Habiba Nosheen: A quick warning before we start the show: this episode contains disturbing discussions of abuse and violence. Please take care while listening.
Habiba: Previously on The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan ...
Detective Peter Thom: We're considering this to be a murder investigation.
Habiba: I think one of the—the things that might be confusing for people is, like, why did it take so long for the police to be contacted?
Sara Hasan: Because this was nothing new for us. It's just, we're all busy with our own lives.
Habiba: When you think about what could have happened to her. What do you think? Like, where does your mind go?
Sara Hasan: My mind goes all over the place.
Habiba: Like where?
Sara Hasan: I don't know. Is she in a cult? Prostitution's crossed my mind. Human trafficking? I think, does she think—like, does she not think of us? Sometimes I think, like, what did I do to her? Not a day goes by that I don't think of her. Where is she?
Joyce Finley: Hello?
Habiba: Hi. May I speak to Joyce, please?
Joyce Finley: Speaking.
Habiba: Hi, Joyce. This is Habiba.
Joyce Finley: Oh, hello!
Habiba: How are you?
Joyce Finley: Fine, thank you. I was just actually reading ...
Habiba: Over the last few years, I've called up a lot of people out of the blue—people from Nuseiba's past.
Debbie Dunn: Hello?
Habiba: Hi, it's Habiba!
Debbie Dunn: Oh, hi. How are you?
Habiba: Good. How are you?
Mohammed Darr: Hello?
Habiba: Hello, salaam alaikum. This is Habiba Nosheen, I'm the journalist who ...
Habiba: ... investigate what happened to Nuseiba. And the other is kind of create a picture for who she was.
Habiba: ... is this a good time for us to chat?
Mohammed Darr: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's okay.
Habiba: Perfect. And because this is for ...
Habiba: I've been searching for what happened to her by digging through her childhood. And that's meant calling a lot of people out of the blue who haven't heard Nuseiba's name or thought about her in more than two decades.
Habiba: And did you ever learn that her name was actually Nuseiba?
Christine Fox: I didn't. No.
Habiba: Okay. This is the first you're hearing about it?
Christine Fox: This is the first I'm hearing about it! I heard that ...
Habiba: Often these calls were the first time they were hearing the news that Nuseiba Hasan has been missing, and that her disappearance wasn't reported by anyone for nine years.
Joyce Finley: Boy, this is very suspicious. Very suspicious. Like, wow!
Habiba: These calls yielded a more complete portrait of Nuseiba—as well as several disturbing details. And one incident that likely changed the course of Nuseiba's life. From Spotify and Gimlet Media, I'm Habiba Nosheen, and this is The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan.
Habiba: You know in the movies when someone's trying to find a killer or a suspect, and they have a crazy wall of evidence that they've gathered in their house or their office? And you think to yourself, "Do they actually do that? Pin all that stuff on the wall?" Confession: yes, they do. Well, I do. My map of Nuseiba's life is on the left side of my bed above my desk, displaying any clues I've gathered. Clues that maybe if I looked at them from different angles of the room, or from a different perspective, I would see something I was missing.
Habiba: Over time, my wall became a maze. Post-it notes with random clues: schools Nuseiba might have attended, courthouses that might have some files, police records that I needed to request. For the last three years, that wall has been the last thing I see when I close my eyes at night, and the first thing that stares at me in the face when I wake up. An uncomfortable reminder of how little we know about Nuseiba.
Habiba: Nuseiba left hardly any digital footprint. She went missing in 2006, before just about everyone lived their life on social media. So there's no Facebook profile to pore through. No Twitter, no Instagram or TikTok. So I started with an old school approach: newspaper archives. Believe it or not, the local newspapers of a small town can be a goldmine. So I spent a Saturday poring over the archives of The Canadian Champion, the local Milton newspaper. And I'm looking for any mention of Nuseiba Hasan or her family.
Habiba: Page by page, I go through over 20 years worth of archives. And to my surprise, there are actually a dozen or so mentions of the family, mostly about her older brothers and their impressive athletic achievements in wrestling, hockey and soccer. As for Nuseiba, I come up empty. Nuseiba's name doesn't appear in the newspaper, not until the news of her disappearance. And even then, it's just things I already know: a Hamilton woman disappeared but not reported missing for nine years. And then, after weeks of dead ends, I finally find myself on the phone with someone who remembers Nuseiba: her elementary school teacher, Debbie Dunn.
Debbie Dunn: Hello?
Habiba: Hi, it's Habiba.
Debbie Dunn: Oh, hi. How are you?
Habiba: Debbie taught Nuseiba when she was in grade 4 and 5 at Percy Merry Public School. When I first called her up and said, "Hey, I'm a journalist hoping to talk to you about Nuseiba Hasan," I heard her gasp on the other end of the line. And Debbie told me to call her back in a week. So it's a week later, I have her on the phone and I ask, what happened last week when she heard me mention the name Nuseiba Hasan?
Habiba: When I asked you about it, you got a bit—you know, you almost started to cry.
Debbie Dunn: Yes.
Habiba: Why was that?
Debbie Dunn: Well, you took me by surprise. Like, I wasn't thinking about Nuseiba. To think that she could be—could have been murdered, to think that she's not around. She had so much life in her. And as a teacher, you get very attached to your students.
Habiba: I ask Debbie if she might have photos of Nuseiba, and it turns out she does. She texts them to me. In the grade five class photo, Nuseiba is hard to miss. She is the one wearing the hijab in what appears to be a mostly white class. Debbie also sends me other photos. There's one of a young Nuseiba, maybe around 10 years old, towering over a gingerbread house wearing a light blue headscarf.
Habiba: I also learn from Debbie other things that I didn't know, like Nuseiba was athletic. And in grade five, she even came in first in a Milton sprint race.
Habiba: What was she like?
Debbie Dunn: She was wonderful. She was extremely bright. Definitely an A-B student, as I recall. And I mean, you've got to remember, this is going back 30 years, right?
Habiba: Of course. Of course.
Debbie Dunn: She was university material.
Habiba: I also spoke to one of Nuseiba's teachers, Joyce Finley. She taught Nuseiba in the eighth grade.
Joyce Finley: Nuseiba was a very bright, engaging young girl. I taught her phys ed, and I think I had her for math as well. Just really intelligent, very thoughtful. She had opinions. She spoke out, which was good. Nuseiba was very independent in that she had her own—you know, she had her own take on life.
Joyce Finley: And being a Muslim girl, I think was kind of rebelling a little bit at the kind of treatment she got at home?
Habiba: Again, teacher Debbie Dunn.
Debbie Dunn: But I always felt that she wanted to be like the other kids.
Debbie Dunn: And this is a small country school with, like, 125 kids, right?
Debbie Dunn: And that she, you know, had crushes on the little boys.
Debbie Dunn: And, you know, she was just a regular kid. And I think that part might have been a problem for her.
Debbie Dunn: You know?
Habiba: Both teachers' memories of a young Nuseiba line up. She was smart, she had a bright future, and was fiercely independent. But there's another thing that both teachers bring up: trouble at home. Trouble that became extremely public in 1994 when Nuseiba was 14. Here's Joyce Finley:
Joyce Finley: At one point, she called the Children's Helpline and said that she had been abused at home. And so Child Welfare Services came and picked her up from school and took her away. And then the family came looking for her.
Habiba: That brings us to May 27, 1994, A day at Sam Sherratt Public School like no other.
George Robbins: All I had was Nuseiba's claim that her dad had abused her, and she'd called the Children's Aid. And when I found that out, two of her brothers were on their way to the school to take her back home.
Habiba: George Robbins was the principal at Sam Sherratt when Nuseiba was a student there. Even though he's 20 years into his retirement, he still remembers that day vividly. After Nuseiba called CAS, the Children's Aid Society, she was temporarily placed in foster care. And the Hasans were livid that their daughter had been taken away from them. The word was that her older brothers—the wrestling star and the soccer star who were now in their 20s—were on their way to the school looking for Nuseiba.
George Robbins: I don't know why I did it, but I said to the secretary, "I'm gonna take Nuseiba. We're going into the girls' phys-ed office." It was completely enclosed, no windows, a good, solid wooden door. That room was very secure. I was sitting on the floor. I had my feet up against the door! So she was on one side of me. They weren't coming through that door if I could stop them! [laughs] I said, "We're going to be in there. We're not coming out. I want you to phone the police, tell them the situation, and have them come over and help us out." And I said, "I won't come out until I know that it's you and the police at the door for us."
Joyce Finley: And the boys came in, the brothers, and were running all over the school looking for her.
Habiba: Joyce Finley again.
Joyce Finley: And the mother was in the office, and she was just screaming and yelling and accusing her homeroom teacher of putting all of these thoughts in her head.
Habiba: Meanwhile, George and Nuseiba were barricaded in the office for what felt like forever. George with his feet against the door, talking to Nuseiba.
George Robbins: She was just saying that she had been abused by her father. She didn't go into any details, and there was no more specificity. Nuseiba told me she knew what was in the cards for her, and it was an arranged marriage. She did not want to have an arranged marriage. She told me about her brothers. She was, I think, fearful of her brothers. And she was just frightened that if her brothers got a hold of her, that would be trouble for her. She understood if they got a hold of her, she was going home. And home meant probably gone, taken out of the country before anybody could do anything.
Habiba: Eventually, George's secretary knocked on the door with the police.
George Robbins: The police then took her into their care.
Habiba: So do you recall what happened to her after that? Did she come back to school? Did you see her again?
George Robbins: No. No, no. She didn't come back to school.
Habiba: And that was the last time Principal George Robbins ever saw Nuseiba Hasan. After the break: Nuseiba's family fights back.
Habiba: When Nuseiba was put in foster care, her family blamed the school for everything. George tells me that Nuseiba's mother, Yamenah Hasan, was not a shy woman, and certainly was not about to let this go.
George Robbins: Mother kept calling and harassing us, threatening the school. She did show up at the school to the point where I phoned the police, had them come. And there was basically a trespass order put against her. And she kept coming in. The police finally charged her with creating a disturbance in a public place: the school.
Habiba: Because of this incident, two of Nuseiba's teachers testified against the mom in court. But they were never told of the outcome. I ask Sarah Hasan to see what her family's take was on all of this. Turns out she has a very different version of what went down.
Sara Hasan: We had chores at home, just like any other kids in any other family. We were expected to do our chores.
Habiba: What kind of chores?
Sara Hasan: Oh, dishes, cleaning the house, the usual. Something happened where I don't think she wanted to do her chores?
Sara Hasan: She went to school, and there was a teacher there who kind of like, lectured the kids. "You don't have to listen to your parents. If you don't want to do something, you don't have to do it."
Habiba: I made a number of attempts to contact this teacher. I had heard she and Nuseiba were close. I called, left messages, emails. I even wrote a letter and FedExed it to her. Nothing. Then Yasmin, desperate for information about her mother's past, called this teacher and left a voicemail begging her to share what Nuseiba had said about this incident. She never called Yasmin back.
Habiba: I kept trying for months, and then Joyce passed on this message to me that the teacher didn't want to talk because she felt scared. But to Nuseiba's mom, it was clear: this teacher was the problem.
Sara Hasan: So then my mom went to school and kind of like flipped out, and said, you know, "What are you teaching the kids?" Right? And it—the whole situation took my parents by surprise, where that they took my sister out of the home, the Children's Aid Society.
Sara Hasan: And said, "This is what she told us. You guys threatened her with a gun or whatever, blah, blah, blah." The only thing we had in our house was an antique gun that didn't work.
Habiba: I should point out when Sara mentions this thing about a gun, that's the first time I heard anything about it. None of the school teachers mentioned Nuseiba saying she had been threatened with one.
Habiba: Do you think she made that up?
Sara Hasan: [sighs] Yeah! Have I ever heard my dad threaten us with a gun or anything? No. He just had to look at us with his eyes and that's it. Like, there was never—especially with his girls! The rule with my dad with his daughters were, you don't lay a finger on the girls.
Habiba: Were—were there times when one of you didn't want to do it? Didn't want to do what you were being told? How did that play out?
Sara Hasan: For me, all I can say is if I was told, I did it! [laughs] Right? I mean, you get told again and again.
Sara Hasan: "Do it! What's your problem?" [laughs] But I don't recall ever the threats. Especially with the girls, especially with the girls. Like, my brothers, my brothers were, like, told—boys are different! I don't know, you know? Boys were different. But girls, my parents were gentle with the girls—especially my father.
Habiba: Did your brothers have it rough?
Sara Hasan: Brothers have it rough?
Habiba: Did they have it rough growing up?
Sara Hasan: They were disciplined. Yeah. They were.
Habiba: I would later learn that sometimes that discipline could get violent. And the incident with Nuseiba wasn't the first time the Hasans were in hot water with CAS. A source later told me that CAS showed up a different time because Nuseiba's dad threw a rock at her brother's head and hurt him. But despite all this, Sara says Nuseiba's removal took the whole family by surprise.
Sara Hasan: We were shocked. There's seven other kids in the house. Do you not, like, question or—you know? They never did an investigation with any of us. They just took her out of the home.
Habiba: Do you remember what you felt like at that moment?
Sara Hasan: [sighs] I was devastated. How are you—why? Why? Why would they take her away? I never saw anything that would warrant that.
Habiba: Why do you think she would say that?
Sara Hasan: Attention?
Habiba: Sara is adamant that Nuseiba made the whole thing up. But the teachers I spoke to, they don't buy that.
Habiba: Do you think Nuseiba was making it up?
George Robbins: No. No.
Habiba: Why? What makes you say that?
George Robbins: I don't know. It was just a gut feeling that this—this was serious. She was a good student. She was a good, lovely young girl. And I just had the feeling that this—this was not made up.
Habiba: CAS files are confidential, so we don't know all the details of their investigation, or about what Nuseiba told them. If I were to zero in on when things started to turn in the Hasan household, this moment would be it. This incident back in 1994.
Habiba: The teachers at the school say they saw fear in Nuseiba's eyes, fear that they say there was no way she was faking. But for the Hasans, this was an unjustified intrusion into their family on unfounded allegations made by Nuseiba. And they weren't gonna take it. Again, Principal George.
George Robbins: For a long time on Highway 25 where the family's home was, they had a big home on west side of Highway 25. And there were signs out front really condemning and complaining about the Children's Aid Society and what they had done.
Habiba: It's not just him. Everyone in the town remembered those signs. They were placed on the Hasan property in a way that they were clearly visible from the town's main highway.
George Robbins: They were big signs. You could see them. They weren't little tiny paper signs on, you know, piece of letter paper. These were big signs painted on wood. And they were fairly permanent. They were up there for quite a while.
Habiba: The signs even made it in the local newspaper, the Milton Canadian Champion. The article is accompanied by a photo of one of the signs. It's hand-painted on what seems to be a four-by-eight sheet of plywood with the words, quote, "Children's Aid Society is EVIL and are destroying the family unit." The word "EVIL" is in all caps.
Habiba: Did you ever see the sign?
Debbie Dunn: Oh, yes.
Debbie Dunn: Many many times.
Habiba: Teacher Debbie Dunn again.
Debbie Dunn: It was a big sign posted right out front of their ...
Habiba: What did you think at the time when you saw the signs?
Joyce Finley: I just thought it was more of the same.
Habiba: That's teacher Joyce Finley.
Joyce Finley: Just this whole idea that he didn't want to be told by anybody, you know, what—what he could do with his family.
Joyce Finley: And that they were, you know, his to make decisions about. But very disturbing.
Habiba: After Nuseiba made the call to CAS, she was put in foster care. The family went to court to get her back, and there was a lot riding on the outcome. The court would determine whether Nuseiba would return home or be kept under the care of Children's Aid for the foreseeable future. But there was nothing normal about what happened next when the Hasans showed up at family court. In fact, what went down made the national news in Canada.
Sara Hasan: I remember going to court. They had the SWAT team there. In a courtroom!
Habiba: Nuseiba's older sister Sara.
Sara Hasan: Based on what?
Habiba: Because of your family? Like, what?
Sara Hasan: Because of the family being Palestinian? Yeah. 'Cause the lawyer was like, "Your Honor, what's all this for?" And then we had, like, little children with us too! Like, what is this?
Habiba: A SWAT team at a family court hearing, where they deal with things like child custody and divorce? To the Hasans, this was offensive. They wondered: would a white family be greeted by a SWAT team at family court? And I have to admit, at first I thought this must be an exaggeration.
Peter Moon: I was just amazed. I'd never seen anything like it in a Canadian courtroom before.
Habiba: This is journalist Peter Moon, who was working at the national newspaper the Globe and Mail at the time. When he arrived at the court, he saw officers dressed in blue combat uniforms, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying commando-style knives, semi-automatic handguns, gas masks and gas canisters.
Peter Moon: There were people in the courtroom involved in the court case testifying. And it would have an impact on them.
Habiba: For a long time I wondered why this SWAT team had felt necessary to the authorities. And then we found a series of articles published in June of 1994 that provided a window into this bizarre affair. There's this part in one of those articles where it says the judge felt the precautions were justified because he had seen a statement that one of the parties, quote, "May have a gun, and may use it."
Habiba: Whatever justification was offered, the Hasans were furious. Their lawyer noted that Musa Hasan did not own a gun, though the lawyer did acknowledge that one of her brothers owned "a small-caliber hunting rifle."
Habiba: When I asked the detectives investigating Nuseiba's case if they knew what the SWAT team had been there for, I got a slightly different response. They told me that they were told that several days before the Children's Aid hearing a bomb threat had been called in, which the authorities suspected had come from Nuseiba's family because the caller was, quote, "A male with a Middle Eastern accent." If there was any proof of such a bomb threat, the news reports from the time never mentioned it. Honestly, I can see why the Hasans felt singled out. Here's journalist Peter Moon again.
Peter Moon: It doesn't matter what the—what the court case is. I mean, the worst possible court case, you can secure that courtroom. And that courtroom could have been secured. Other police forces if they have a situation like that, there'll be uniformed officers sitting in the courtroom, or perhaps standing at strategic places. But they're in regular police uniform, carrying only their sidearm. That's all you need. But you've got fully eight people who are in the courtroom with all this excess firepower in response.
Habiba: Can I imagine a world where a Muslim family with their hijabs and dark skin would be treated differently in family court than a white family? Well, yes. My family's from Pakistan, and most of the time, people don't look at me and feel threatened. I don't get singled out at airports. My accent doesn't lead to people snickering and making Apu jokes. But my mom sometimes is in a burka. Hers is a long black coat that is draped over her body with a hijab that covers not only her head but also part of her face. And I can see how nervous people get around her.
Habiba: Once our family was on a flight and prayer time came, so my mom started to pray silently in her seat. Yeah. A woman in a black hijab praying on a flight after 9/11. People looked terrified. Like, genuinely terrified, as if this was going to be their last day on Earth. Someone even asked to move their seat!
Habiba: So the fact the Hasans say that there would never have been a SWAT team if they weren't Middle Eastern and looked "different?" I buy that.
Habiba: Articles about Nuseiba's case were surprisingly hard to track down because they were all written without using Nuseiba's name. And that's because there's a law in Canada that actually prevents you from identifying most people who are part of a Children's Aid hearing. But I can tell you these details now because Nuseiba is no longer a minor. And here is what I've been able to piece together about how all this ended. One article reads, quote: "A 14-year-old girl has been returned home to her family after an emotional court battle in which Halton's SWAT team was brought in with assault rifles and bulletproof vests."
Habiba: The article says Nuseiba had contacted Children's Aid and described a comment from her father that sounded like a death threat. But ultimately, she told the judge she wants to go home. She doesn't say the comment wasn't a death threat, only that she feels differently now.
Habiba: And I found something else. It's something she told the judge in her case that finally ended this ordeal. According to the article, she said, quote, "I had thought the life I had at home was abuse." She goes on to say, "I've decided my family loves me unconditionally. Although they yell, they swear, they argue, it's all matters of life in a family. Where I belong is with my family."
Habiba: For the Hasans this was a huge victory. But this court battle, and the fact that the authorities felt that a SWAT team was needed to protect people from the Hasans, no doubt sent the message that this family was dangerous.
Habiba: It was Nuseiba's call to CAS that kicked off this whole episode. And that was the begining of two narratives: a young girl trying to escape an abusive family, versus an upstanding family trying to keep their rebellious daughter in line, and being targeted by an overreaching arm of the state. Those two narratives would be in conflict for the rest of Nuseiba's life up until the day she disappeared. Shortly after, Nuseiba went back to live with her family in Milton, and she never went back to Sam Sherratt Public School. Instead, when Nuseiba's parents got her back, they did something to make sure Children's Aid would never enter their lives again.
Habiba: That's on the next episode of The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan.
Mindy: I just remember the panic in her voice. I didn't know if she was safe, I didn't know what was going to happen. I just assumed she was gone for good.
Habiba: Conviction: The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. The show is hosted and reported by me, Habiba Nosheen.
Habiba: Additional reporting by Kelly Bennett. Our producers are Alyssa Edes, Hannah Harris Green, Chris Neary and Anya Shultz. Our supervising producer is Matthew Nelson. Our editors are Alex Blumberg, Collin Campbell and Heather Evans. Fact-checking by Kelly Bennett and Marsha McLeod.
Habiba: Original music, scoring, sound design and mixing by Catherine Anderson. Music supervision by Liz Fulton.
Habiba: If you have any information about Nuseiba or this case, I would love to hear from you. You can reach me at habiba.nosheen (@) gmail.com. That's H-A-B-I-B-A dot N-O-S-H-E-E-N at gmail.com.
Habiba: Thank you for listening.