Help for Parents When Violent Extremism Beckons the Young

The news of ISIS leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death is a positive sign. Not only for those in Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East but also for thousands of moms and dads, sisters and brothers around the world whose families have been torn apart by his murderous organization. At the same time, the news that some ISIS soldiers would possibly go free in Syria shook me. Processing it all has returned me to a nightmare that never ended for myself or my family. You see, I am one of those moms. 

My story began when my oldest son announced that he planned to travel to Egypt to study Arabic. He had started an internal search for meaning and truth in life. A connection to something bigger than himself. That led him to a new religious path at the age of 17 in the year 2008. He converted to Islam, and the changes in his life were positive. As a mother, this brought about a deep relief within me after having watched him struggle with depression. His newfound faith brought him a new zest for life, positive friendships, a strong sense of family and community, as well as ambitions and dreams for his future. The need to hide from the outside world disappeared, replaced with a positive social life. To a parent who had watched her child suffer from inner turmoil for so long while screaming to find him help, this seemed a blessing. 

It lasted for three years; then he moved to a different part of the city. He switched mosques, and with that, his circle of friends changed. The vibrant young man that he had become disappeared, replaced with rigidity in his religious beliefs and conspiracy theories. The old friends went, and secretive life of private phone calls and new friends entered. 

Little did I know, my son was being recruited and indoctrinated by an extremist group within our city. The young men in that circle would leave one by one to travel to Syria and Iraq to join a war that wasn’t theirs to fight. They were taught to believe they had an obligation to “save women and children from a torturous regime.” They told my boy, “No one else in the world was willing to stand up for what was right and protect those more vulnerable than themselves.” 

The morning he phoned me to say he had boarded the plane for Egypt to study Arabic and become an imam, something in my gut twisted and turned. Little did I know that the night before would be the last time I would ever get to hold him in my arms. No parent ever wants to get the call that I received on Jan. 14, 2014. A journalist phoned to get a recent photo of my son because someone had tweeted out his obituary using his Christian name: Damian Clairmont. Alongside that tweet was a photo taken of my son in Syria. That was how I learned of his death. 

Without any insight or understanding, I had no tools to deal with a growing problem in our world today. My son was not an isolated case. Nor were the tactics used to recruit him. Thousands of families across the U.S. and the world have lost their children to various forms of radicalization whether it is white supremacism and right-wing extremism, gang violence, or radical Islam — without a clue as to how it happened. 

Had someone given me an opportunity to learn and understand even a fraction of what this all looked like, I would have had a chance to reach out for support, resources, and help.  

But now there are invaluable tools that can help. Human rights organizations offer training to combat the proliferation of hate. One such training by the Clarion Project aims to create a better understanding among parents, communities, educators, and law enforcement as to the nature and mechanics of extremism and radicalization of all streams and how we can prevent it.   

Exposure to a strong Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) program would have given me a level of understanding and some insight into what violent extremism and radicalization were. With the opportunity to have someone explain what this looked like, I would have had the tools I needed to reach out and find the resources and support to help me intervene in my son’s destructive path and turn it around. Without this education, I didn’t stand a chance in the battle for his heart and mind, and he didn’t stand a chance to see just how vulnerable he was to recruiters’ psychological tactics to build his resilience. PVE would have allowed our family to build resilience and awareness to save my son’s life. 

His future could have followed a completely different path. All of this could have been avoided. 

Christianne Boudreau works with Clarion Project to prevent violent extremism. She also coordinates the Mothers for Life network, which brings together mothers of children who have been radicalized.

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