Our Stories | St. Michael’s Magazine: Michelle Shepard

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Worlds Apart

For the first five years of his life, Omar and his siblings were shuttled between Peshawar and Scarborough on their father’s fundraising excursions. Omar, like all the Khadr children, was comfortable in both worlds. Omar’s favourite pastime was to have The Adventures of Tintin read to him. His father had been a fan of the stories about the fictional Belgian reporter and was delighted when he found the Tintin books at a market in Islamabad. After hearing the story countless times, Omar began doing impressions of Tintin’s best friend, the seafaring whiskey-drinking Captain Haddock. Hearing the wide-eyed boy cuss with a lisp “billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles,” or “ten thousand thundering typhoons” would dissolve his siblings and parents into fits of laughter.

It didn’t matter that Omar lost his status as the baby of the family when Abdul Kareem was born in Peshawar in March 1989 and Maryam in Scarborough in August 1991; he still remained the most loved

As Omar and his siblings grew up in Pakistan, a terrorist organization was coming together around them. On August 11, 1988, [charismatic Palestinian clerk named] Abdullah Azzam met with bin Laden and five other prominent leaders to discuss how they could build on what had been created in Afghanistan. If their army of Muslim fighters could defeat the Soviets, what else could be accomplished?

[in the aftermaths of 9/11]

A pre-recorded video aired on al Jazeera two weeks later on October 7. “There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that,” bin Laden gloated. “These events have divided the whole world into two sides the side of believers and the side of infidels.”

Even before the 9/11 attacks, Khadr [Omar’s father, Ahmed Said] had chosen his side. “It looks like after we have removed the Russian empire we will have to be ending up removing also the American empire,” he told CBS journalist George Crile who spent months documenting the Khadr family’s story before his sudden death from cancer in 2006. Once the Khadr family fled after 9/11, no one inquired about the whereabouts of others on the run. It was safer not knowing where people were, [Ahmed Said] Khadr would tell [his wife] Elsamnah and the children. Elsamnah would sometimes not see her husband for weeks

[In January 2002, when other members of the family left to seek medical treatment in Lahore], Elsamnah stayed behind to be near her husband and kept her youngest daughter Maryam with her. Omar, who was fifteen, also stayed behind. A little more than a month later, Elsamnah moved once more, settling in South Waziristan, just across the border in Pakistan, where villagers were sympathetic to their plight. Life was difficult and lonely. [Ahmed Said] Khadr visited less and less, sometimes not showing up for a month, while Elsamnah, Maryam and Omar moved from one primitive shelter in the mountains to the next. Omar was at a difficult age. He didn’t want to stay with the women but since he was the only male left, he had the responsibility to look after his mother when Khadr was away. One day, he was forced to don a burka so he could travel unnoticed with the women. He was furious.

Days would pass during which the three would huddle in a home with blankets covering the window. Elsamnah acquired thread and needles and tried to keep Maryam entertained by making her a doll. She used a sock Abdullah had left behind for the doll’s body and Omar’s gloves became the hands. Little green beads were sewn on for eyes and red ones became lips. The plump wool doll looked deranged, with a tight smile and enormous hands, but Maryam loved it and dragged it everywhere Omar would spend most of his days drawing or making bead necklaces and bracelets for his mother and little sister. One day, he started sewing beads onto clothes and in no time, most of the clothes his mother wore were adorned with Omar’s handiwork.

But Omar was growing restless and wanted to travel with the other boys and men, often begging his father to tag along. By that summer, Khadr allowed his son to live with some men his father knew as long as he checked in regularly on his mother and sister. By June, Elsamnah saw Omar less and less. In July, she didn’t see him at all. Khadr didn’t tell his wife that one of his friends, Abu Laith al Libi, had been asking about Omar. Al Libi, who later became an al Qaeda spokesperson, was planning on traveling into Afghanistan, near the town of Khost, with a group of men. They wanted Omar to come along because he spoke Pashto. Omar was also familiar with the Khost region and its people since his father had once operated an orphanage there. Khadr allowed his son to go and Omar was delighted to finally be away from the women.

One day in August, a friend of Khadr’s brought Elsamnah a bag with some of Omar’s clothes. By the time Khadr arrived a few days later, Elsamnah was inconsolable. “What happened?” she demanded of Khadr. “Where’s Omar?”

Khadr tried to calm his wife but he was angry too. “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” he told her. Khadr was suffering from malaria at the time and as he sat with his wife he looked much older than fifty-four. “Omar’s not dead,” Khadr told her, explaining that Omar had been captured by U.S. forces.