The Lego blocks strewn across the dining room table and the mini leather chairs in the living room are signs that kids should live here.
So are the happy family photos lining the walls and the unopened birthday gift in the bedroom. But the kids who once lived here are gone.
Mia and Liam Tarabichi, ages 9 and 8, were abducted by their father from Abbotsford to Lebanon in late March, and their Canadian family has launched a determined battle to get them back from a foreign system that does not recognize international parental kidnapping as a crime.
The kids’ mom, Shelley Beyak, is leading the charge.
She has already spent more than $40,000 in legal fees since the kids have been abducted – money that was donated through a GoFundMe account set up by a friend – and has been told it will cost a minimum of $150,000 more. But she and her family are not stepping back.
“We will do everything we possibly can, every angle, every avenue, every possible thing we can think of to either advocate or bring them home. We will be doing it,” Shelley says.
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Shelley, who was born and raised in Abbotsford and is now a youth worker, was teaching English in Cairo in 2006 with a friend when the two decided to make a quick trip to Lebanon during one of their breaks.
There, she met Wissam Tarabichi. He told her he was in the process of immigrating to Canada.
Soon after, Shelley got a teaching job in Beirut, but was evacuated to Canada due to the Israel-Hezbollah War that was being waged.
The pair stayed in contact and were married in 2007, after Shelley returned to Lebanon. Two children followed – Mia, born on Jan. 15, 2009, and Liam, born on July 9, 2010.
Wissam, a telecommunications engineer, became a Canadian landed immigrant in 2009, and the family moved to Abbotsford near the end of 2010. Shelley says it had always been their plan to move to her home country.
Their relationship soon began to unravel. At one point, Wissam moved back to Lebanon for 1.5 years while Shelley stayed with the kids, and he told his family that she had abducted the children.
At another point, Wissam served Shelley with a document titled “Claim Obedience and Inmate” in which she was directed to return to Lebanon to live with and obey her husband. She didn’t go.
Wissam returned to Abbotsford in 2012 and, over the next few years, he initiated a series of court battles seeking, among other things, sole custody of Mia and Liam and the ability to travel anywhere in the world with them without Shelley’s permission. Neither was granted.
A five-day trial in 2013 resulted in Shelley being awarded sole custody for two years. That gradually changed to a shared-custody arrangement.
But Shelley says there were constant difficulties in trying to co-parent with Wissam. On one occasion, for example, she arrived to pick up Mia and Liam from Wissam’s home at her scheduled time, and he wouldn’t let her have them.
In another instance, he was charged with threatening to hurt her and the kids, and he was not permitted to see the children for an entire summer.
They then began working with a “parenting coordinator,” an agent of the court who can make legally binding decisions.
Wissam approached the agent in spring 2017, and told her he wanted to speak with Shelley about taking the kids to Lebanon. Shelley said no, concerned about the kids’ safety and whether they would be returned. They also had no passports.
Wissam then applied to the courts to take Mia and Liam to France for two weeks. Shelley had run out of funds for a lawyer, and represented herself in court, where she begged the judge to decline the application.
“She basically just felt I was an over-protective mother and who, as Wissam said, just didn’t want him to have any fun with the kids. She raked me over the coals, and Wissam was given permission to apply for passports and take the kids to France,” Shelley said.
“At the end of the court date, I looked at the judge and said, ‘What am I going to do if the kids don’t come home?’ … And she just chastised me some more.”
Shelley video-chatted with Mia and Liam most days, but she said the children did not appear at ease. They ended up returning home, but Shelley soon came to believe that Wissam had taken the kids to Lebanon on that trip.
About a month later, Shelley and Wissam met with their parenting coordinator and there was a discussion about future travel plans. Shelley again expressed concerns that Wissam would take the kids to Lebanon and not return.
She said his next statement floored her: “I’ve already taken them to Lebanon and come back.” But he quickly denied saying it, and the parenting coordinator brushed it off, saying she didn’t think he meant it.
Wissam claimed he had lost the kids’ passports on that trip, and Shelley believed it was a lie to prevent her from seeing a Lebanon stamp in the documents.
She was blocked from getting any information about the lost passports because she had not been the primary parental applicant when they were first obtained.
In the fall of last year, Wissam applied to the courts to take Mia and Liam anywhere in the world. He said he planned to take the kids to Turkey, Greece and the United Arab Emirates.
Shelley had a lawyer this time, and he advised her that in order to win favour with the judge, she agree to “very strict travel” within the U.S. and Canada. The judge sided with Shelley, and the children were allowed to get new passports.
Earlier this year, Wissam advised Shelley that he wanted to take the kids to Seattle and Portland during the second week of spring break. The plan was for him to return the kids to school on April 3, their first day after the break, and for Shelley to pick them up the following day.
Shelley had no choice but to sign the papers agreeing to the trip.
On March 24 – the day that Wissam picked them up – Shelley had a knot in her stomach as she said her goodbyes to Mia and Liam.
“Have a great trip. I love you guys lots and I’ll see you in a week,” she told them.
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Shelley was at work when she received a call on April 3 from the kids’ school, Margaret Stenersen Elementary, saying the children hadn’t shown up.
Her stomach churned. “I just knew,” she says. Wissam also called her that morning, saying he was still outside of the country with the kids, but the call was disconnected and she couldn’t reach him again.
She immediately drove to Wissam’s house and peered through the windows. There were some sparse furnishings, but it was bare of any personal belongings.
Next, she searched online and discovered that the house had been listed for sale on March 26. Over the course of the next few days and weeks, investigators discovered that Wissam’s plans had been in the works for quite some time.
About a month before the trip, he had arranged for his personal belongings to be moved to Lebanon, and he transferred large sums of money there.
Seven to 10 days before he left for Lebanon, his mom, who had been staying with him in Abbotsford, returned to Beirut.
It was also discovered that Wissam had crossed the border in Abbotsford and travelled to Seattle, as planned on March 24, but the following day he and the kids boarded a plane from Seattle to Paris and then to Beirut.
The exact location of Wissam, Mia and Liam has not yet been discovered, and Canadian agencies have no authority in Lebanon to find out that information, Shelley says.
Shelley has now hired a lawyer in Lebanon, but it will take some time for him to obtain the authority to speak on her behalf in the courts there. Shelley cannot go herself because she could be arrested on arrival – depending on what, if any, court orders exist in Lebanon – or banned from leaving after she arrives.
Meanwhile, the Canadian courts have stripped Wissam of all his parenting rights, and there are warrants for his arrest, but they can only be executed if he leaves Lebanon.
Wissam has kept in sporadic contact with Global Affairs Canada and in May requested mediation. Shelley hired and paid for a mediator, but Wissam indicated he would not return Mia and Liam to Canada, and the only way he would allow Shelley to speak with them would be if she agreed to several conditions.
These included that she have the arrest warrants removed – something which is beyond her control – and allow him to have sole custody. Shelley says she has no intention of giving up on the kids.
Shelley worries about what Wissam has told the kids about her – perhaps that she is dead or that she doesn’t want them anymore – but she is mainly concerned about how her son and daughter are faring after having been ripped away from the only life they remember.
She says Liam is the stoic one and will solider through whatever is happening, while Mia will be more anxious. She says Liam likes telling jokes and stories and is “crazy, but so sweet.”
She describes Mia as a “kind soul” who loves to draw, is musical, has a beautiful singing voice and is a “people pleaser.”
She says the loss has been devastating.
“It’s hard because your children aren’t dead, but you don’t know if you’re ever going to see them again. It’s quite hard to process,” Shelley says.
She has taken time off work until September and spends much of her time researching the system and connecting with people who can offer advice or help.
Authorities working on the case have included local police, Global Affairs Canada, the RCMP’s National Centre for Missing Persons, and the Canadian embassy in Lebanon.
Shelley says she doesn’t like to believe it when she is told there are roadblocks.
“I do not believe things are impossible, because all ideas are good ones, and I really firmly believe there is a solution to every problem, including this one.”
She says she has always told the kids that if they get separated, she will never give up looking for them. She has a message to pass on to them, should they be able to hear it or read it.
“I would say I love you and we will never give up trying to find you and bring you home.”
The GoFundMe account in support of the family can be accessed here.