EDMONTON — Chris Boudreau now knows there were signs her son was headed down a deadly path.
Damian Clairmont — killed in Syria in 2012 as a member of the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front — was smart as a child but had trouble relating to his classmates.
A day after his 17th birthday in 2008, he attempted suicide in his hometown of Calgary. He remained hospitalized, seeing the same psychiatrist for months.
Later that same year, he converted to Islam, finally finding peace. But that peace quickly gave way to tension.
Damian refused to come to the dinner if there was a bottle of wine on the table. He avoided restaurants where women wore shorter skirts than he approved of. He told his family the western world was not doing enough to help others and started spouting 9/11 conspiracy theories. He had become radicalized.
However, in November of 2012, when Damian told his family he was going to Egypt to study Arabic and linguistics, his mother was happy her bright son was finally getting a post-secondary education.
She had no reason to believe he was lying.
So when CSIS officials showed up on her doorstep in January 2013, telling her Damian was killed fighting for terrorists in Syria, she was in disbelief.
In Edmonton, Dr. Mohyuddin Mirza, spokesperson for the city’s Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, says many youth today are facing spiritual gaps that make them vulnerable to radicalization.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat was founded 125 years ago as a reformation movement in Islam. It’s message: The jihad of the sword was cancelled and the jihad is now of the pen.
Mirza said he has seen pockets of lost youth in Edmonton that concern him and he worries those searching for answers, whether online or through a misleading cleric, can be lead astray.
Boudreau has spoken with other moms around the globe who have had sons go through similar turmoil before becoming radicalized.
“When we’re trying to find a purpose, when we’re trying to seek out that fulfilment, that’s when we’re all vulnerable to any ideas,” she said.
Since the death of her son, Boudreau created Hayat Foundation Canada to help other families dealing with radicalized youth get support they need — support that wasn’t there when she reached out.
“There’s a level of shame and embarrassment. People are quick to judge. There’s a stigma, a taboo associated with it. It makes it very uncomfortable and difficult to reach out when you’re underneath all of that,” she said.
After Damian died, her 10-year-old son was in dire need of counselling. When she asked for help, she said mental health workers wouldn’t touch a case they called too complicated. With no answers from professional health care workers, nor from the federal government, nor CSIS, she researched.
Mothers in Europe who were going through the same thing were much more open and were sharing their experiences.
The original Hayat group in Germany worked with de-radicalizing neo-Nazis, counselling families and coming up with plans to bring the youth back home. With a new trend of militarized youth turning to violence in the name of radical Islam, Hayat has taken on a new role. The founder in Germany encouraged Boudreau to found a chapter in Canada.
CSIS warned Boudreau of the dangers in speaking out.
“They told us if you say anything, you speak out, these people that are recruiting, they know where you live. They know where you go to work and they know where your other kids go to school. You could be inviting retaliation,” Boudreau said.
But she brushed those fears aside, hoping to help others.
She is raising money for a 24/7 confidential hotline so parents with concerns can call trained staff to walk families grappling with youth lost to radicalization through the process. The annual cost for the call centre is pegged at $250,000.
Hayat Foundation Canada also does risk assessment and offers other information to parents, such as coaching how to connect to community services and supports.