Christianne Boudreau lost her son when he went to fight with ISIS. Now she's doing something about it.

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. The Paris attacks remind us of the threat posed by so-called “homegrown extremists”--young people, often Muslims raised in the West, who become radicalized and leave to join an extremist group in a country like Syria or Yemen before returning to the West trained jihadists ready to attack. One of the suspects in the attacks last week did just that, but there are thousands of cases of recruits from the West joining extremist groups and many different outcomes. We’re going to hear now about one young man’s case. Damian Clairmont was a happy kid growing up in Canada but he battled depression as a teenager and even tried to take his own life. His mother, Christianne Boudreau, had brought him up as a Christian but she liked the changes she saw when he began exploring Islam.

 

Christianne Boudreau: What he explained with the Islamic faith was that the Quran spoke to him, he could feel some truth in it, and I was completely open to that because I told him when he was young “It’s going to be a matter of personal choice, it has to be something that’s right for you.”

 

Werman: At his first mosque, she says, her son blossomed.

 

Boudreau: It was all positive effects. He would bring his friends around the house, we met them--wonderful young men, very kind, polite, respectful. He was happy, laughing, joked, spent lots of time with the family, and everything was fine. So, the changes didn’t start happening until 2011.

 

Werman: What happened in 2011?

 

Boudreau: He just seemed to get more agitated, he started saying the Western world wasn’t doing enough for those suffering in the Middle East, that they were being tortured, killed, and murdered, raped, and we were doing nothing except being selfish in our materialistic ways. He started getting really picky. If we were going to take him out to a restaurant, it had to be somewhere where the girls were dressed appropriately in his mind. He wouldn’t come to the table if we had a bottle of wine. So, he was no longer respecting our ways of life. He started pushing ideas of 9/11 conspiracy theories, started changing his eating habits, started working out again, and grew his beard out and cut his hair really short.

 

Werman: Do you know why he was getting less tolerant? Those friends of his that you talked about coming home with him, were they pushing him? How was he getting onto these ideas?

 

Boudreau: Well, no, they completely disappeared from his life, and then everything that was open and sharing--if he got a phone call, he started going outside to take the phone call, his life started becoming more and more private. He had a new group of friends, he had changed mosques. So, those friends disappeared and new ones came on board and we never met those.

 

Werman: In 2012, he was 21. Your son left home, left Calgary, said he was flying to Egypt, he told you he wanted to study linguistics there. Did that concern you?

 

Boudreau: He had never lied to me before and we never heard such a thing of foreign fighters or anything along those lines. Not even a concern.

 

Werman: Right, but three months after Damian got on that plane, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, their version of the CIA, came knocking on your door. What did they tell you?

 

Boudreau: Well, I was quite shocked. I didn’t even know who they were. They just announced themselves as CSIS, by their acronym, and I said “I don’t know what CSIS is. Why are you wanting to come into my house and how do you know where I live?” They said “Well, it’s about Damian.” At this point, I hadn’t heard from him in a month, so I basically dropped the phone and just said “Come over.” They started showing us pictures, asking us questions about his friends, who he hung out with, different questions like that. We said “Quite honestly, he’s not in the country. He’s gone to Egypt, he’s studying there.” I had been talking to them on the phone, so it was still my understanding that that’s where he was. They said “Well, we have some concerns. We thought he may have left. We’ve been watching him for almost two years and we suspect that he’s not in Egypt, that he has, in fact, flown into Istanbul, gone to a training camp and then crossed into Syria.”

 

Werman: And they had known this for awhile and not told you, his mother?

 

Boudreau: Nothing at all. I guess they figured it would impair their investigation, and so therefore they would just keep it quiet. They had never alerted us, never gave us any indication whatsoever that there was any problem.

 

Werman: If you had known about this, what would you have done? Would you have confronted Damian?

 

Boudreau: Damian is pretty hardheaded, or he was I guess, so to confront him directly would have just been a heated argument. I would have asked for advice, looked for help, anybody--imams, authorities, my family--anybody that could have stepped in and helped me with it.

 

Werman: Your son started out fighting with an extremist group called Jabat al-Nusura and then he joined ISIS. What is your understanding of what happened to Damian one year ago this week?

 

Boudreau: One year ago, I got a phone call from the Globe and Mail in the evening, it was about quarter to ten at night. They said they had received a Twitter tweet with a picture of Damian and a eulogy using his Christian name, and did I have a recent photograph so that they could compare it and confirm that it was indeed him. I was rather in shock, so I didn’t say a whole lot. I just said “Look on Facebook. You’ll find it there.” Fortunately, I had some other contacts within the media. They got ahold of somebody they knew in Syria and he knew Damian personally and confirmed that indeed it was true, he had been killed by the Free Syrian Army defending his home base just outside of Aleppo.

 

Werman: I’m so very sorry.

 

Boudreau: Thank you.

 

Werman: So, Christanne, you’ve been grappling with this for the past year, you’ve been reaching out to families who have also lost their children to jihadist groups. I gather one place you found some support is France. Can you tell us why France?

 

Boudreau: Well, my parents live there and that was the first place that I found one mother that was speaking out. They had lost their son as well. He was killed around Homms. He also had a half brother who was killed in August 2013 over there. So, when I contacted her, it gave me a sense of relief knowing I wasn’t alone, just some more courage to keep going, end this fight, and to let parents know that we have to keep our children safe and try to put programs in place on a proactive level so that we can stop them from going, get them the help they need.

 

Werman: What do you think that help should be about? What should governments in the West be doing to prevent young people from joining these extremist groups?

 

Boudreau: Well, we have to start early on prior to the transition, hopefully just to create the awareness and the education. I have a program coming out that I’ve been working on with the Institute of Strategic Dialogue in England, called Extreme Dialogue. We’ve done a couple of short films, one for Islamic extremism, one for right wing extremism, Neo-Nazism. There’s resource guides for this, it’s for school settings, it’s for teachers to use in groups to create an area where youth can discuss this issue comfortably in a guided environment and bring it to surface instead of keeping it hidden. The other programs I’ve been working with coach and support other families that are going through the same type of thing. So, this is when they already feel that their youth is at risk, and we try to reach out to them in a specific manner to try to bring them back into the family setting.

 

Werman: We’ll link to some of those programs and organizations at PRI.ORG. One last question: I know the first year anniversary after a death is always difficult, it’s filled with symbolism and memory--what have you been thinking about the past few days?

 

Boudreau: I’ve just been trying to hold it together emotionally. For a long time, I guess a piece of me believed that there was some hope that it was a mistake and he might show up at the door. But as each day passed, each week passed, it seemed further and further away. Now that the one year anniversary is coming up, the difficult part is a lot of people feel “Okay, it’s time for you to get on with it, move on,” but this is my child. A piece of me died with him and I’m just trying to figure out the best way I can turn his memory into a positive one.

 

Werman: Christianne Boudreau’s son, Damian, left Canada to fight with ISIS in Syria in 2012. This week marks one year since his death. Christianne, thank you. I’ll be thinking of you today.

 

Boudreau: Thanks so much.