A French mother’s grief: 16-year-old flees to Syria

People sunbathe on the beach of Nice, southeastern France, on Jan. 24. A 16-year-old who flew alone to Turkey was from Nice.
(Lionel Cironneau / Associated Press)

The mother had her suspicions before her 16-year-old son fled from the southeastern French city of Nice to Syria.

Her son was Christian and popular and liked football and making wood sculptures. But she had seen him change, converting to Islam and falling under the influence of an extremist neighbor, refusing to eat with the family and isolating himself in his room.

Still, the mother of four said, “I didn’t know he was going to leave.”

She has sued the French government over what happened next: Bryan (a pseudonym used in court papers) said he was going to a sleepover, but instead, accompanied by some friends, he went to an airport and boarded a flight to Turkey using his national identification card, eventually making his way to Syria.


“How could they let him leave for Turkey with his ID card? They should have called me,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Nadine, 39, because of the pending court case.

Nadine said when her son didn’t return the morning after the sleepover, she spoke with neighbors who told her where the youths had gone. She said she contacted police, but they did not take her complaint seriously.

“They listened but I had the impression that they were not really listening,” she said.

Three years ago, an administrative change by the government allowed youths with valid identification to leave the country without a parent’s permission. Since then, dozens of youths have left for Syria via Turkey.

In response to the family’s lawsuit filed last month, officials at the Interior Ministry told the newspaper Le Parisien that Bryan left the country legally.

He fled a year ago. He initially said he was going to work for a humanitarian group, but later admitted that he had joined one of the extremist organizations fighting to overthrow the Syrian government -- it’s unclear which one. He still calls his mother twice a week from a cellphone in Syria. He says he is happy, but she can’t tell. They talk only for a few minutes, and in the background she can hear men speaking in French, monitoring his conversations.

“I don’t know if he is really able to talk,” she said.

Attorney Samia Maktouf, who represents other families of young people who have fled to join fighters in Syria, said the government needs to work with families to stop the exodus.


“I want the French government to be aware of the danger of those people,” she said.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris, she said, authorities need to be more vigilant.

“By the time they’re in prison, the crime has been committed already and it’s too late. We should act before,” she said.

Nadine fears for her younger son, who is 14.


“What I want is that fewer young people leave like this,” Nadine said. “These are our children; they are French.”

Twitter: @mollyhf