Saliha Ben Ali had noticed the transformation that her son Sabri had gone through – a carefree teenager who slowly turned into a withdrawn young man who was struggling to identify himself with the society he had grown up in.
But the enormity of the situation did not hit her until she found her son's room empty one morning in August 2013.
While the family was frantically looking for him, Saliha received a phone call from Sabri a few days later. “I have come to Syria to fight with my brothers,” he told her.
Sabri Ben Ali was only 18 and a half years old when he left his home town of Vilvoorde in Belgium to join Islamic State (IS) in Syria, Saliha revealed when she narrated her son's story at a discussion on violent extremism at Dhaka University on Tuesday.
Describing her son's nature, Saliha said Sabri was a typical teenager who liked to spend time with his friends, go to cinema and travel to different places.
“He had keen interest in photography,” she said fondly, showing some of the photographs her son had taken.
Sabri's happy persona started to change when he noticed that among all his friends, only he would get pulled aside and searched by law enforcement officers.
He was affected by the suspicious looks that he often got from his peers, and how Muslims would get bullied.
Unable to deal with such discrimination, Sabri gradually withdrew himself from his peer groups. He started missing school and eventually dropped out.
His parents could do little to help him as they had never experienced such trouble, said Saliha, a second-generation Belgian whose family migrated to Belgium from Tunisia.
In the meantime, Sabri followed the conflicts in the Middle East and was enraged by how Muslim countries did not come forward to help the women and children suffering in the war-torn countries.
After dropping out of school, Sabri attempted to make a career for himself, but failed in that too.
“He tried to join the army, but got rejected. He applied to join the fire fighters, but they did not accept his application as he hadn't finished his school,” Saliha said.
Frustrated and confused, Sabri found solace in religion.
But he did not know Arabic, so was unable to study the Islamic scriptures himself. His parents could not help because of their limited knowledge. He went to the local mosque, but the imam only knew Arabic and could not help him either.
Then he met a group of men who claimed to have all the answers.
“Those men were members of Sharia, a militant group active in Belgium,” Saliha said. “Sabri said they taught him the 'real' Islam.”
But Sabri did not share much about his new friends with his family.
One day, Saliha found a book titled Tauhid in her son's room. When she asked where he had found it, he avoided the question.
Two months later, he disappeared.
He travelled to Turkey and from there he crossed the border to enter Syria, according to news reports.
Three months after his disappearance, Sabri's father received a phone call from a stranger, who said his son had achieved martyrdom in a holy fight for the IS.
The trauma of losing her son nearly sent Saliha into a state of catatonia.
“But I went through intense counselling. My therapist helped me find the strength to pull through.”
Saliha decided to use her loss as a drive to help others and founded Society Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) Belgium.
She became the first among the mothers in Europe who had lost their children to religious extremism to openly speak about it.
Her organisation has so far provided psychological support to 40 families whose sons became extremists and left for Syria.
These families include both Muslims and non-Muslims, she said.
“Now I am travelling around the world to spread the message of hope and strength in the places that have been affected by violent extremism,” Saliha said.
In Europe, Belgium has the highest number of citizens – at least 500 – who have been recruited by militants to fight in Syria and other Middle East conflicts since Syria’s civil war broke out, according to a 2016 report by Dutch orgnanisation International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.