Azizah Sayah likes to stay busy. “Busy, busy, busy – all day long,” she says. Her calendar is jam-packed: There are meetings with other French mothers whose children have died in Syria; discussions with young people living in Paris’ suburbs to warn them about jihadist recruiters; and anti-radicalization conferences throughout Europe as well as in her native Tunisia.
Sayah says this flurry of activity helps her numb the pain. “All the mothers whose children left and died – we can’t mourn,” she says, over tea at her apartment in the Paris suburb of Garges-lès-Gonesse. “We can’t mourn, because we don’t have their bodies.”
Sami, her youngest child and only son, died in Syria in March 2015. He was 22 years old, and had joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State less than a year earlier, one of several hundred French citizens who have headed to Syria and Iraq to join the terrorist group.
Sayah tells the story in her own words:
As a child, Sami was full of joy; he was well-mannered. He loved playing football. He was someone who loved his family, loved his parents, loved his sisters. And he was very, very loved.
His sisters went to college, but Sami didn’t want to pursue education. He went to work as a building manager, and was indoctrinated by a colleague at work, in the Paris suburb of Sevran. [Editor’s Note: More than a dozen young jihadists have left from Sevran, earning it comparisons to Belgium’s Molenbeek neighborhood]. The radicalization went quickly – in four months, he had totally changed. My son didn’t pray, and suddenly, he started to pray at the appointed hours. He no longer listened to music. He no longer shook hands with his female supervisor, and wouldn’t look her in the eyes.
Then one day, he said, “I’m going on a pilgrimage to Mecca.” I said, “You’ve only just started praying, so maybe you should wait – some people pray for years before going to Mecca.” He said, “No, it’s better to go young.”
For me, talking about going on a pilgrimage meant just that – it had nothing to do with radical Islam! So I said, very well. I wasn’t worried, because he had shown me the plane tickets he had bought to go to Mecca.
On April 28, 2014, he was supposed to come over to our house in the afternoon, but early in the morning, he sent a message to one of his sisters. He announced that he wasn’t going to Mecca – that he was on his way to Syria. And that’s when the sky fell on my head.
His sister asked him, “Why are you going to Syria? You can’t leave like this!” He said: “I’m going to defend the widows and orphans.” We had no clue what he was talking about – widows and orphans?
We could see that he had sent these messages from Turkey. So we alerted the French embassy in Turkey, and asked them to arrest him before he crossed into Syria. They told us: “Send us an email, and we’ll see what we can do.” But they did nothing.
Once in Syria, Sami told us that he wasn’t deemed fit for combat, so they put him up in a guarded villa, in the town of al-Shadadi [in northeastern Syria]. He told us he was tasked with patrolling the streets of the town, but he was on the internet all the time. He called us on Skype.
I asked him, “Why did you leave?” But he gave me the same speech they all do. All the moms I know got the same type of speech – “I left for a good cause; I left for a holy land; I left to take a shortcut to heaven; I left to reserve you a spot …” You can’t really talk to them. You hit a wall.
But once, he called me … I was crying, and he asks, “What’s wrong, why are you crying?” I said: “What’s wrong? You can’t be serious? You betrayed me, you left me!” And he said: “I’m hurting, too. You think I’m fine? When I go to bed, I get tears in my eyes; I miss you.”
I said: “Then come home! We’ve got lawyers; your sister’s a lawyer!” And he said: “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I can’t.” So that’s when I understood. When they get there, their passports are taken away. They’re under surveillance, too – you can hear it in the way they speak. But sometimes, when he was alone, he briefly returned to the Sami I knew.
He met his wife by Skype. She was from Strasbourg. They talked, and she joined him in Syria. One day, he went to rent a car. But sadly, when driving to pick her up, he was in a car crash. He died at the hospital, of internal hemorrhage. That same day, his wife learned that she was pregnant.
My daughter asked his wife if we could at least have some proof of Sami’s death. So we received a death certificate from the Islamic State. It’s not considered valid in France, so I still don’t have an official French death certificate.
A week later, [we received] a video showing my son’s burial. You see your son – you haven’t seen his body – and now you see him there [wrapped] in white… it was a huge shock.
Nine months later, his wife gave birth to a little girl. She’s the spitting image of Sami. My greatest wish today is to bring my granddaughter home. She’s all that’s left of my son.
After [Sami’s death], there were times I stayed in bed for days, taking pills. But I said to myself, Azizah, you don’t have the right to do this to your family.
Since then, I’ve met many other mothers who have lost children. It helps to realize you’re not alone. Today, I’m part of the La Brigades des Mères [The Mother’s Brigade], an organization that does prevention work. When I meet with young people, I tell them my story […] and tell them that in Syria, it’s not like what they might have heard [in Islamic State propaganda]. The reality is very different.
I also counsel mothers who are afraid that their children might leave. I tell them that if there’s any doubt, take away their passport. And alert the authorities, that way they’re on a watch list.
My community here in Garges-lès-Gonesse was very supportive. But there was criticism from the outside – as if maybe we mothers hadn’t raised our children well. Because every time something goes wrong, it is the mothers that get the blame. Every time something goes wrong, mothers get blamed. But we didn’t raise terrorists. They [the recruiters] tore our children away from us – they’re the ones who should be ashamed, not us.
READ MORE STORIES IN OUR SERIES “WOMEN & JIHAD”:
- From East London to Kenya: The Women Waging War on Extremism
- Women and Jihad: Converts and Casualties of Violent Extremism
- One Woman’s Tale of Being Radicalized by ‘Utopian’ Promises
- Kosovo Looks to ISIS Wives in Order to Fight Extremism
This story is part of our special series “Women and Jihad.”