Hamilton native Kimberly Polman is among former ISIS brides featured in The Return: Life After ISIS by Alba Sotorra Clua and her Barcelona-based production company, and the filmmaker hopes the new documentary will give insight into the issues surrounding repatriation.
Sotorra Clua said the documentary, currently one of the films being shown digitally during the Hot Docs Festival, focuses on the plight of Polman and other women from Western countries who joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but then came to regret it.
“This brings a different light on the issues and the question of repatriation,” Sotorra Clua told CBC News via telephone from Barcelona.
“Civil society, politicians and policymakers — it can make them rethink the way we are dealing with this issue.
“At the moment, the Western world is rejecting repatriation, and maybe if they watch the film, they can have a different point of view,” said Sotorra Clua, of Alba Sotorra Cinema Productions.
Polman, who was raised as a Reformed Mennonite and was the winner of the Women’s Opportunity Award in 2011 (Soroptimist International), left Canada and her three adult children in 2015 to join ISIS in Syria.
Sotorra Clua said Polman made that decision for humanitarian reasons, after she saw a Facebook post saying nursing skills were needed in the caliphate.
One year after her arrival, Sotorra Clua said, Polman became disenchanted with ISIS and tried to escape, but was caught and taken to prison, where she was brutally interrogated and raped, and was eventually forced to sign a statement agreeing to face capital punishment if she ever tried to leave again.
Polman finally surrendered to the Kurdish troops in 2019 and has been held in Kurdish detention camps ever since, waiting to come home.
At the moment the Western world is rejecting repatriation, and maybe if they watch the film they can have a different point of view.– Alba Sotorra Clua, documentary filmmaker
Sotorra Clua said Polman and the other women featured in her documentary have expressed regret and shame, but are also are hopeful about forgiveness and being given a second chance by their countries of origin.
“I was very intrigued and moved by the stories of these women,” Sotorra said.
Polman is a dual Canadian-U.S. citizen. In addition to expressing regret about being part of the ISIS caliphate, she has been requesting that she be allowed to return to Canada.
In March, Global Affairs Canada told CBC News it is aware of “Canadian citizens being detained by Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria and is particularly concerned with cases of Canadian children in the region.”
But the agency said that because of the security situation on the ground, its ability to provide “any kind of consular assistance in Syria remains extremely limited.”
The group of Western women in the Syrian detention camp featured in the documentary are from different parts of the world, including Canada, the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands and Germany.
They include Briton Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana, both from the United States.
Begum was born and grew up in London, as a British citizen. When she was 15, she and two other girls, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, left the U.K. to join ISIS. Today, Begum, whose three children are dead, is imprisoned in the al-Roj camp in territory controlled by Syrian Kurds.
Begum has failed at the U.K.’s highest court to restore her British citizenship, in a case that’s a test of the U.K.’s policy to strip the citizenship of Britons who joined ISIS and are now being detained by Syrian Kurdish groups without trial.
In November 2014, Muthana, now 26, left her home to join ISIS. She tricked her family into letting her go to Atlanta, from New Jersey, for a school field trip, and instead boarded a plane to Turkey and then to Syria to meet with ISIS.
A few weeks later, she married Suhan Abdul Rahman, an Australian jihadist, who died a few months later during a battle. She went on to marry at least two more times, according to reports.
Working with Sevinaz Evdike, a Kurdish women’s rights activist, Sotorra Clua said she had “unprecedented access” and spent many hours speaking to and filming some of the thousands of displaced ISIS brides and their children.
While they are deprived of basics, Sotorra Clua said what emerges is the slow growth of a sense of community between the women.
Sotorra Clua said as Evdike puts the “wives” through trust exercises, diaries and letters to their younger selves, the story of the nightmare that was ISIS unfolds.
‘Honest dialogue’ in wake of ISIS’s defeat
Sotorra Clua said the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat was devastating, leaving thousands of women and children of more than 50 nationalities with nowhere to go.
“I’d been following the stories of these women who’d made headlines around the world, and branded as traitors. I wanted to hear them first-hand, and what followed was emotionally challenging,” she said.
“I myself lost friends in the war, so there was some tension. But as time passed, the walls of fear and pain fell to make room for an honest dialogue.
“The only way out for all of us is to leave hatred behind and start over with compassion, forgiveness and understanding,” Sotorra Clua added.
The Return: Life After ISIS is among films available digitally during Hot Docs, which runs through May 9.