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'Crying out for help:' Calgary radicalization program evolves to help others

"Adam" gestures as he speaks with Cst. Abdi Hassan and social worker Komal Kardar, both not shown, about his involvement in the de-radicalized youth program in Calgary, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — The soft-spoken young man wasn’t being recruited by neo-Nazis or the Islamic State, but he was in a downward spiral.

Andy, who asked not to have his real name published, says he hit rock bottom a few years ago when he was 19. He later got help from Calgary’s ReDirect program, which links at-risk young people with police officers and social workers to steer them from dangerous ideologies.

The voluntary program started in 2015 and was initially aimed at helping individuals in danger of being recruited by terrorist organizations or criminal gangs.

In Andy’s case, he posted something inappropriate on Facebook.

“It was at my workplace … and obviously it wasn’t good. At that time I was drunk and I didn’t know what I was writing or boasting about. Then eventually they fired me,” he says.

“Then I kept calling my workplace. I was really mad over the fact I lost my job so I kept doing that and eventually they reported me to the police.”

Andy, who had immigrated with his family from Yemen, wouldn’t reveal what he posted online.

ReDirect’s co-ordinator, Sgt. Gareth Joels with the Calgary Police Service, wouldn’t disclose specifics about the case either.

Joels and social worker Sheila Brantnall do initial assessments on anyone recommended for the program. About 25 per cent are deemed a good fit.

“We do background checks on possible referrals,” Joels says. “In their backgrounds, the ideologies can be religious, political, right wing, left wing.”

ReDirect has evolved since it was set up to deal with people leaving for overseas to fight for ISIS. Getting help now are those with violent ideologies, socially awkward youth or new Canadians struggling to fit in.

At least one individual, Joels says, came to the group after celebrating a horrific event online.

“I think that was more like crying out for help,” he says.

Chris Boudreau says she thinks her son’s fate would have been different if the program had been available years earlier.

Damian Clairmont converted to Islam as a teen in Calgary. He was 22 when he died while fighting with Islamic extremists in Syria in 2014.

Boudreau consulted on the ReDirect program when it began.

“If I would have gotten him in early enough, I think there would have been the tools in place to possibly change that whole path and course.”

Boudreau believes in the program so much she put in a younger son several months ago. His father had died and the boy was struggling without a male role model.

She believes the program should be made mandatory, since it’s hard for people to admit that they have a problem.

“If you have that degree of a problem and frustration level, you can walk away so easily when things don’t go your way — you’re not necessarily going to get all the help that you need.”

The program paired Andy up with Const. Abdi Hassan and social worker Komal Kardar. At first, they just listened to the young man.

“We’re trying to figure out what’s driving some of those grievances,” Kardar explains. “It’s usually never just one thing.”

Hassan says Andy is doing well now, but it wasn’t an easy transition. It took two years before he had a breakthrough.

“There were a lot of situations that were very dim, very hard to grasp, and he knows what we’re talking about, and he overcame that and he’s working very well,” Hassan says.

Andy, now 23, is still in the program. He says he has learned how to control his anger, drinking and behaviour in job interviews.

“After that I got myself a first job. I kept working. I kept taking care of myself. And then I got my second job. Eventually after, I got everything under control.

“I haven’t felt more happier.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2019.

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press