When Nicola Benyahia’s teenage son slipped away one day to join the Islamic State in Syria, the frantic mother anguished over his disappearance for months while keeping it secret from her friends and most of her family.
“I kept it secret because of the shame of it,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We didn’t know how to answer people because we couldn’t even make sense of it ourselves. One minute we were just doing our daily life and the next day he was gone.”
Hoping to spare other families such loneliness and despair, Benyahia this week launched Families for Life, a counselling service to help cope with the complexities of radicalisation.
Thousands of fighters from the West have joined the Islamic State and other radical militants in Syria and Iraq, according to the New York-based Soufan Group, which provides strategic security to governments and multinational organisations.
Some 850 of those fighters and supporters went from Britain, according to authorities, and about 700 there are from France.
They include teenagers like Rasheed Benyahia who became radicalised and, aged 19, made the drastic and, in his case, irreversible decision to leave home and fight.
Families for Life will help those worried about their vulnerable children and those grappling with children they have lost to violent radicalisation, said Benyahia, 46, who lives in Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city.
Her son, who was working at an engineering apprenticeship, left home on May 29, 2015, a day etched in her memory.
“That particular morning I missed him,” she said. “He used to come down and give me a quick kiss and go out the door, but that morning I was a little bit late getting up and missed him.”
The Benyahia family did not know where he was, or if he was dead or alive, until weeks later when he sent a message from Raqqa, a city in northern Syria, where the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim Islamic State runs training camps and directs operations.
The family corresponded with him sporadically by text and telephone in the months that followed.