come from different parts of Canada and the narratives that drew them toward the world of the Islamic State are also different.
What they do have in common, beyond their nationality and the polite friendliness that can come with it, is the fear that their children are now bound to their own fate, facing life in a detention camp in Syria with no sense of a horizon.
Al-Roj camp is under the official supervision of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, (SDF), which are running what’s known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).
There are 784 families of ISIS militants in the camp, totalling 2,618 individuals including Syrians, Iraqis and women from a number of other countries, including about 30 Canadians, the majority of them young children, the camp manager says.
CBC News was given permission to visit the camp for slightly more than two hours Tuesday. All of the women agreeing to speak to us requested anonymity, some citing fear of retribution from other women in the camp and some a desire to protect the identity of their children.
We’ve given them all pseudonyms.
WATCH: The Canadian mothers inside an ISIS detention camp:
Irene is dressed in tight black jeans ripped at the knees, a sweat-shirt with a Brooklyn logo and a ball cap. She is at ease and self-possessed.
She’s also missing the daughter she said goodbye to last week, a decision that made headlines in Canada for the way in which she achieved it — enlisting the help of former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, who accompanied Irene’s sister to collect the child.
“All she knows is me,” she told CBC News, speaking of the daughter now back in Canada with her aunt. “I told her: ‘you will go first. I will come later.’ ”
Relieved to know her daughter now has the possibility of a future beyond the confines of a detention camp, she is also struggling with the thought of her daughter crying for her and of missing “the sweet years.”
WATCH: Canadian child freed from Syrian detention camp for ISIS members:
The 30-year-old’s decision has opened her up to criticism from other women in the camp still loyal to ISIS.
Al-Roj isn’t as bad as the al-Hol camp, which houses 60,000 ISIS-affiliated families and dependents — but it has its share of threat and intimidation among the camp population. Dozens of people in the camp are believed to have been killed this year in suspected attacks by Islamic State operatives.
“There are women here who are dangerous,” said Irene, who abandoned a religious form of dress for Western clothes several months ago with a group of other women from the camp.
“I’ve been labelled as an apostate essentially.”
Anger from other mothers
She also said some other Canadian mothers are angry at her for taking the decision to send her daughter to Canada, fearful that the adults will be left behind if the children are gone.
Irene left Canada at the age of 23, describing herself at the time as naive and easily led by others. She insists she was a housewife, not a militant, and that she knew she’d made a mistake as soon as she’d crossed the border into the so-called Caliphate.
“No way out,” she said. Now she finds herself trapped again, keenly aware that some Canadians are far from sympathetic toward her plight.
She said she has undergone years of soul-searching, signing up for a deradicalization program at the camp of her own accord.
She also has Galbraith vouching for her.
“I’m absolutely convinced that the child needs her,” he told CBC News, “that she’s a very good mother and that if she had the chance to come back to Canada she would contribute to Canadian society.
“I’m not saying that that’s true in every case. I’m simply saying that’s my belief about this case.”
Irene said she doesn’t know “what more I could do to show how remorseful I am.”
No Canadian diplomats sent to camp
Al-Roj is close to both the Turkish and Iraqi borders, in the northeast corner of Syria.
The Canadian government has said it won’t send its diplomats there for security reasons, even though several other countries from the United States to Germany have done so.
When Irene’s daughter left, the Canadian Embassy in Baghdad sent consular assistance up to Erbil in northern Iraq so the child would have documents to travel with.
“The government of Canada was not involved in securing the child’s exit from northeastern Syria,” Global Affairs Canada said in a statement on Sunday. “The government of Canada provided consular assistance to facilitate the child’s travel from Iraq to Canada.”
At al-Roj, we have to ask for specific inmates to speak to and are unable to visit specific tents. The individuals are brought to us in a room near the main administration building.
Sonja enters wearing full hijab, with two polite little girls at her side. Their mother is wearing glasses but one of the lenses is broken.
That’s the least of her worries, she said. Proper nutrition and medicine are bigger concerns.
Sonja is one of the longest residents of the camp. She was brought here in 2017, she said, after being captured and put in prison for a time after “coming out” of ISIS territory during fighting around al Hasaka.
“Then there were only two Canadians in the camp,” she said.
Relying on mother back home
Sonja left Canada when she was 19 years old. Her husband, a German, is in a prison somewhere nearby.
She said she had been led to believe she would be transferred to Canadian custody from the prison and that she had at least some contact with Canadian consular officials in 2017.
But she hasn’t had contact since, she said, and is relying on her mother back in central Canada to lobby the government on her behalf. Her mother also travelled to northern Iraq and Syria in a bid to win her daughter’s release in 2019, to no avail.
“In the beginning I really was imagining – like – going back with my kids, going back to school and having a life and finishing college and going back to life as normal, but I’m actually losing hope,” Sonja said.
Asked what she was hoping for — before that — when she left Canada for the Islamic State, she whispered apologetically that she would prefer not to talk about it.
Sonja said she wouldn’t think of sending her children to Canada if she couldn’t go with them.
“They’ve already been through a lot. They’ve been in prison, they’ve been in fear and they’re still going through fear right now.
“I cannot let them go. For them, it will be hard and for me also. The only reason I’m still here and coping and going on with my day — it’s because of them.
“Everyone makes mistakes. We’re not perfect. But for some people it’s OK for them to make a mistake. And then they will be forgiven. And then for others there will not. There will always be a black spot on your face.”
When the interview ended, she asked about Canada and whether there was any shift from the government position in Ottawa on bringing the mothers and their children home.
Then she cried, taking off her glasses to wipe her eyes, careful not to let her daughters see.
Conflicted over speaking
Susan is a bright, smiling personality who seems to fill a room with a boisterous energy shared by her three small children. But she’s also conflicted.
She wants to speak freely, she said, but fears saying the wrong thing or offending the Kurdish guards. And she knows, she said, that lawyers in Canada are working on their behalf.
She hadn’t yet heard about a Canadian child leaving the camp without her mother.
“That’s a really brave act what she did,” she said. “I can’t even imagine how she feels, to be honest.
“I tell [my children] all the fun winter things you can do [in Canada],” she said. “Their family who loves them. Very basic things, but to them it sounds like fantasy. When we first came here, they didn’t know 24-hour running electricity.”
But like Sonja, she said she couldn’t send her children without her, that psychologically it would break her.
And even though it’s just happened to Irene, she insists Canada wouldn’t let her children travel while she was left behind.
“I don’t think Canada would do that. I don’t [think] they would leave me here. And I send my children. I don’t think they’d leave me here.”
‘I’m really scared’
When our time is up, and we’re taking a few last shots of kids flying kites between the narrow alleys that divide rows of billowing tents, a fourth Canadian woman approaches us — clearly nervous about breaking camp rules.
“I’m really scared,” she began, asking that we not show her face while also begging us to take a photo of her daughter’s face.
“I mean, she is Canadian-born. I don’t know why she’s still here,” she said.
The little girl of six, born in Toronto, according to her mother, Farah, was suffering from a skin condition on her forehead.
“I’ve been here since 2019, I’m tired. Every day I’m in fear, I’m tired, I am psychologically tired.
“You know, give me the judgment. Why are you judging my kid? Give me a sentence. I will accept it with pride, but my kid? Why?”