“She couldn’t be separated from her children”: In conversation with Johanne Durocher

Johanne Durocher is the mother of Nathalie Morin, a Quebec woman who has lived in Saudi Arabia since 2005 with her husband and four children. Nathalie, who Amnesty International considers to be a survivor of gender-based violence, has unsuccessfully been trying to return to Canada with her children for 15 years. Amnesty International spoke with Johanne about her tireless advocacy to bring her daughter and grandchildren to Canada, and about her recently released book outlining her struggle for family reunification.

Your daughter Nathalie met a Saudi man named Saeed in Montreal. Then what happened?

She met him in the beginning of October 2001. He said he was a student at Concordia University. She got pregnant right away. Saeed was very smiley and said it wasn’t a problem because they would get married. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that at age 17 she was pregnant. He said he was 24 years old but we were never really sure of his age.

I explained to them that my daughter was too young to get married. I asked Saeed to please be with my daughter for two years and then get married. I didn’t want them to marry because they didn’t even know each other yet. He got mad and left my house and never spoke to me again while he was in Canada. He reacted very aggressively.

Nathalie found a place in Montreal to live, a house for young mothers, with social workers on site. Partners were not allowed to live there, though they could visit. I paid for Nathalie to live there and covered all her costs. At that time, Saeed wasn’t on very good terms with Nathalie. Sometimes they were on speaking terms and sometimes not. He said that Muslim people couldn’t date, but he couldn’t marry Nathalie without my consent because she was only 17 years old.

Saeed was deported from Canada right after Samir’s birth in 2002. When he went back to Saudi Arabia he phoned many times and said he would come back to Canada. Sometimes he sent money at the end of the month. He sent clothes for Samir. He started to be nice to her. Nathalie went to Saudi Arabia to visit him with Samir twice. We started to feel more comfortable with him.

Saeed wanted to marry Nathalie in Saudi Arabia when she visited in 2003. He lied and said they had been married in Canada, because they could not have married after having a child out of wedlock. Because of his lie they are considered married in Saudi Arabia. Nathalie decided to move to Saudi Arabia.

When she moved to Saudi Arabia she very much missed Canada and wanted to come back. She said Saeed was depressed and wanted to come to Canada. I went to visit her for one month at the end of 2005. She had been there for nine months when I arrived.

I was shocked when I arrived and saw how he was treating Nathalie and Samir. Nathalie is very proud. She knew no one wanted her to move to Saudi Arabia. People gave her advice before she left, so I think she was shy about telling me what was really going on. She told me the truth in person. He beat her. Three weeks after arriving in Saudi Arabia, Saeed beat her badly with a broom. He told her to tell people she was beaten by a taxi driver. He took photos of the bruises and asked her to send them to me and the Canadian embassy and said, ‘tell her Saudi Arabia is too dangerous for you and you need to come back to Canada.’ He did this because he wanted to come back to Canada with her.

He slapped her in front of me. Nathalie was crying and screaming. He went out every night. I thought he was crazy. I didn’t want my daughter to stay with that man. He was very rough, very controlling.

One day he brought me to the police station. I was surprised and I didn’t understand why. The police wrote something in Arabic and asked me to sign it. I said no. He said it was a declaration that I wouldn’t kidnap the children and that he wouldn’t kick me out of his house. I got an English translation and then signed it. But afterwards he didn’t want to go home. He said he wouldn’t go home until I left.

After I arrived back from that trip I started my battle for Nathalie.

As you mentioned, Nathalie moved to Saudi Arabia in 2005 with her son Samir, who is now 18 years old. She subsequently had three more children – Abdullah, Sarah, and Fowaz. Can you describe what their life was like in the past, what it’s like now, and why she has been trying to return to Canada with her children?

When I came back to Canada I spoke to the federal government and told them my daughter wanted to come back to Canada. Nathalie said she wanted to come back to Canada with Samir. Saeed wouldn’t let Nathalie speak on the phone. A Canadian diplomat asked her to sign a document saying her file was confidential, because he thought that I was calling Ottawa too much and was a problem.

In Saudi Arabia it’s possible to lock the door from the inside so you can’t leave your house. Nathalie was locked inside the apartment. The apartment was cement so no one could hear her screaming. She lived years like this. I was battling to try and speak with her. Sometimes she would email me saying she wanted to come home. Sometimes she would call and say she hadn’t eaten for two days. Sometimes she wouldn’t be in contact.

She had Abdullah in 2006. She was depressed and in bad shape. She still said she wanted to come back to Canada. She came back in October 2006 to visit Canada on her own. Saeed phoned daily. She went back to Saudi Arabia. She said she would lose her life there but she couldn’t be separated from her children and she couldn’t leave her children alone with Saeed. When she got back to Saudi Arabia the kids were in bad shape and having nightmares. She was scared. She told me she would never leave again without them.

In 2008 I was doing a big battle for Nathalie in Canada. Canada negotiated with the Saudi government, and the Saudi human rights commission helped out. They received a car. Saeed was receiving money because Nathalie was always saying in the media that they were poor, so the Saudi government gave them money but Saeed kept it for himself and Nathalie didn’t even have money for food.

The abuse continued. The poverty continued.

In 2008, Saeed went to work for the Saudi government. In 2013 things changed. He stopped working for the government and stopped receiving money from the government. Since 2013 the family has lived off the charity of others. They have no income.

Saeed used to say he wanted to come back to Canada with the children. He wanted to leave Saudi Arabia. They got his visa, but there was a travel ban on the children so they couldn’t come to Canada. I now know the travel ban is from the Saudi government.

When I visited Nathalie in Saudi Arabia in 2019, it was clear the Canadian government knows the travel ban on the children was imposed by the Saudi government.

Saeed has said he will let the children come back to Canada. He has to sign their passports and consent for them to travel, including consenting for them to have an exit visa. But they can’t get passports because they’re subject to a travel ban. We’ve been asking Canada to negotiate with Saudi Arabia for the travel ban to be removed.

You have gone for long stretches without hearing from Nathalie. In 2019, without Nathalie or Saeed’s knowledge, you flew to Saudi Arabia to see them. What were you hoping to accomplish on that trip?

I was hoping to finalize the paperwork so they could come back to Canada. The Canadian government was saying that Nathalie didn’t want to come back to Canada and that I had another version. So I asked for a meeting with me, Nathalie, and the Canadian government. When I went to Saudi Arabia we had that meeting. Nathalie, Saeed, the children, someone from the embassy in Riyadh and her colleague, and me, all met. In front of everyone Saeed said he consented for the children to come back to Canada. Nathalie and the children clearly said they wanted to come back to Canada. Nathalie provided paperwork to get the Canadian passports and citizenship documents for all the children. It was clear that Nathalie and I were saying the same thing.

At the beginning, Saeed didn’t want Nathalie to speak to me. Now, when Nathalie doesn’t want to talk to me, she said she is worried for her life and her security and she is afraid of the Saudi government. She is very afraid for her security so she doesn’t use social media anymore. She often doesn’t talk to anyone outside of Saudi Arabia. In the past, Saeed was public in the media. But he was asked not to by the Saudi government. He doesn’t even speak to people from outside Canada now.

Fifteen years is an incredibly long time to try to return to your country of origin you’re your children. What are the barriers to Nathalie returning to Canada with her children?

The travel ban on the children. We need the Saudi government to remove the travel ban. We need Saeed to sign the exit visa for the children. He is allowed to change his mind. We worry about that. We can’t predict what he will do. He is very manipulative.

When I visited in 2019 he was very nice to me. But I still don’t trust him.

What actions would you like to see Canadian officials take to facilitate Nathalie and her children re-locating to Canada?

I want the Canadian government to negotiate with the Saudi government to remove the travel ban. My grandchildren are both Saudi and Canadian citizens.

This situation has not only impacted Nathalie and her children. How has this family separation and worry for your daughter’s well being impacted you?

I put so much time for so many years into this work. Sometimes 20-30 hours per week. It impacted my marriage and now I’m not married anymore. It’s impacted my health.

In 2013, a women helped Nathalie in Saudi Arabia, and she and a friend were jailed for helping her. She gave her food, and money, and she let Nathalie use her phone. This woman helped my daughter because I asked her to, and because of that she and her friend spent 10 months in jail and were subject to a three-year travel ban. One of the women has children in the US and now can’t visit them. People are afraid to help Nathalie because they didn’t want to be jailed. The women who helped are women’s rights activists and journalists in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government used Nathalie’s case to stop their activism.

In April this year you published a book about your experiences trying to bring your family back to Canada. Why was it so important to you to share your story?

I wrote my book because I want everyone to know about Nathalie and other women in the same situation. I want Global Affairs Canada to take action for my daughter. And for this to happen I need the public to know about the situation and press the government to take action.

Global Affairs Canada isn’t transparent enough. They pick and choose whose cases they do more work on. I have many access to information requests. I have proof that they think poorly of my daughter. I found notes saying that they aren’t sure the children would be better with a young mother with no education in Canada. The way they talk about my daughter and me, I’m sure my daughter has been discriminated against. They discriminated against her because she stutters, and they don’t think she’s very smart. I found notes saying that they don’t want to put more energy on the file and that the file will only move forward if they have the total collaboration of Saeed.

At first, I had all my trust in the Canadian government. We thought they were the specialists. Now we see it’s not that.

Amnesty supporters may want to know what they can do to take action in solidarity with your family. What can they do?

Sign the change.org petition.

‘On m’a vole ma famille,’ the book Johanne wrote, is available in French only (for now!) and can be purchased on Indigo.