Sara Lessing had left her four children with family members of her husband at their home in Cairo, Egypt, while she stepped out to run an errand.
When she returned, her key didn’t fit in the lock, and she thought she had made a mistake. She looked at the key and tried again. It still didn’t work.
She repeatedly knocked on the door and rang the doorbell, but nobody answered. Lessing peered beneath the gap in the door, and no lights were on.
Panic began to set in. She knocked on neighbours’ doors and was told: “We saw them leave with your kids and your cat.”
Lessing knew this was no ordinary outing that her kids had been taken on. Years of planning and deception had led to this moment – her kids had been taken from her, and her husband was behind it all.
Lessing, now a Mission resident, met her future husband, a pharmacist, in a Burnaby cafe in 2012. The pair were married in Port Coquitlam in 2013.
Lessing, at the time a single mom of a teenage daughter from a previous relationship, had been attending a mosque before she met him, and she converted to Islam after her marriage.
Her husband hailed from Egypt, but the couple remained in Canada and had three kids – two boys, now 4 and 5, and a girl, now 2 1/2 – before his four children (ages 15, 13, 9 and 7) from two previous marriages came to live with them.
Lessing, who had a career in the insurance field, quit work to be a full-time mom, and she devoted her days to caring for all the children.
But there were ripples. The Ministry of Children and Family Development began making visits to their home, telling Lessing that the four older kids had informed teachers they were being sent to school without lunches.
Lessing didn’t understand; she made their lunches every day, and she began taking pictures to prove it.
On another occasion, one of her husband’s older daughters went to school with a pair of glasses that had accidentally broken at home, but she lied and told her principal that they had broken because Lessing had hit her in the face.
It would take some time for Lessing to piece these stories together and realize that the kids were being coached what to do and say as part of an elaborate plan.
The lunches that Lessing had made were being hidden or eaten before the kids got to school.
At the time, Lessing had no idea what was really going on, and it led to her husband planting the seed that their kids were in danger of being removed from their home and placed in foster care.
He told her, “The only way to save our children is to take them to Egypt.”
Lessing was pregnant with their fourth child when they left Canada in February 2017, moving in with her husband’s mother-in-law and one of his former wives – the mom of two of his older kids – whom Lessing discovered he was still married to.
Lessing said her life became even further controlled. Her husband had drained her finances, and she couldn’t go anywhere or do anything without being watched by his family. She was not allowed to leave the house with all of the kids, and couldn’t be gone for any length of time.
At one point, she returned to Canada temporarily to check on the house they had left behind and to move everything into storage, but her husband did not allow her to bring any of the children. Lessing says that he told her, “Do exactly what I say or don’t bother coming back, and you won’t see any of us ever again.”
Upon her return to Egypt, Lessing was eventually able to secure some paid work as a translator, and used that money to hire a lawyer. She started making plans to leave her husband, including suing for interim custody, but he found out.
He was spending the majority of his time in B.C., running a pharmacy business, but Lessing said he controlled his family from a distance.
It was during this time, when Lessing was now pregnant with the couple’s fifth child in June 2018, that she arrived back at home to find the locks changed and her kids gone. They had been left in the care of her husband’s family, and Lessing now faced a difficult battle to get them back.
Lessing searched every spot she could think of to find her kids, including family members’ homes and vacation spots, but everywhere she went was empty, and everyone she attempted to call had blocked her number.
She reported the matter to police and the Canadian embassy in Egypt, but was told there was little they could do – parental abduction is not considered a crime in Egypt, and Canadian authorities said it was difficult for them to act because the kids had not been abducted here.
“I stood in front of judges and prosecutors, and I spent hours driving with my lawyer checking different places. I drove all over the country … but trying to find four small people among 11 million (is almost impossible),” she said.
Lessing said her one saving grace was that her purse contained the kids’ passports, and she was able to put a block on them that prevented her husband from having them re-issued and being able to leave the country with the children.
On July 31, 2018, she was walking through the foyer of the hotel where she was staying, when her purse was grabbed from behind and she was spun around.
It was her husband – back from Canada – with his two nieces and a nephew. They threw her on the ground and began to beat her, and he kicked at her five-months-pregnant belly. Many people who knew Lessing from her stay at the hotel came to her rescue, including one man who chased down the group and got back Lessing’s purse.
When police arrived, her estranged husband told them that Lessing had tried to kill him. They were both arrested, but in court, the judge did not believe his story. Lessing was released and was able to proceed to the hospital to be treated for the wounds she had suffered in the assault, and the possibility that the kicks to her stomach had harmed her baby. (They had not.)
However, the witnesses to the attack did not want to testify in court, and her husband’s only punishment was a fine that was equivalent to about $20.
At one point, Lessing decided that, in addition to her lawyer in Egypt, she needed one in Canada, and she asked her mom to help. That was when Uphar Dhaliwal, with Abbotsford’s Dhanu Dhaliwal Law Corporation, came into the picture.
Over the following months, Lessing worked closely with her two lawyers to determine the strategies they would use to get back her kids. She said she followed their advice, which included not sharing her story with the media.
In the meantime, she returned to Canada to give birth to her youngest child – born Dec. 2, 2018 – and to care for her oldest daughter, now 19, who required open-heart surgery.
Lessing said she that every day she worked to get back her four other kids.
Lessing and Dhaliwal said they cannot reveal the exact steps they took, and how they discovered where the kids were located, but it all came together earlier this month.
Lessing was on a plane to Egypt on Wednesday, April 3, and two days later – accompanied by her Egyptian lawyer’s wife and her two kids – she stepped into the home where her children were staying. The residence had a barred front door and barred windows, and the curtains were closed.
Lessing took a deep breath so that she wouldn’t burst into tears and upset the kids and said, “Guys, I missed you so much! Let’s go home.”
Two of the kids immediately ran into her arms and said they had missed her. The youngest (now 18 months old), who wasn’t walking when she had last seen her 10 months earlier, also toddled over, and they were all soon joined in their huddle by the fourth one. Then, they all walked out.
“I walked out of there with my back straight … I walked out of there like these people were nothing to me. They couldn’t hurt me anymore,” she said.
The reunited family arrived back in Canada on Monday, April 8, and Dhaliwal was there at the airport to greet them. She said she hadn’t been able to sleep until she knew Lessing and the kids were on the plane, and she had to see all their little faces for herself.
Lessing said her connection to the kids was immediate. They all remember her, and their bond has picked up where it left off.
She has discovered that the kids were not allowed to play outside or go to school while they were away from her in Egypt, and they now enjoy the freedom of going to the playground and enjoying the fresh air.
But there are signs that the months apart has traumatized them. Lessing said they follow her wherever she goes, and her oldest child wouldn’t let her out of his sight for the first few days.
Lessing, who has been in counselling, is making plans for the kids to start as well.
Her estranged husband was in Canada when Lessing returned, and he was taken into custody after a judge gave him an opportunity to co-operate with Lessing but he refused to do so. He remains in custody at least until the next court date at the end of April.
Lessing said her battle is not over, and there are no guarantees of what the court system will decide.
She said she is hyper-vigilant, always watching her surroundings, because she is worried about what could transpire.
“I fear that these children will be spirited away out of this country before all these legal people that told me they couldn’t help me while I was in Egypt can do anything,” she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Black Press Media is not naming the father of the five children until, and if, charges are confirmed against him.