The three-year-old girl clamours briefly into her mother’s arms, then settles at a toddler-sized plastic table to play with beads.
Her daughter is too young to understand what Ms. Kanafani had been up to, but her seven-year-old son Omar does.
“My son loves it. He understands,” she says. “Me and his father say that I’m going to go help other kids. So he loves that, he loves that mommy is helping other kids.”
Up until three weeks ago, the 42-year-old engineer and mother of two was an active member of the Free Syrian Army, scoping potential targets in Syria, sleeping on the concrete floor of rebel bunkers, or co-ordinating rebel activities in nearby Turkey.
Ms. Kanafani returned home after she ran out of money, and because she needed to care for her children, she says. She hopes to rejoin the war effort as soon as she can.
In May, the trained engineer became one of the few women to enlist as a soldier in the Syrian rebel movement that has been fighting to oust Syria President Bashar al-Assad for the past 19 months.
“People are dying over there today,” says Ms. Kanafani’s husband, Mohamed Abdalla. “We’re talking about thousands of people, hundreds killed every day. I’m Canadian, and we all as Canadians should do something to stop this disaster.”
Ms. Kanafani was born in Damascus but has lived in Toronto since 2002. She had been running her own consulting company and building solar energy systems while raising her children. Watching the Syrian conflict escalate, Ms. Kanafani says she felt compelled to help. So she left her two children with her husband in Egypt — who was visiting family there over the summer — and travelled to Antakya, Turkey, near the Syrian border and met with rebel leaders and activists. Through them, Ms. Kanafani got in touch with the Free Syrian Army inside Syria, travelled across the border and received some light-weapons training and later formally joined the rebel faction as part of the troop, Aleppo Martyrs.
“I came from Canada to answer the call of my homeland,” Ms. Kanafani says in Arabic in a July YouTube video announcing her decision. In the clip, she’s dressed in full green camouflage, strings of ammunition slung around her neck.
Ms. Kanafani says she began working from Turkey co-ordinating with other Free Syrian Army leaders to unite them and create a political office to represent them.
The arrival of an unknown woman from Canada, offering to help in any way she could, inevitably raised suspicions. At a July meeting of a Free Syrian Army committee to unite the movement under a strategic hub, she says new members began jockeying for her co-ordinator position and questioned her motives.
“They said that you might be from the regime, you might be from Israel. They said you might be from outside,” Ms. Kanafani said. “I’m not sent by anybody, and I’m doing this for my country. … And I said, ‘OK, I can’t work with suspicions like this.’ ”
A news report said Ms. Kanafani was expelled from rebel forces, but she says she resigned from the committee to avoid conflict, while remaining part of the Free Syrian Army.
One rebel commander told The Times of London in August that she was well received, but some were wary because she lived in Canada.
“At first, we thought she might be a spy, but then we established she was not,” Captain Abu Hussain told The Times.
Half of her time was spent in Turkey, living out of a hotel room and co-ordinating via social media, or in committee meetings and visits to refugee camps. Ms. Kanafani says her role was far from the front line. She learned how to use a gun, but says she never fired one and is against killing.
Still, she helped with reconnaissance missions. Ms. Kanafani and other rebels disguised themselves as a family in Aleppo, and scoped out Assad’s militia, plotting both potential locations for rebel posts and regime targets. In August, two of her friends were killed in clashes with a pro-Assad militia.
“I felt myself, nothing compared to those people who lived every day in that danger. … I did nothing amazing. In Syria, people are suffering a lot.”
Mr. Abdalla supports her efforts, but says he doesn’t think it’s wise for her to go back. “The situation is very hot now,” he says. “It’s not easy like a couple of weeks ago. Doing something right now is more dangerous than before.”
But Ms. Kanafani is determined. She plans to get her children settled with their father in Toronto — Ms. Kanafani chose to live on her own in a different apartment — then don her camouflage gear once again.
“I keep in contact with them through Internet often, on a day to day basis…. I made sure that they are safe and happy with the people they are with. Otherwise, I wouldn’t leave them.”
Her mother, Nemat al Dabas, is also supportive but worries about her safety, and the prospect of her young children growing up without their mother.
“A mother should be with her kids. … You need to hold your kids and raise them,” she says, translated from Arabic.
Ms. Kanafani’s husband agrees.
“Young kids need also their mother,” Mr. Abdalla says. “She made her decision. But she will also promise me that she will take care of the family and be safe.”
Source: National Post