Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Biography & Autobiography Women

Stolen Family

Captive in Saudi Arabia

by (author) Johanne Durocher

with Julie Roy

translated by J.C. Sutcliffe

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Aug 2023
Women, Social Activists, Gender Studies, Arab & Middle Eastern
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2023
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Aug 2023
    List Price

Classroom Resources

Where to buy it


Johanne Durocher fights to free her daughter and four grandchildren from a nightmarish life of abuse and poverty in Saudi Arabia.
In 2001, Nathalie Morin was just seventeen when she met Saeed, a Saudi man who claimed to be studying in Montreal. She fell in love with him, but soon after she gave birth to their son, Saeed was deported back to his country of origin. Struggling as a single mother and wanting Samir to know his father, Nathalie travelled to Saudi Arabia to reunite her family, confident that she would be able to return to Canada whenever she wanted. But a trap was closing around her — her partner turned out to be authoritarian and violent, the abuse continuing until their last child was born.
According to Saudi law, Nathalie was considered married and under Saeed’s legal authority. All too often she was shut away in her own house, a place of hellish poverty. In 2005, Johanne Durocher, Nathalie’s mother, began her decades-long struggle to get Nathalie back home to Canada with her four children: Samir, Abdullah, Sarah, and Fowaz. While Nathalie is allowed to return on her own, her children cannot leave because of a travel ban imposed by the Saudi government. And Nathalie will not leave without them.
Johanne’s relentless fight for her family has garnered the support of several members of the provincial and federal governments, activists, and NGOs, including Amnesty International, who considers Nathalie to be a survivor of gender-based violence.

About the authors

Johanne Durocher grew up in Montreal’s South Shore. The mother of three children, she is now retired. For eighteen years, the fight to liberate Nathalie, Samir, Abdullah, Sarah, and Fowaz has been at the heart of her life.

Johanne Durocher's profile page

Julie Roy's profile page

J. C. SUTCLIFFE is a translator, writer, and editor. Her translation of Back Roads by Andrée A. Michaud was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Her other translations include Mama’s Boy and Mama’s Boy Behind Bars by David Goudreault, Document 1 by François Blais, and Worst Case, We Get Married by Sophie Bienvenu. She has written for the Globe and Mail, the Times Literary Supplement, and the National Post, among others. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario.


J.C. Sutcliffe's profile page

Excerpt: Stolen Family: Captive in Saudi Arabia (by (author) Johanne Durocher; with Julie Roy; translated by J.C. Sutcliffe)

In order to tell the story of Nathalie’s struggle, I have had to dive back into piles of documents: meeting minutes, emails, articles, messages, and text exchanges. The more I read, the more I understood the extent of the Canadian government’s inaction during all these long years of our fight.
The Canadian government has failed to meet its obligations to five Canadians living abroad: Nathalie, Samir, Abdullah, Sarah, and Fowaz. Since 2013, almost nothing has been done on Nathalie’s case, a fact confirmed to me by the vice-consul Martine Brunet during my most recent visit to Saudi Arabia in 2019. At the time of writing this chapter, it is 2021. Sixteen years have passed. Sixteen years of abuse, lies, poverty, and violence. Sixteen years lost from a life is huge. I am truly afraid that Nathalie and her children will need the rest of their lives to recover from it.
Yes, the Canadian government answered my calls. Yes, civil servants went to visit Nathalie in Dammam. But beyond words, have they taken any action? Truthfully, the consular officials took very little initiative. But do they have enough liberty to act concretely in such cases? Must people always go to the media to force them to act? I sometimes felt that all these diplomatic acrobatics served no purpose beyond protecting the commercial and diplomatic relations between the two countries, with no concern for human dignity.
Before finishing this book, I would like to raise some important questions. I have tried to answer them from the various elements I have at my disposal. I hope this will inspire my readers to also ask questions of their government.
Could someone have helped Nathalie at the beginning of this tale?
Yes, absolutely. In 2006, Jean-Marc Lesage was the national coordinator at Foreign Affairs in Ottawa. I knew he specialized in returning children to Canada. In an email that I obtained through the Access to Information Act, dated October 18, 2006, and addressed to Craig Bale, we can read Jean-Marc Lesage’s opinion on the situation:
Fully agree with you that this is not and will not be a short-term case. As you so rightly said, one of the facts remains that the children are considered Saudi citizens by Saudi authorities. However, the other fact is and also remains that both children were born of a Canadian citizen and, as such, are considered Cdn citizens by Cdn authorities. Another fact is that we are to assist Cdn cit in accordance with Cdn laws not Saudi’s laws. I respect the fact that while in Saudi, children and mother are under Saudi’s laws. Purpose of going ahead with legal procedures in Cda is for mother to obtain legal custody of children and court order ordering father to return children to their mother in Cda. At least we would have Cdn Court Orders to forward to the MFA and to the Ministry of Justice of the KSA requesting their assistance and cooperation. If father then refuses to return the children, he would be in “breach” of a Cdn Court Order and warrant for his arrest could be issued by the Court. If there is a warrant issued by the Court for his arrest, father could be listed on Interpol including Interpol KSA. […] I would delay suggestion to mother to proceed with legal procedures until after the Eid-Ul-Fitr holidays.
This possibility was never formally presented to us. It was only when I read the email as I prepared to write this book that I really understood that a rapid solution had been possible, but nobody had told us about it. And I understood even more when I read Craig Bale’s reply to Meiling Lavigueur on the subject. In his email of October 18, 2006, Mr. Bale was very clear:
Speak with Jean-Marc Lesage and curb his enthusiasm. We will not get the kids out without Said’s total cooperation. We have higher priorities and I have spoken with Nathalie — not her priority either. When Nathalie met Meiling Lavigueur in Ottawa on November 6, 2006, while she was back in Canada without the children, Ms. Lavigueur told her that even if she obtained custody of the children in Canada, “the fact of the matter is that the children are considered Saudi nationals and would need Saeed’s consent to leave the country.”
In one month, two government representatives gave contradictory advice. In one case Nathalie was told this directly, but not in the other. Why had nobody laid out all the possibilities? Why had we not been quickly pointed in the direction of someone who specialized in repatriating children?
Does the Hague Convention Protect All Children?
In 2005, when Nathalie arrived in Saudi Arabia with Samir, my grandson’s situation matched the definition of “abduction” according to the Hague Convention of May 29, 1993,4 because his habitual country of residence was Canada, and he had been detained in Saudi Arabia. Because he was a Canadian citizen and had no father declared on his birth certificate, we could have set things in motion to repatriate Samir by invoking child abduction. But this option was never presented to Nathalie. Moreover, the consular agents, including Omer El Souri, encouraged Nathalie to give birth in Saudi Arabia without telling her that this would then preclude her from invoking the Hague Convention. It should be noted that Canada is one of the signatories to this international treaty, but Saudi Arabia is not.
This would contravene the spirit of the Hague Convention, at least according to Stéphane Beaulac, a professor of international law at the Université de Montréal, who gave his opinion on the Hague Convention to the Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs and International Development on November 5, 2009: “Its guiding principle is the idea of the child’s best interests.”
We want the Canadian government, as a signatory to the Hague Convention, to repatriate the children, even though they live in a country that has not signed the treaty.
Was Omer El Souri Protecting Saeed?
Omer El Souri was a Sudanese consular employee who lived in Saudi Arabia, in other words a local agent rather than a Canadian. This practice occurs in several embassies. Several times, we noticed that he had informed Saeed about Nathalie’s actions — information which should have remained confidential. He even spoke alone with Saeed in order to draw up a picture of their situation. Since Saeed was not a Canadian citizen, I don’t really understand why he was able to benefit from our embassy’s help. Among the numerous occasions on which Saeed obtained information directly from the consular staff without going through Nathalie, I want to highlight receiving Samir’s medical report, which Saeed got hold of before Nathalie. We also have the examples of the complaints Nathalie lodged about mistreatment, which were communicated to Saeed with no concern for confidentiality. On several occasions we asked ourselves the following question: Whose interests is Mr. El Souri actually defending in this saga?
Nathalie also had her suspicions about El Souri. On December 12, 2011, she wrote to René Dagenais that she did not want El Souri to have access to her file: “I ask that Omer El Souri be removed from my file at the Canadian embassy in Riyadh. I ask that Omer El Souri knows absolutely nothing about my file. I do not trust Omer El Souri, who has done nothing but harm to my case for years. He has made misleading translations and has written false reports.”
Was Nathalie Discriminated Against by the Canadian Government?
I believe she was on many occasions. As I wrote in the earlier chapters of this book, Nathalie was described in an email as an uneducated young woman. Sadly, I feel as though the Canadian government is prepared to speak out about the fate of people who are members of a certain intellectual elite, but not that of a young woman like Nathalie, who didn’t finish school, speaks with a stutter, and got herself into this mess. On July 23, 2008, while I was trying to help my daughter, Meiling Lavigueur told me over the phone that she was not a psychologist. I found this comment outrageous. I got angry and shouted, “Are there two classes of Canadians, the ones with an IQ over 120 and everyone else? The government isn’t helping the most vulnerable people. Are we just going to hand over our vulnerable young women to anyone who wants a way to get into Canada?” Ms. Lavigueur recorded our conversation in Nathalie’s case notes, but not quite like this. But I remember what I heard, and I cannot accept my daughter being treated like that. For more than sixteen years, Nathalie has been subjected to physical and psychological violence, and she is alone and friendless in Saudi Arabia, without anyone to really talk to. She can rarely access information and has not been able to have the life experiences that most people in their twenties and thirties enjoy. She has literally been cut off from reality. How could anyone reproach her for curling up into a ball like a wounded little animal and for not reacting like a more balanced person might?
Why Were Nathalie’s Children Forbidden to Travel?
This is the thorny question of the whole sorry tale. We have tried many ways of finding out who decreed this travel ban, but each person has a different version of the story. For a long time, I thought it was Saeed who had asked the Saudi government to do it. Every step we took to find out answers led us to a dead end. Any authorizations are irrelevant; it is the travel restrictions that take precedence. We were convinced that if we discovered who put them in place, we could ask them to cancel them.
I also thought the Saudi government itself had imposed the ban. And Nathalie and Saeed also believed this for a long time. Nathalie used to tell me this on a regular basis, but I was certain Saeed had convinced her of it. When I asked Canadian government representatives, they didn’t seem to know who had decreed the travel ban.
More recently, reading back over messages Samir sent me, I found one in which he reproached me for not believing his parents when they told me it was the Saudi government that was preventing them from leaving Saudi Arabia.
Since 2011, I have been asking the Canadian government to verify whether it was Saeed or the Saudi government who placed restrictions on the children. But the Canadian government refused to do what I asked. I wanted to know who or what I was fighting against: Saeed or the Saudi government?
An article in the Washington Post in the summer of 2020 got me thinking. In an article titled “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Uses Travel Restrictions to Consolidate His Power,” David Ignatius argues that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, used travel restrictions to keep citizens he wanted to control — or who had sensitive information — in the country.
The Human Rights Watch website has a lot of information on this subject. In the light of these findings, the organization called for several changes, including the following: “We call upon Saudi Arabia to cease arbitrarily imposing travel bans, without justification or notification, and to make changes to the law on travel documents so that travel bans decreed by the ministry of the interior can be contested in court.”
Reading back over the documents concerning Nathalie’s struggle for freedom, I deduce that the Saudi government banned her children from travelling. The Canadian government knew about this manoeuvre, but chose not to intervene, because it respects the law of the land in Saudi Arabia.
Why Did Nathalie Not Receive All the Consular Help She Needed to Be Repatriated?
I have long believed that Canada has an obligation to provide consular assistance to all and any Canadians who find themselves outside Canada and in need of help. In my opinion, it is unacceptable to not help Canadians abroad who ask for it. And I am not the only one. In 2016, Amnesty International, Mohamed Fahmy (an Egyptian-born Canadian journalist), and the Fahmy Foundation submitted a “charter of protection” to the Canadian government, aimed at improving the rights of Canadians abroad. Among the signatories was Gar Pardy, the former director of consular affairs, which I think is very significant. This charter is accessible online and via the Nathalie Morin Support Committee website. Among the recommendations, one in particular is close to my heart.
Enshrine the Right to Consular Aid and to Equal Treatment
Canadian law does not explicitly oblige the Canadian government to provide consular help to Canadians abroad, even in cases where their basic human rights are violated. The rules around consular assistance are instead discretionary, leaving it up to Foreign Affairs as to whether to take action or not. Lawyers have had to undertake lengthy procedural actions relative to the Charter in order to set out the government’s obligations in this area. It is high time that two things were enshrined in law: the right to receive consular assistance, and the government’s obligation to provide such assistance.
In addition, there has been a growing perception over recent years, whether or not it is justified, that some Canadians who have their fundamental human rights violated abroad receive consular help more quickly, more thoroughly, and from a higher level of government. This two-tier approach makes people feel that there is an element of discrimination. Canadian law needs to be clear about the fact that all Canadians must be treated equitably when seeking consular assistance.
Did the Canadian Government Hide Things from Nathalie?
The Canadian government has never been transparent with Nathalie in this case. We have always been fobbed off with answers, as if to drag things out for no reason. Nahima Telahigue, the consular agent in charge of Nathalie’s case, had said she wanted to take things step by step: sort out Nathalie’s iqama and then look at the children’s travel ban. But why not do everything at the same time? It seems to me that it would be so easy to fix everything in one go. The Canadian government gives the impression that it doesn’t want Nathalie and the children to return to Canada. Why not? Are they afraid that Nathalie will denounce their failure to act? Are there other reasons?
Is This a Family Affair or a Political One?
The Canadian government has often insisted that Nathalie’s case is a family issue, not a political one. However, Nathalie’s tragedy is well and truly a political issue. When Prince Nayef authorized the issuing of papers to allow Nathalie to enter Saudi Arabia as a spouse, even though she wasn’t married to Saeed, he made a political decision. The travel ban affecting the children, decreed by the Ministry of the Interior, is also a political issue.