Elena Danilina went to sleep one night last April in her midtown Toronto condo thinking her two daughters were safely on a plane with her husband, en route via New York to Casablanca, Morocco, to visit his sick mother.
They were not.
A couple of worried days later, her husband told her the cold truth by text: Rita, now 11, and Maria, 6, both students at north Toronto public schools and new Canadian citizens, had been taken excruciatingly beyond her reach. Their father, Jay Squalli, a professor of economics at American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, had in fact flown them to the UAE, where the legal system is patriarchal, fathers are presumptive guardians, mothers can be denied custody on grounds of dishonesty or immaturity, and children do not enjoy the protections of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Their marriage was over, Squalli said, and the kids were gone.
Even worse, according to Danilina, 40, in the urgency of what her husband described as his mother’s dire medical emergency she had signed a letter consenting to their travel “without restrictions out of and into Canada” — allowing him to switch destinations at Toronto’s airport. In effect, she said, she had unwittingly signed off on the abduction of her daughters.
By Squalli’s account, going to the UAE “was a joint decision. Otherwise, (Danilina) would not have signed a travel consent letter. Older travel consent letters always specified our travel timeframes.” He changed the destination from Casablanca to Dubai hours before departure to lessen the burden of two long flights on the children, he claimed, and notified his wife of the change while en route.
With the advice of a Toronto family lawyer, however, Danilina eventually turned the tables on her husband, convincing him to bring the children to meet her in Morocco last summer under the pretense of reconciliation. He did not know her lawyers had already filed a case with Ontario’s Central Authority for the Hague Convention. Morocco is a signatory to this treaty, which requires countries to return children abducted by parents to their habitual residence to resolve custody disputes. So as soon as he landed, Ontario alerted Morocco, triggering a travel stop that prevented Squalli from taking the children out of that country.
Now Rita and Maria are in limbo in Casablanca. They cannot leave. Ontario wants them back. Morocco wants to send them back. International law compels it. Their return has been ordered by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the Social Court of 1st Instance of Casablanca, and the Court of Appeal of Casablanca. But somehow, the girls are still in Morocco. Danilina is there too — broke, by her account, and fighting for children she has only seen together six times in the last year, mostly in court or with police.
“What is happening with me and my wife has always been a matter of her story against mine,” Squalli, 50, told the National Post in an email. It is “very clear that my spouse has resorted to the media as a desperate attempt to spread falsehoods, defame my character, destroy my career, and harm my honour and dignity. My spouse is particularly unwilling to accept the fact that my daughters refuse to live with her.”
“Had I kidnapped the children, I would not have left the UAE at all,” he said.
As with many parental abductions, Danilina is not pursuing a criminal complaint, and her husband has not been charged with any crime. Said Danilina’s lawyer Farrah Hudani: “In my view, it absolutely is a kidnapping.”
When they met in 2001 at the University of Delaware, Danilina and Squalli were international grad students with different backgrounds, she a young Russian Orthodox Christian in foreign language pedagogy, he an older Muslim in economics.
They married in Las Vegas in June 2004 and moved to Dubai that August, where Squalli was teaching at the American University of Dubai. The girls were born there, and are now citizens of four countries: Canada, Morocco, the U.S. and Russia.
Danilina and her children had lived in Toronto near Mount Pleasant Cemetery since 2014, after receiving permanent residency as a family in 2012. She worked as a contract teacher with the York University English Language Institute, the school confirmed. Last month, mother and daughters received Canadian citizenship.
Squalli, whose full name is Jawad Squalli-Housseini, also had Canadian permanent residency until 2016, but he never permanently left the UAE, where he has lived throughout their marriage, except for occasional visits to Toronto and summers in Morocco.
“It was manageable,” Danilina said in an interview.
Squalli said the family’s plan was always to live permanently in the UAE, and that they only lived in Canada to satisfy the three-year residency requirement for citizenship.
For the children, life in Toronto seemed to be going well. Maria was adjusting well at kindergarten at Davisville PS. Rita’s Grade 5 report card from the Forest Hill PS gifted program, submitted to Ontario Superior court as evidence of her usual residence in support of a temporary custody order, was thoroughly positive, emphasizing her competence, diligence, respect, and co-operation. It suggested she could work on being less quiet and restrained. She is “easy-going,” and “a capable writer whose work shows a depth of character.”
A handwritten letter by Rita her father provided to a Moroccan judge offers a darker view. She was lonely in Toronto, it said, and put at risk by being made to walk alone from school. “Every recess I would speak to myself,” she wrote.
What’s more, the marriage was in trouble. Squalli thought he had discovered Danilina’s “secret life,” and suspected her of intending to be unfaithful. He had secretly read her texts with a female friend, which Danilina described as idle “girl talk” about workplace flirtation. “To me, intentions are just as important as actions,” Squalli wrote in an email to Danilina that also called her “selfish, hypocritical, and a pathological liar,” and their marriage a “nightmarish joke.”
The texts, he told Danilina by text shortly after taking the girls, “brought my world crumbling down. I was shaken to the core by the lack of moral compass, indecency, hypocrisy, lying, cheating, and debauchery. Words are not enough to express my sadness and state of devastation. Shame on you and your nymphomaniac friend.”
The couple had agreed to raise the children Muslim. Danilina said he claimed she broke this promise by taking them to a Christmas Eve animal display at a Toronto church, and by drinking alcohol and serving pork. He also threatened to sue Danilina’s female friend, who lived in the UAE, for “inciting debauchery.”
Squalli denied religion was an issue between them. He said his wife “was an alcoholic who often went out drinking after work with her colleagues, including (a man) whom she was desperately pursuing for a romantic relationship.” He also claimed she left Rita unattended. He claimed she has financial motives, and regards her children as “material possessions rather than human beings.” He shared with the National Post a video on YouTube of Rita this year saying her mother once hit her and called her names, and expressing her general desire to return to the UAE, where she feels happier and at home.
“I don’t want to live there (in Canada), and I told her so so many times, and she just doesn’t even care, and so I don’t know what to do,” she said.
In an affidavit filed in Ontario court in support of her custody order, Danilina said Squalli’s allegations of neglect and getting drunk in front of the children are all “fabricated.” She said her daughter’s story of being hit with a hair brush while brushing her hair is “blown out of proportion,” and was an accident that Rita might have thought deliberate. Both she and Squalli administered “parental corrections” as part of discipline, she said, but not violence.
When Squalli first took the children overseas, Danilina said it looked hopeless. She went to Toronto Police, who spoke to him and determined that, because of the consent letter and the lack of a custody order at the time, Rita and Maria had not been kidnapped. She got a court order for custody that same week, which her husband sent back unopened, Danilina said. “Tell your lawyers they have no jurisdiction here (in the UAE),” he said, according to Danilina. “I have no problem showing that you are an unfit mother.”
He told her that to save the marriage and family, she must move permanently to the UAE. “Given my wife’s struggle with telling the truth, I informed her that our reconciliation necessitated joining us back home in the UAE and her commitment to being honest,” Squalli told the Post. He would not return the girls to Canada, and legally, it seemed impossible to force him.
Danilina consulted Hudani, whose advice was: “Play nice and say nothing.” So she did. She told Squalli she was scared to go to the UAE because of what he had done by taking the girls. Really, she was being strategic.
If he could be lulled into feeling secure about taking the girls out of the UAE to Morocco, she reasoned, he could be taken to a court that would return her children. It did not quite work, at least not yet.
As soon as he was notified in Morocco of the Hague proceeding, Squalli said he saw a lawyer and took the girls to the airport, where they were stopped from boarding a flight to Egypt, also not a Hague signatory. They were heading back to Dubai, he said, and he claimed he was not served sufficient notice of the court hearing.
Ontario’s Central Authority for the Hague Convention in the Ministry of the Attorney General has been “actively involved in working towards the immediate return of the children,” according to a letter to Danilina in January 2019. That remains true, spokesman Brian Gray said, but since then, a court-ordered effort to return them failed at the last minute. They got as far as the airport, but Rita objected and with the consent of a prosecutor, a bailiff refused to force her. Now, a psychiatric evaluation of Rita has been ordered for the prosecutor. Both girls have previously been evaluated by a psychiatrist hired for Squalli’s legal defence. Reda Oulamine, Danilina’s lawyer in Casablanca, said Squalli’s influence over Rita’s views should be a key focus of the psychiatric evaluation.
Under the Hague Convention, a child’s objections may be considered if the child has “attained an age and degree of maturity at which it is appropriate to take account of its views.” Likewise, “grave risk of harm” is enough to prevent a child’s return. But as Hudani notes, this was all addressed at trial and on appeal, and resolved both times in favour of returning the girls to Canada.
Danilina said Canadian authorities “advised me that they cannot intervene in the process in Morocco” and she has not received any “tangible support to date.” Global Affairs Canada spokesman Sylvain Leclerc told the Post Canada is providing consular assistance, but would not release details, citing privacy concerns. Russian authorities are also following the case, Oulamine said.
Squalli said he expects the case will “likely” go to the Supreme Court of Morocco, and called it “a private matter that involves innocent children who must be given the opportunity to privately and peacefully deal with the trauma they have suffered from the separation of their parents and their immediate inability to be at the place where their heart is.” He said he has brought professional misconduct complaints against Danilina’s lawyers in Canada, and filed defamation claims in Morocco.
A few days ago, Squalli served Danilina with a divorce and custody case in the Sharjah Shariah Court of the UAE. She understands Morocco should not act on that, given its Hague obligations. She is also scared to travel to the UAE to plead her case “since I am still his wife and he can put a travel ban on me there.”
Oulamine said he has not been served notice of any Moroccan Supreme Court hearing, and that generally the top court would uphold appellate rulings in favour of returning the children. “It’s the essence of the convention,” he said.
But the Moroccan jurisprudence on Hague cases is slim, and the country generally has a problem with enforcing its own law, whether for lack of means or will.
“It’s not Europe or America,” Oulamine said. Courts seem to be “trying to please both parties,” he said, by aiming for a “voluntary return.”
This may reflect Morocco’s inexperience with the Hague Convention, where it has been in force for less than a decade. According to Oulamine, there is only one court official who actually knows the law. “All others follow instruction on how to interpret and enforce it,” he said.
Matthew Giesinger, a lawyer who last year helped Danilina obtain the Ontario custody order, said there is generally a “premium” placed on urgently returning children, and he referred to a separate case in Denmark in which an appeal was fast-tracked.
The key point, Hudani said, is that the parents have a custody dispute, and Morocco’s courts have agreed with Ontario’s that the Hague Convention requires that to be settled in Ontario, where the children habitually reside.
“The lady is out of money in a foreign country and she feels her case is becoming hopeless,” Oulamine said.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019