CLASH BETWEEN ISLAM AND WEST STRANDS CHILDREN IN EMBASSY
By Rohan Minogue
Note: The article concerns the abduction of a child to Syria and explains that the reason for the problem is that Syria is not a member of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. However, it is extremely important that courts do not fall into the trap of believing that merely because a country has agreed to the terms of the Hague Convention its courts will comply with their Hague Convention obligations. Many countries do so – but many countries that are parties to the Hague Convention do not comply with their treaty obligations.
Two children have spent the past month (2006) in the Dutch embassy in Damascus, caught in a tug-of-love between their Syrian father and Dutch mother and between two conflicting concepts of family law.
Ammar, 13, and Sara, 10, are being cared for by the diplomats, and a teacher has been specially flown in to tend to their schooling, but they lack the normal context of family and friends that others their age have as a matter of course. Ammar celebrated his birthday under these conditions on July 12. According to his mother, Janneke Schoonhoven, he is "desperate" to mark his next birthday at home in Oude Pekela in the northern Netherlands.
In the view of the Dutch authorities the father, Hisham al-Hafez, abducted the children in August 2004 under the pretext of taking them to the Paris Disney World. He is officially registered as having taken the children illegally. Syrian officials see things differently: al-Hafez is the father and has the right to decide how and where they are brought up.
Schoonhoven prompted her children to run away while on a visit to them. She gave them a map with directions on how to reach the embassy days before they ran away from their grandparents' Damascus home on June 26.
"They have had a really difficult time of it, otherwise they would not have taken such a big step as to run away," she told a Dutch television programme." They were really desperate. Negotiations are continuing at a high level, but it is not easy, because there are completely different laws in Syria."
Al-Hafez, 51, sees the situation very differently. Both he and the children were "suffering psychologically," he told Deutsche Presse- Agentur dpa.
He has called for their immediate release, saying they are "in a real prison" and complaining that while their mother was speaking to them daily by phone, he was being denied contact. Al-Hafez said that after he and Schoonhoven divorced in 1997, she had custody of the children until she married again and gave birth to twins in 2000. Schoonhoven is unable to afford to bring up four children, he says. The issue is a "purely personal one," Al-Hafez believes, and he accuses embassy staff of "kidnapping" his children.
The children have now written both to the Dutch queen, and the press has taken up their cause, backing the mother to the hilt. "Queen Beatrix, could you please help us??? Or the prime minister? Help us please. Mama wants us back, papa want us back, but we want only to go to mama and to our family and friends in the Netherlands," the letter reads according to the version published by the Telegraaf newspaper.
The Algemeen Dagblad has begun a readers' campaign to mark a month since the children went to the embassy.
"Send your personal wish to Sara and Ammar," the newspaper urges its readers, providing an address and assuring them the letters will get to their destination. Within hours, dozens of messages had been posted on its website, universally praising their courage and hoping that they will soon be united with their mother. But Dutch legal experts hold out little hope for the discussions proceeding between top diplomats on both sides.
Syria has not signed the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction that took effect in 1983. Around 80 countries are participants, but the vast majority of them are Western nations.
The Dutch Justice Ministry registered 75 cases involving a total of 105 children being taken out of the country by one parent in 2005 alone.While almost half of these cases were resolved, in the 16 cases where the children were taken to a Muslim country, no solution has yet been found.
Given the irreconcilable conflict between Dutch and Syrian family law, Sara will in all probability celebrate her next birthday - she turns 11 on August 1 - in the company of Dutch diplomats in Damascus.