Saliha Ben Ali - The Empty Room

Saliha Ben Ali’s son Sabri is almost nineteen years old when one day, he leaves for Syria. The sudden and unbearable pain makes it impossible for Saliha to remain silent. Tirelessly she keeps on fighting to provide a dignified farewell for the young people who die in Syria and to tell her son’s story to warn other youngsters.

Saliha Ben Ali’s son Sabri is almost nineteen years old when he tells his mother he is going to attend an Islamic wedding. He has picked out nice clothes and is leaving that same night. For a couple of days, she does not hear from him. Then she discovers on his Facebook page that he is in Syria. She finds the nice clothes for the ‘wedding’ crammed into a corner of his closet.

In the months that follow, she is occasionally in contact with her son through WhatsApp. He mostly writes about religion. She searches every photo for wires and bombs. “It was as if they had pressed his ‘reset button’. He talked like a robot. Everything that used to be important for him seemed to have been erased.’ Less than four months later, Saliha and her husband receive a phone call that their son has died, as a martyr.

Totally stunned about this abrupt loss that feels incomprehensible to her, Saliha decides she cannot remain silent. It turns out she is not the only one with a story like this. She exchanges stories with other parents whose children have left for the jihad in Syria. Some young people have already died; others are still alive and are in contact with their families. “These children have been brainwashed and kidnapped at a vulnerable moment in their lives. We cannot let that happen, as parents or as a society.”

Together with other parents, she tries to understand the process of radicalization and to warn young people to recognise it and not fall for it. She speaks in the Belgian Parliament and with kids in schools. She also helps the investigation into the jihadist networks that recruit young people.

But above all, she is fighting for a formal victim status for her son. The laws concerning young people who leave for Syria prove complicated. When young jihadists die the Belgian government views them as ‘missing’ and ‘presumed dead’. At that moment they can even be indicted, which could happen to Saliha's son too.

To this day, Saliha has been unable to bury her son. And as long as there is no acknowledgement of what actually happened to her son, Saliha cannot start to grieve. “I need answers to my questions to be able to accept his death.”