A Mother’s Nightmare

A Vancouver Island mother’s crusade to find her abducted children captures the heart of a nation

“Every step I take and every word I speak, I focus on getting my kids home alive,” says Alison Azer, at home in Courtenay. “There is a clear line of sight to their freedom and I won’t accept ‘no’ as an answer. I need Canadians to stand with me and let our government know that this is a priority.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt

I have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as I stand at the door of the Azer family home in Courtenay. There is a yellow ribbon tied to the porch pillar. Several more are affixed to the front door. These yellow ribbons have become a familiar sight in the Comox Valley. They are tied to sign posts, street lights, and trees, as a symbol of unwavering commitment of Alison Azer as she fights to have her four children safely returned to Canada.

On August 15, 2015, Alison’s two daughters, Sharvahn (11) and Rojevahn (9), and her sons Dersim (7) and Meitan (3) were abducted by their father, Alison’s ex-husband.

Once a well-respected physician, Dr. Saren Azer is now a fugitive holding four innocent Canadian children in a guarded compound, in the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq. This area is one of the most volatile in the Kurdistan region that spans four countries—including Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. With the coming of spring, bombing has commenced in what is considered to be the epicentre of a global conflict.

The four Azer children are there because the Canadian judicial system failed them, says Alison Azer.

After three years of effort and more than $300,000 in legal fees, in April 2014, the Supreme Court of British Columbia granted the Azers shared custody of their four children. However, this order also established that Alison would have full control over the children’s passports, to protect them from being taken out of Canada without her permission. In a cruel twist of fate, a second BC Court judge overruled that order, granting Saren Azer the right to travel with the children to Paris and Germany for a vacation on August 4, 2015.

The court documents specified that Saren must contact Alison by telephone every 48 hours for the duration of the trip, that he not take the children outside of France, Belgium or Germany, that the children’s nanny (Lynn Foster) travel with them, and that he return the kids by August 22.

After a few days in Paris and the Dusseldorf/Troisdorf region of Germany, on August 15, Saren Azer secretly flew the children into the Sulaymaniyah airport in Northern Iraq. Foster returned to Canada as planned on August 21, saying Saren duped her and that she had no prior knowledge of his cleverly crafted scheme to take the children.

On August 21, Comox Valley RCMP informed Alison that her children had been abducted and that they had obtained a Canada Wide Warrant of Arrest for Salahaddin Mahmudi-Azer (Saren), in relation to charges of ‘Abduction in Contravention of a Custody Order’, contrary to Section 282 of the Criminal Code of Canada.

Alison Azer has granted me the privilege of meeting at her home, to hear the whole story. As I wait at her front door, my mind flashes to the photographic images of the four beautiful children that have I seen on social media and in the news. Just seven months ago, these kids would have been eagerly scampering up these very steps after school, into the loving arms of their mother. To gain my composure, I take a deep breath and glance down only to see a series of chalk marks on the cement landing. Miraculously, the kids’ works of art, like their mother’s commitment to bring them home, have not been dulled by the passing of time. The sight of it all pushes me over the edge. I know that I will not be able to conduct this interview without an unabashed outpouring of emotion.

Alison demonstrates her unshakable strength as she reassures me, “It’s okay to cry. I feel a connection and trust with people who share my sorrow.”

When we sit down at the kitchen table to chat, I notice that instead of decorative artwork, a world map and map of the Middle East are hanging on the walls. Both maps have colored stickpins that mark the children’s secretly orchestrated journey of abduction to the unknown, and far, far away from their mother. My heart leaps back up to my tearducts, but I swallow hard and focus on how writing this story might help. We begin to talk. About life before babies. Life before deceit.

Alison Azer's home is filled with her kids' artwork. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Alison explains that she was a young woman from St. Albert, Alberta, with an undergraduate degree in politics and an MBA in business when she met Saren Azer in 1999. She was working for the Alberta Lung Association and had organized a gala event to honor individuals in various fields of research. Saren Azer was a recipient of one of the awards.

Saren was a Kurdish refugee born in Mahabad, Iran. He had lived in Canada since 1994 and was a charismatic young medical student working on his Ph.D. in molecular biology while conducting research on asthma at the University of Alberta. Later, as a Canadian Internist, he would make annual humanitarian trips to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with Health Partners International of Canada, to provide medical supplies and equipment to refugees.

“Like so many other people, I was immediately drawn to him,” recalls Alison. “He was unlike anyone I had ever met before. I was most impressed with his extreme intelligence and his drive to use his story, his medical skills, and talent to make the world a better place. I grew to love him, and I supported him in the valuable work that he was doing. That was the seductive dimension of Dr. Azer.”

Alison Jeffery and Saren Azer married in January 2002, and their first daughter was born in Vancouver in 2004. At the time, Dr. Azer was so engrossed with his medical training in Calgary that he missed the birth. It was the beginning of a pattern of absenteeism that would escalate throughout their marriage. From 2004 through 2012, they mainly lived in Calgary, and much of that time Dr. Azer was living in or travelling to other cities, performing medical research, surgical consultations, and speaking at gala events to raise money for his humanitarian aid trips.

“The cultural differences surfaced after the children were born,” Alison says. “Before that, Saren appeared to have embraced Canadian culture. He was well-respected for his social justice principles and fight for women’s rights, but the values he upheld in public were checked at the door when he came home. Behind closed doors, the rules changed, and the man we lived with was very rigid and controlling. He had very defined gender roles for my girls and for me. Under his ever-critical eye I changed the way I dressed and how I carried myself. The girls were not permitted to go swimming—it showed too much skin. He called upon these influences of Kurdish culture as it suited him. As time went on, the extent of the abuse towards the children and me worsened.”

But Saren Azer could also show his softer side and, on the rare occasions when he was home, he would lay his babies on his legs and gently rock them to sleep.

This man also had his secrets. He had denied that he was a Muslim and had not been forthcoming with details about his past. In fact, he was ‘persona non grata’—or an ‘unwelcome person’—in his birthplace, after speaking out about Kurdish government policies and being accused of taking items from hospitals to supply the Kurdistan Workers Party, referred to as the ‘PKK’. The Canadian government cites the PKK as ‘listed entities’ on its terrorist watch site.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had reservations about Saren Azer, relating to his suspected connection to the PKK. For this reason, it took him nine years to be accepted into Canada. It was only after the Azers hosted Svend Robinson, then NDP MP for Burnaby, at a dinner and they came to know each other while working on social justice issues that any progress was made. Robinson championed Dr. Azer and convinced the immigration minister at the time, Denis Coderre, to overlook the security concerns and a Ministerial Permit was issued, granting Saren Azer Landed Immigrant status.

After several moves back and forth between Calgary and BC, the marriage had become unbearable and the couple legally separated. Alison and the children moved back to St. Albert, where they stayed with her parents.

Soon after, Dr. Azer moved to the Comox Valley. He opened a medical practice here and had privileges at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Yet his efforts to get legal custody of the kids were unrelenting. While Alison commenced legal proceedings for sole custody and guardianship of them, Dr. Azer was wielding his legal clout and significant financial resources. The resulting court decision was in his favor.

Happier times

The Azer family in happier times.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

In compliance with a court order, and with assurance from Saren that this would be an opportunity to rebuild their lives, Alison moved the kids to Vancouver Island. She bought a home within walking distance of Queneesh Elementary School in Courtenay. Shortly after, her parents, Anne and Jim Jeffrey, would also move here. They wanted to support Alison and be near the grandchildren that they adored. The Azer kids quickly adapted to their new life on the Island, and they flourished in their new school.

“I started to have hope again,” says Alison, her eyes filling with tears. “I had carried this man through years of medical school and supported his humanitarian work. Despite our differences, I wanted him to be able to be a father to his kids.”

The day that Alison Azer was mandated to hand her children over to their father for a ‘vacation’, she knew in her gut that she might never see them again. “I felt it, right in the middle of my belly, where I carried those babies,” she says. When her worst fears were confirmed, she knew that she was in for the fight of her life. What she didn’t realize is the people of the Comox Valley, and thousands more across Canada, would help her in this battle.

“Once word got out about the abduction, the community started to rally,” says Alison. “Even though I was relatively new to the Comox Valley, people who didn’t even know me came forward and were putting in countless hours every day to help in my efforts to help find the kids.”

A core team of about 20 volunteers, supported by another 250 more, assembled to launch a fundraising campaign, build a website, manage social media, and so much more. Her heartbroken parents have been a part of that team and by her side every step of the way.

On March 3, Alison’s team hosted a well-attended community meeting, so that she could update people on her efforts over the past seven months. Her actions, and those of her supporters, have been nothing short of extraordinary.

In the seven months since Azer’s children were abducted, Canadians across the country have supported her cause and shared her story online. There has been incredible pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers to do whatever it takes to bring the Azer children home to Canada. In less than four weeks, people have sent more than 30,000 letters to Ottawa saying: ‘These kids matter to us.’ To ensure that this case is not forgotten, a continual onslaught of letters is needed. There is a link on the website that instructs people who they should send letters to, with downloadable, pre-written letters in both English and French.

Frustrated with a lack of progress, on October 25, she travelled to Kurdistan to get some answers. With the help of several secret informants, she discovered the location of the children on November 11. While she was never able to see or speak to her kids, she found out where they were and was reassured that they were still alive.

The challenge was that they were in a region of Qandil that is out of reach of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. Officials tried to negotiate with Saren but failed. Alison learned that the kids have not been to school or held a book this entire time. They are in an area where the buildings are constructed with concrete blocks, and they stay warm by burning crude oil in the middle of the room. “I don’t even want to think about what they must reflect on. What things we used to take for granted,” she says.

By the end of November, Alison knew the kids were not coming out of the mountains, so she went in. Surprisingly, this white, middle-class woman in rebel hill territory was able to pass through seven PKK checkpoints without any difficulty. “The people of Iraq needed to meet the mom and I was desperate for details of my kids’ whereabouts,” she says.

She secretly bought them candy and sent it to them through an informant. “I would kiss the Lifesavers before handing them to this man to give to my kids,” she says. She also learned that when Saren had been questioned about the whereabouts of the kids’ mother, he had lied and said that she was in jail or that he had brought them there to show them nature.

By the end of January, 2016, the exhausted mother reluctantly returned to Canada without her kids.

In late February, Alison travelled to Ottawa and sat in the House of Commons while Courtenay-Alberni NDP Gord Johns asked the Liberal government during Question Period what actions they are taking to ensure the safe return of the children. She also met with Omar Alghabra, Parliamentary Secretary (Foreign Affairs) Consular Affairs. He noted the government remains committed and deeply concerned about the well-being of the Azer children.

She flew to Ottawa again for a March 21 ‘Day of Action’ on the steps of Parliament, and she will keep the pressure on until all 338 Canadian Ministers of Parliament join in her fight.

“Every step I take and every word I speak, I focus on getting my kids home alive,” Alison says. “There is a clear line of sight to their freedom and I won’t accept ‘no’ as an answer. The government has failed these four Canadian children. The political system, the judicial system, and the Ministry… they have all failed these kids. I challenge the government to show courage and be accountable. If there is a political price to pay for these kids’ heads—then pay it! I need Canadians to stand with me and let our government know that this is a priority. To not just ‘do what they can’… but to do whatever it takes.”

To help Alison Azer fight to get her kids home from Iraq, visit  Here, you will find links to social media sites and instructions on how to make a donation to help cover some of her legal and travel costs. Donations can be made through PayPal or at any CIBC branch worldwide under the account name ‘Find Azer Kids Now.’

2 Responses to A Mother’s Nightmare

  1. Thank you for writing this article! The more that know and are aware, the better! This community is heartbroken for this mom. We will stand and fight with this mom for her kids !

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