On the weekend of Khawla Khalifa's birthday it was her ex-husband's turn with their three kids. He picked them up after school on Friday and she was expecting them back two days later. Sunday at seven o'clock came around and there was a knock on the door. She answered and saw her sister-in-law with her youngest son, Zein Eldin, in her arms.
"The other two are at the movies, they're running a bit late," Dania told her, handing over his bag. "They're on their way."
Khawla took Zein Eldin and shut the door. She picked up her phone, flicked through her messages, then clicked on an email from her ex-husband Achraf. She froze: "I've taken the kids back to Lebanon and I'm already there. I feared for my life and for the safety of the children."
Khawla's voice breaks as she recounts the story: "I haven't seen them in over seven months." She pauses. "Every time I say their name it's like a trigger."
So, on 12 April 2019, the day she turned 32, Khawla's five-year-old daughter Dina and eight-year-old son Fawzi were kidnapped from their home in Canada and taken to Lebanon by their father. Achraf was born in Lebanon but Khawla was born in the UAE and moved to Canada when she was two. Both of their grandparents were born in Palestine.
Looking back, Khawla sees the warning signs were there, but at the time she thought she and her husband were just having marital problems.
In July 2016 Khawla was pregnant with Zein Eldin when she found out Dina had a slow growing brain tumour which needed to be regularly monitored. Achraf's parents were going back to Lebanon to live and he convinced her their eldest son Fawzi should go with them, just for a couple of months until they worked out what do to about Dina. Khawla agreed reluctantly.
Three months later Achraf went for a visit and said he would bring Fawzi back with him, but when he returned to Canada, her son wasn't with him. He told her he had wanted him to finish the school year. It wasn't until March, seven months later, that he eventually brought him back. "That was really concerning," she recalls.
In the summer of 2017, Achraf tried to convince Khawla to move to Lebanon with him. His father was getting older, he needed help with his construction business, he said. Again, she agreed reluctantly and the family moved to Lebanon. Achraf got a job with an NGO and didn't go near his father's business. He travelled a lot for work – Qatar, Italy, France, Kuwait – and was rarely at home.
Whilst he was abroad, Khawla found wads of cash in their bedroom and once, when they swapped cars so he could get hers serviced, she found a gun in his glove box. When she confronted him, he told her he got it from a friend.
Khawla went back and forward to Canada taking Dina to her appointments at the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto three times a year. Every time she asked her husband if she could take her two sons, he would tell her, "if you don't want to go with just Dina, you don't go at all" and hid their passports. "That's when I realised I was trapped," she says.
By December 2018 Khawla had been in Lebanon for a year and four months and was growing increasingly concerned about Achraf's behaviour and for the safety of their children. Eventually he agreed to let her travel with all three children to the UAE to visit her brother over the Christmas holidays. Khawla seized the opportunity and took the kids back to Canada.
When she arrived back home Khawla received a number of phone calls from Achraf's co-workers who were alarmed by his behaviour. The recordings of calls between them have now been translated and transcribed by the police – in one he tells his boss that "all women should be burned". In another he tells a female colleague he will return to Canada and beg Khawla to return to Lebanon with him where he will be able to take his revenge.
On 9 January Achraf returned to Canada and eventually they settled on a custody agreement where Achraf would take the children every other weekend and every Tuesday and Wednesday. It continued like that for two months or so until that Sunday evening his sister knocked on Khawla's door.
Though she has tried to call them hundreds of times, Khawla has spoken to Fawzi and Dina on the phone just twice since they left: "When he eventually answered he let me speak with them for just a minute. They told me they didn't want to go back to Canada and said that if I loved them and wanted to see them, I should go to Lebanon. Then he hung up."
Khawla contacted their local imam and asked him to intervene so on 25 April he called Achraf and told him to call Khawla. "He called me on Facetime but he held the phone at their necks so I couldn't see their faces. I barely spoke with them for few minutes before the conversation abruptly ended and from that day he hasn't let me speak to the kids or see the kids."
Child abduction is a growing phenomenon worldwide, but it is notoriously hard to bring about justice and can have long-term consequences for the children involved, and the parent who is left behind.
Between January and May 2019 Global Affairs Canada opened 34 new child abduction cases, however there is a limit to what they can do, particularly in this case since Lebanon hasn't signed an extradition treaty with Canada. Neither is it party to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which means it's under no obligation to follow the treaty's legal framework.
Although both children and parents do not hold Lebanese citizenship, the Canadian government still insists that their hands are tied. Khawla has met with ministers from the Liberal government as well as members of parliament. "I feel they have taken this matter as a joke," she says.
Achraf is wanted in Canada on two counts of parental abduction and one count of disobeying a court order because under their custody agreement he wasn't allowed to travel with the children. Khawla has an emergency return order that states Achraf has to bring the kids back to Canada, but the legal process in Lebanon has become complicated since the country has been engulfed in protests since the middle of October.
Khawla has hit a brick wall – Global Affairs have told her they can do welfare checks on the kids but that they're voluntary and Achraf would have to agree to a visit. She has a lawyer in Lebanon but has been told if she goes herself, she is at risk of being harmed or arrested.
There are a number of questions circling the case, for example, what is the role of Achraf's sister, Dania Zeidan. She claims he didn't tell her he was leaving but then when they didn't return over the weekend, why didn't she call either Khawla or the police?
Then there's the issue of Zein Eldin. "If he feared for his safety, why did he leave his youngest son here?" Khawla asks me. "To be honest the only reason I can think of is that he's young and he's a handful and he didn't want to have to deal with him. Who was going to help him at the airport with three young children? He was never involved in his kids' lives, he was always at work, or travelling, or out with his friends. He wouldn't know how to deal with them."
Then of course there's Dina's brain tumor and Khawla's fear that she is not receiving the regular checkups she needs. Dina was a patient at one of the best hospitals in the world, she tells me, and now she lives in a country where the healthcare is either substandard or extremely expensive.
Finally, how did Achraf leave the country when Khawla had their names on a local passport list which means if he tried to make Canadian passports they should have called her to confirm she accepted the application. Khawla hid their birth certificates, their Canadian passports and their Palestinian travel documents. The children had a travel ban instated by the Supreme Court of Ontario, yet even with all these precautions in place, the children were still able to be taken out of the country.
Because Khawla and Achraf are Palestinian refugees they can never have Palestinian passports, but she believes he somehow managed to fraudulently attain them, and that somebody should answer for this mistake: "They let them out of the country without knowing how they were here to begin with. They should have asked, how are you here to begin with, how are you in Canada, where's the visa or where's your Canadian passport. But nobody did that." Even until this day, Police and Public Safety Canada are yet to inform Khawla how they got out of the country.
"He's just getting his revenge because he didn't want me to ever leave. And when I took that decision, when I woke up and realised I needed to leave for my children, to get them out of harm's way, I said to myself, I'm doing this for them and that gave me the strength to finally leave him."
What does she remember most about her two children? "Fawzi's not your tough boy, he's a real sweetheart and is very emotional. He's so caring towards his siblings and towards me. He was almost like the father figure that they didn't have. And he's just the kindest child there is."
"Dina, on the other hand, she's got a tough personality. She's strong willed, and she has the biggest heart in the world. With all she's been through health-wise, she doesn't deserve this. They both don't. And that's hard to take in."
"It's so hard not being there for them," she adds. "I hope they come back soon."