A mother shocked by a child she loves.
In Calgary, between the soccer practices and the hours at her accounting job and the potlucks with the neighbors, Christianne Boudreau spent every spare minute watching Islamic State videos, her nose pressed up against the computer screen.
She sat in the basement of her middle-class home in her middle-class suburb, a bare room that once belonged to her eldest son, Damian, and watched men posturing with big guns like teenagers. She watched firefights. She watched executions. But Boudreau barely registered any of the bloodshed. She was focused on the faces behind the balaclavas, trying to spot her son’s eyes.
In Copenhagen, Karolina Dam was wild with fear. Her son Lukas had been in Syria for seven months. Three days earlier, she received word that he had been injured outside Aleppo, but she was convinced that he was dead. Sitting alone that evening, nervously puffing on a vaporizer, she couldn’t stop herself from sending a Viber message into the ether. “Lukas,” she wrote, “I love you so much my beloved son. I miss you and want to hug and smell you. Hold your soft hands in mine and smile at you.”
There was no reply. A month later, someone wrote back to her. It wasn’t Lukas.
“What about my hands hehe.”
Dam had no idea who might have gained access to her son’s phone or Viber account, but she was desperate for information. Trying to stay calm, she wrote back: “Also yours, sweetie, but mostly Lukas’s.”
The person asked, “Can you handle some news?”
“Yeah, honey,” Dam wrote. A few seconds, and then the response.
“Your son is in bits and pieces.”
In Norway, Torill, who asked that her last name not be used, learned of the death of her son, Thom Alexander, from the recruiter who had sent him to Syria to fight. She wanted proof, so her daughters, Sabeen and Sara (not their real names), met the recruiter in the Oslo train station. He casually flipped through some photos on his iPad until he arrived at the image meant for them: a photo of Thom Alexander shot in the head with one eyeball hanging out of its socket.
When she got the news, Torill simply lay down. She hardly moved for a week. When she finally summoned the strength to take a shower, she removed her clothes and faced her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She found that she looked exactly the way she felt: “Broken, like a vase.”
In Brussels, Saliha Ben Ali, the modern, European-born daughter of Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants, was at a humanitarian aid conference when she began to feel wrenching pains in her stomach. She hadn’t felt that kind of pain in years. “It was like when you have a baby and this baby has to come out,” she says. She went home early and cried through the night.
Three days later, her husband received a phone call from a Syrian number. A man told them that their 19-year-old son Sabri, their boy who loved reggae and chatting with his mother about world events, had died on the same day Ben Ali had fallen ill. She realized those pains in her stomach were the inverse of giving birth to Sabri: They were her body telling her that her child was dying.
These women are just four of thousands who have lost a child to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Since the Syrian civil war began four years ago, some 20,000 foreign nationals have made their way to Syria and Iraq to fight for various radical Islamist factions. Over 3,000 are from Western countries. While some go with their families’ blessing, most leave in secret, taking all sense of normalcy with them. After they’ve gone, their parents are left with a form of grief that is surreal in its specificity. It is sorrow at the loss of a child, it is guilt at what he or she may have done, it is shame in the face of hostility from friends and neighbors, and it is doubt about all the things they realize they did not know about the person whom they brought into the world. Over the last year, dozens of these mothers from around the world have found each other, weaving a strange alliance from their loss. What they want, more than anything, is to make sense of the senselessness of what happened to their children—and, perhaps, for something meaningful to come from their deaths.