Saren Azer’s story is one that has blazed through social media in Canada for nine months—a bitter marriage breakdown, a fight over four young children, and finally, a dramatic abduction and flight to a Middle East war zone by a father who says he and his kids were escaping a “nightmare.”
Now, for the first time since fleeing Canada with the kids last August, the father —an international fugitive—has spoken publicly.
“We were surrounded, we were encircled, we were brutalized,” Dr. Saren Azer told Global News in an exclusive Skype interview from Iran.
”For others it might be just another case in a family court. What I saw my children go through was nothing less than a terror.”
Azer, an Iranian-born Kurd, came to Canada in 1994 as a political refugee. He married Alison Jeffrey in 2002 and they separated ten years later. What followed was a bitter fight over access to the four children, Sharvahn, 11, Rojevahn, 9, Dersim, 7 and Meitan, 3.
After a court-approved European holiday in August 2015, Azer put the children on a flight to Northern Iraq and broke off all contact with the mother. The father and children later slipped across the border into Iran, Azer’s homeland, and moved in with members of his family. (He would not tell Global News the name of the city.)
Now Azer is a hunted man, wanted by the RCMP and Interpol on abduction charges.
WATCH: Alison Azer appeals to PM and to Canada for the return of her four kids
Thousands of supporters joined her on social media, many of them vilifying Azer in the strongest terms. “A disgusting human being,” was a typical posting.
Alison was dismissive of her ex-husband’s latest comments.
“What he’s doing is the desperate attempts of a man who’s been on the run for nine months. He is a wanted fugitive. He continues to cross borders illegally. And really his actions speaks to his desperation that he must be feeling knowing that authorities are circling in on him.”
Nine months passed before Saren Azer responded publicly to the storm his actions have generated. In the interview, he rejected Alison’s claim that the children were “traumatized and terrified” in their new life in a strange land, away from their mother and friends, where they couldn’t speak the language.
“They have never been as well as they are,” he said. “They are thriving, they are happy. Our daily life is filled with joy, all of them are healthy, they are well, they are thriving at school, they are learning languages, they are learning different cultures, different traditions, they are surrounded by their families and they are loved and they are adored.
“My children were in a war zone in Canada, they were in a psychological and mental war zone in that country and you could see how their fragile lives were being shattered in front of our eyes.”
Global News obtained copies of medical reports dated 2013 that point to some psychological and physical problems: delayed gross motor skills for one of the children; significant stress and anger in another; and “suicidal ideation” in a third.
In 2012, Azer says, his son Dersim, then only five, was interviewed by an RCMP officer about an allegation by Alison that Saren had disciplined the boy by tying him to a chair in the basement. No charges were laid.
“I remember the terror that my son went through. For weeks on end he would not separate from me. Is this what a father should do, stand by as their children are shattered in this process?”
In November, 2013, a social worker with the BC Ministry of Children and Family development said in a letter to Alison that “your children are in need of protection from your ex-husband . . . due to physical harm.”
The harm, the social worker said, included “being tied up, slapped and hit.”
But, three months later, the same ministry closed its file on Azer and confirmed he had completed a parenting program. Azer says the physical harm never happened.
Alison says Azer, in his interview with Global News, was exaggerating the children’s emotional and physical issues.
“Not only were they not as serious, there were no disorders. The children were seen by a long list of healthcare professionals during the period of time that we spent reaching our joint custody agreement.
“I think that those papers are a matter of public record via the courts and in no way speak to the conditions or disorders that I think he’s finding it convenient to manufacture at this stage of game being an international fugitive.”
Saren Azer, a high-profile humanitarian doctor who once appeared in a video with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, says he was overwrought by what he saw happening to his children.
“When I was working in the ICU, almost on a weekly basis I would resuscitate teenagers with suicide attempts. Almost without exception their story was the same–from families that were dominated by hatred, anger, family court proceedings. RCMP proceedings, ministry (of children and family development) proceedings, and I could see the trail that myself and my children were on wasn’t going to be any different. I could see how these fragile and beautiful lives are going to be shattered in this process.”
But to Alison, the abduction by their father will cause her children the most distress.
“Our children will suffer as a result of having been kidnapped. It’s nine months in and the sooner they’re rescued the better chance they have of returning to a healthy childhood state. And I need the Canadian government to act as quickly as they can. My children are in danger, they’re being abused, and they need to come home.”
The federal government has said it is treating the situation seriously. The Harper government ended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012.
Azer had a lucrative medical practice on Vancouver Island and the reputation as a humanitarian who made frequent mercy missions to refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. In a 2009 article Alison wrote for an Alberta publication, she said Azer worked in the spirit of celebrated doctors like Norman Bethune and Albert Schweitzer.
Azer and Alberta Liberal Party leader Dr. David Swann worked together on a number of human rights causes in Calgary over a period of 10 years.
“(He was) absolutely selfless and sacrificial in many different ways,” Swann told Global News. “He’s put his own money and his own energy and his whole medical career on the line and gave everything he could, especially to the people of northern Iraq and the Kurdish community.”
But in the final analysis, Swann said, “I think he has violated not only the integrity of his family but international law” and that he should return the children to Canada.
The law notwithstanding, by the summer of 2015, Azer says it was a clear cut choice: his career, or his children.
“I had to decide. My options were to stay in Canada and have all that you mentioned–Canadian citizenship, well-paid physician, respected and all the rest–and the well-being of my children on the other hand, and I chose the well-being of my children.
“Yes, I have lost a lot. But at the same time I have gained more. I regained my children.”
He also extended an invitation for his ex-wife to join him in Iran.
“If Alison truly cares for these children . . . the door is open. I don’t think anybody could stop her from coming to Iran. She has many friends here. She could come here, she could see them. She could spend time with (the children), and she could see their lives. That I can definitely agree with and facilitate.”
“We are an ordinary family. Our important issues now are finding a car, looking after our cats, making our meals, cleaning our house. These are our issues . . . we couldn’t care less about that madness that goes on in Canada.”