Habiba Nosheen: On the morning of October 31, 2016, police descended on a farm in Southern Ontario. For the next five days, dozens of officers in bright green, high-visibility jackets spread out over a massive property—some on horses, some on foot. They search every inch of the barn, dig up the fields and go through the woods with the hope that the walls, the trees and the grass might betray the secrets that they've held for nearly 10 years.
Reporter: So you're looking for a body?
Detective Peter Thom: We are looking for evidence. And a body would be one thing.
Habiba: This is the detective in charge of the search speaking to reporters.
Detective Peter Thom: Tomorrow what's gonna be happening is the OPP are gonna be coming with ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs, and we're gonna have the drone flying over as well.
Habiba: What they were hoping for was anything that might help them solve the mystery of what happened to a 26-year-old Nuseiba Hasan, who one day just vanished.
Detective Peter Thom: We believe that Nuseiba has met with foul play, and as this was the last place she was known to be alive, it's a good starting point for us.
Habiba: When this search was happening, I had no idea it was going on. I had never heard of Nuseiba Hasan, had never set my eyes on this farm in Hamilton, Ontario. In fact, I didn't see the name "Nuseiba Hasan" until three years after this search, when I found myself reading an email from an anonymous sender in the spring of 2019.
Habiba: So I should say I'm an investigative reporter, and I get a lot of emails telling me to investigate things. You know, like how the Canadian Prime Minister is using secret technology to control peoples' minds. Stuff like that. But this email was different. It was short, to the point. The sender tells me that they have information about Nuseiba Hasan, the missing woman, and implies that they know what happened to her, but that they're scared to come forward because they fear for their safety.
Habiba: The day I receive this email is the first time Nuseiba Hasan enters my world—and I enter hers. From Spotify and Gimlet Media, I'm Habiba Nosheen, and this is The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan.
[NEWS CLIP: Hasan was 26 years old when she was last seen.]
Detective Peter Thom: She was dropped off here the one night and she was gone the next morning.
Sara Hasan: I said, "Oh, where is she?" And he's like, "Oh, she's gone." I said, "What do you mean she's gone?"
Mindy: I just remember the panic in her voice.
Maria Martin: And she saw the van, and then she just went flying. Like, bolted. And the van started going after her.
Joyce Finley: Boy, this is very suspicious. Very suspicious.
Sara Hasan: I don't think I can relax in my life. I need to know where she is. Not a day goes by that I don't think of her. Where is she?
Habiba: There are a lot of people who don't want me to tell you this story because it's filled with secrets. Secrets that some people have spent a lifetime protecting. And for a long time, the secrets in this story were safely hidden, partly by accident and partly because of the pain that revealing them would cause. And all of these secrets could have easily stayed hidden if someone from the past hadn't set out to uncover a different kind of secret—a secret about the hidden identity of the woman who gave birth to her. So that's where I want to start this story.
Yasmin: I knew that I was born to a young, unmarried mother, and that's basically all I knew.
Habiba: This is a woman I'll call Yasmin. She's 21 years old, the same age her birth mother was when she gave her up. We're not using her real name for reasons that will become clear later. For as long as Yasmin could remember, she knew she was adopted, and for as long as she could remember, she'd wanted to find her birth mother.
Yasmin: I didn't know whether she was rich or poor, or if she had addiction issues or not.
Habiba: And you knew nothing. Like, you don't know her first name. You weren't given that?
Yasmin: Nope. Nothing.
Habiba: Yasmin is Black, just like her adoptive parents. But Yasmin's skin tone is a lot lighter, which she says made it harder to hide the fact that she was adopted.
Yasmin: Whenever I would have friends and other Black friends, and they would meet my parents and they're like,"Why are both your parents dark and you're this color? Why aren't you the same skin color as your brother?"
Jackie: From day one I can remember it was always when—okay, we need to start figuring out who is who here.
Habiba: This is Jackie, Yasmin's adoptive mother. Also not her real name. I talked to them together. Jackie told me that even as a child, Yasmin always wanted to know the answer to this one question.
Jackie: Always this question: who's my biological mother?
Habiba: Most of what Jackie was able to tell Yasmin about her birth mother came from a file they had been given at the time of the adoption: 30 or so pages of information about Yasmin's previous life—doctor visits she's had. And there was also a scrapbook from the foster family she had briefly stayed with. Yasmin says it was when she turned 14 she started to examine the file to find out what was in it—and what wasn't.
Yasmin: I opened it up, and I had dates, I had the address of where she lived. And I knew the country that her family was from, which is Jordan.
Habiba: The file is from CAS, which stands for Children's Aid Society. It's not exactly a government body, but they work on behalf of the government to oversee adoptions in parts of Canada. And many of the documents in the file are written by a case worker at Children's Aid and addressed directly to Yasmin.
Habiba: I wonder if you could read this.
Yasmin: Mm-hmm. In this page where it says "Birth mother," when I read it: "When you were born, your birth mother had recently turned 19 years of age. Your birth mother was described by a friend as a very attractive woman. She was about five foot five, tall and very slim, weighing only about a hundred pounds. She had wide, brown—wide, bright brown eyes. Her hair was thick and wavy, dark brown to black, worn shoulder length at this time. Sometimes covered with a bandana. She had a wide smile ..."
Habiba: There's also this description of Yasmin as a toddler.
Yasmin: "You were described as having some wicked little temper tantrums if you didn't get your way. These lasted a couple of minutes of earth-shattering screaming. Your birth mother apparently had few or no supports who would have been significant relationships to you."
Habiba: The file gave Yasmin a few concrete facts: her birth father was from Jamaica, and her birth mom was from Jordan. Her birth mother had Yasmin when she was 19, meaning she was probably born in 1980. And she was raising Yasmin alone. Her birth mother had requested a closed adoption, so some of the facts that Yasmin wanted the most weren't in the file: her birth mother's name, her exact date of birth, or pictures of her. Details that could have helped Yasmin track her down.
Habiba: And in fact, reading through the file just added new mysteries for Yasmin about her mother. For example, usually when children are given up for adoption voluntarily, it's when they're still infants. But Yasmin was two years old, and seemingly very well cared for by her mother.
Yasmin: The case workers, they were very impressed by how well she took care of me. She would, like, come to CAS appointments, and I would be well dressed. I was well nourished. I—whenever I got sick, she took me to the hospital. She took me to programs, she took me to daycare. She tried her best. I mean, she basically—like, it was very abrupt how she dropped me off.
Habiba: How do you feel about that?
Yasmin: [sighs] Confused by it, because by all means, she could have given me up right after she gave birth to me. But no, she kept me for about two years. And it was very obvious that she cared. She loved me, and—and then she just—she did the hardest thing she could possibly do, which was give up her child.
Habiba: What made it even more mysterious is how little Yasmin's birth mother had been willing to say about why she was giving her up. The file describes her as quote, "Guarded, defensive and unwilling to open up to the point of it being a bit odd."
Yasmin: She was very hesitant. That's what it said in the report, like, verbatim. Like, she was very hesitant to share her current situation. She said, "I can no longer properly care for her," or she just surrendered me. She found it hard to raise a child without any supports, or—sorry—without any supports, and CAS was like, "Okay. Well, we'll help you, we'll have—we'll give you the names of programs. We'll—we can refer you to social assistance if you need it, or public housing if you need it." Because the thing about Children's Aid, if there's no abuse going on or neglect, which there was none, they try their best to keep biological kids with their parents. They go out of their way to do it. Like, that's what they're there for. And she kept saying, "Nope, nope, nope." And they were completely perplexed.
Habiba: Jackie says that Yasmin's biological mom had taken such good care of her that Children's Aid was convinced that it was only a matter of time before she would come back for her. And yet, that didn't happen. Shortly after Yasmin's birth mother dropped her off, CAS stopped hearing from her. The file says they even put an ad in the local newspaper trying to find her. No luck. After Jackie adopted Yasmin, they never heard from her biological mother, although there was this one mysterious package that came from Children's Aid with a note to Yasmin that said quote, "From your biological family."
Yasmin: So I was about five years old? My parents received a teddy bear and some candies in the mail. And, like, the teddy bear was all worn out. Like, I played with it once and it tore apart, and we had to throw it away. And the candies were just old, and they looked expired and sticky and—yeah.
Habiba: Did it give you hope that maybe she will try to reach out again?
Yasmin: As a kid? Yeah. Yeah, it gave me hope that, like, best-case scenario, you always think as a kid, "Oh, once I turn 16, 18, I'm gonna meet her, and it's all gonna be hugs." And what is it from that movie The Color Purple, where Whoopi Goldberg is meeting up with her sister that she hasn't seen since she's a kid. And it's gonna be like that. And it's just instant connection and happy crying in flower fields. But no.
Habiba: For Yasmin as a 14 year old, looking through the adoption file just deepened the mystery of her mother. Why had her mother spent two years caring for her, supporting her, feeding her, and by all accounts loving her, only to give her up so suddenly? And hanging over all that was the question: where was her birth mother now? Trying to find the identity of the woman who gave birth to her consumed Yasmin, so much so that she became a junior investigator of sorts, pouring over every detail in her adoption file.
Yasmin: I had the address of where she lived, and I would just go on 411, go on the White Pages on the internet and just look "Most common surnames in Jordan, most common surnames in Arabic." And I would just look that up.
Habiba: She would even try amateur forensics on materials in the file. For example, she had this immunization card from when she was a baby with her original birth name. But the last name had been blacked out by Children's Aid.
Yasmin: I tried taking rubbing alcohol to, like, get rid of the permanent marker to see through the pen scratching. But I couldn't. Yeah, at one point I thought I saw a Z or a G, and so I was looking for last names with Z or G, and I couldn't find anything.
Jackie: You always is investigating on the internet.
Yasmin: Yeah, just snooping on the internet. Mom says I'm computer savvy, but really I just use Google search, burner accounts on Facebook and Twitter.
Habiba: What's your burner account? What does that mean?
Yasmin: Just because I don't really use social media, so it's basically just a Facebook account with a fake name.
Habiba: Yasmin fell in love with TV crime shows. And when she started university, she enrolled in psychology with an interest in forensics. And Yasmin wasn't searching alone. Her mother Jackie also started digging.
Habiba: You said you did your own investigation.
Habiba: [laughs] I guess it runs in the family. What did you do? When did you start?
Jackie: Oh, since—one of the things that I always did is every year I always called CAS. I always updated my file just to see was there anybody who contacted, anybody want to know? Because I wanted to make sure that they knew my address is still the same, my phone number is still the same. We are not hesitant at all. If there's ever a phone call, let us know, right? Because I always believed that for the way I know this person took care of this child, one day there's no way she was not gonna want to come in and just see okay, how's she doing, and where she is or can I contact her? And then I engaged an investigator when she was 16.
Habiba: So you hired a private investigator?
Jackie: Yeah. Yeah.
Habiba: And what happened? What did he say?
Jackie: No trace. No trace of anything. It was the worst $2,000 I've ever spent in my life. [laughs]
Habiba: What would you have done?
Jackie: I would—my thinking was I was gonna raise both of them. I was so ready. I was ready to—we were gonna be a family.
Habiba: After all these years, Jackie and Yasmin still knew next to nothing. They didn't know Yasmin's birth mother's name, didn't have a photo or a date of birth. They both started to prepare for the chance that they'll never know more, never be able to help Yasmin answer all her questions. But then everything changed. That's right after the break.
Habiba: I picture all the ways Yasmin has tried to retrace her biological mother's life over the years: studying every detail in her adoption file, reading it over and over again, searching for clues. For an adopted child and their family, those few pages in the adoption file can be priceless. They can help your adopted child find their place in the world, to help them hold onto anything that's tangible about their previous life. I know this because I'm an adoptive mother. And just like Yasmin, my little girl was given up under mysterious circumstances.
Habiba: All I know is the date and the street corner where my daughter was left as a newborn baby. I also don't know who her birth parents are, or why they gave her up. When I adopted her, I wasn't even given her date of birth. I was asked just to make it up.
Habiba: There's so many nights, when everyone has gone to sleep, that I open my laptop, and I search that street corner where she was found over and over again, sometimes for hours, hoping some new detail will emerge that will help me solve the mystery of where my daughter came from. So yeah, believe me, I get the urge and the desperation of wanting to know, of wanting so badly to give your adopted daughter the one thing that you can't.—the truth. The truth about the woman who gave birth to her.
Habiba: In January of 2017, a couple of weeks before Yasmin's 18th birthday, she was doing her regular Google search, you know, with the keywords "Jordanian, woman, Hamilton." But this time there was a hit.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, police presser: Today I have important information in regards to a missing person investigation. The Hamilton Police Service homicide unit is actively investigating the disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan.]
Habiba: So remember that big police search that was on the news? That's what came up when Yasmin searched this time.
Yasmin: I saw the Hamilton Spectator article, "Hamilton Woman Missing for Over 10 Years."
[ARCHIVE CLIP, police presser: She stands approximately 5'4". She has a slim build. She has brown eyes and black hair.]
Yasmin: The woman in the article, she was born in 1980. Jordanian descent. She had a baby out of wedlock. Okay. And then I saw her face and then I'm like, "Holy shit!" She looks like me. The eye shape, the lip shape. I'm like, "Oh my God. Okay." Like, that's—like, almost I was like, "Oh my God, she's prettier than i imagined." [laughs] I'm like—and then I saw the name "Nuseiba Hasan," and I'm like, "Oh my God!" I was just speechless. Just this is who I'm looking at.
Habiba: If Yasmin's hunch was right, then she finally had something she'd wanted her entire life: a picture of her birth mother. And most importantly, a name: Nuseiba Hasan. At the bottom of the article was contact details for the detective working the case—another person looking for the woman Yasmin had been obsessed with trying to track down.
Yasmin: So I wrote down the name of the detective in my little notebook that was at the end of the article, and then just called the detective to ask him a couple questions.
Habiba: Yes, this 17 year old with a love for crime shows calls up a detective hoping to interrogate him about what he knows.
Yasmin: He said, "Oh, sorry. I can't speak to you. You're under the age of majority." And I'm like, "Okay, whatever. I'm turning 18 in a couple days. I'll just wait."
Habiba: As she's waiting, she decides not to mention any of this to her adoptive mom, Jackie. After all, what if her instincts were wrong? She needed proof that Nuseiba was her biological mom. But what Yasmin had no way of knowing is that Jackie had had the exact same epiphany.
[NEWS CLIP: Homicide detectives in Hamilton are now looking into the 2006 disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan.]
Habiba: A couple of months earlier, Jackie had been driving down the highway when she heard something on the radio that made her ears perk up.
[NEWS CLIP: Police say that Hasan is of Jordanian descent. She is about five feet four inches tall with a slim build.]
Habiba: The news report mentioned the same keywords: Jordanian, woman, Hamilton.
[NEWS CLIP: Hamilton police are urging anyone with information about Hasan's disappearance to give them a call.]
Habiba: The minute she heard it, Jackie made a call to the Hamilton Police Department.
Habiba: When you got that call, what did you think?
Detective Peter Thom: This was the last person we thought would be reaching out, especially given the circumstances.
Habiba: This is Detective Peter Thom. He's the lead investigator on Nuseiba's case at the time. And he remembers when Jackie called.
Detective Peter Thom: She had come across this in the media, and told me ...
Jackie: I think this is my adoptive daughter's mother.
Detective Peter Thom: ... and I believe it's the birth mother. That you're investigating her disappearance.
Jackie: And, you know, here's her age. And I also said where I adopted her from, and how long she was in the system for. And then the detective says, "Are you ready for this?" And I said, "Yeah." He says, "It is her." And I said "What?"
Habiba: Jackie wondered, "How am I going to tell this to my daughter?" Before I adopted my daughter, I had to take these adoption classes where you were told how important it was to come up with a script for how to tell your child their story—what you might say to a four year old, and how you might add to that script as your child gets older. But nothing in those classes would've prepared me for something like this.
Habiba: How do you break the news to your daughter that the woman who gave birth to her is missing and the police are looking for her? There's just no script for that. So Jackie agonizes over the exact right words to tell Yasmin. And with Yasmin's 18th birthday just a few days away, Jackie decides she needs to talk to her.
Habiba: Yasmin remembers just how awkward her mom was about it.
Yasmin: You walked into my room and you were like, "Okay, now that you're turning 18, are you sure you want to do this search?" And I'm like, "Yeah, obviously." And she said, "Oh, do you know anything at all? Like, do you still look up on the internet?" I'm like, "Okay, yeah. Here's this article. This looks really—" and you had the biggest, like, "I don't know what that is." [laughs] And like, "You have no idea if that's her. She looks nothing like you." And then I'm like, "Okay. Well, I'm gonna call the detective anyway. I turn 18 in a couple days."
Jackie: So I kind of had to stumble out and say, "Okay. No, I don't know what you're talking about. I've never seen this article."
Habiba: After a few minutes of agonizing, she realized she had to tell Yasmin the truth, that the missing woman in the news is her birth mother.
Jackie: We went back downstairs and I told her, "Okay, I've been talking to the detective."
Yasmin: And then mom broke down and said, "It's her."
Habiba: Do you recall what goes through your mind?
Yasmin: Just—just the look on my mom's face, just the—the pain, just the defeat in her face. Like, it is her. It's like news of hearing that someone's dead, but you—we don't know if they're dead. There's no trace of them. And that—hearing that from mom that it was her, I wasn't just stumbling on some random news article about something. And we cried for—just ugly sobbing for about half an hour.
Habiba: You're crying right now.
Yasmin: It's like grieving, basically. You're grieving someone that you never knew. You don't have any pictures. You don't have any memories. You have nothing. You just have what they gave you, which was my life.
Habiba: At first, this was kind of a relief. Yasmin now knew there was a reason why Nuseiba hadn't tried to reach out. It wasn't because she didn't love Yasmin. But realizing all this also changed how Yasmin feels about looking for her birth mother. What was once just an obsession of a little girl who wanted to know the name of her birth mother has led her to an investigation of what could be a crime. Yasmin knew she was in way over her head. It had been two years since she found the article about Nuseiba, and it didn't seem like there had been any movement in the case. But maybe there was another way she could find out what happened. Maybe she could alert someone about the disappearance of Nuseiba, someone who would know how to investigate. Someone like an investigative reporter. Someone like me.
Habiba: So yeah, Yasmin was the sender of that cryptic email about Nuseiba that I found myself reading in the spring of 2019—the email that kicked off this whole thing for me. When I first read that email, I wanted to find out more about the sender—even something as basic as where was the email sent from? Usually you can track that by looking at the IP address of an email, but Yasmin was a step ahead. She covered her tracks, making it impossible for me to figure out her location.
Yasmin: I did it through, like, an encrypted browser. [laughs]. I use it for Tor.
Habiba: [laughs] I don't know many 21 year olds who do that. Why did you do that?
Yasmin: Mostly it was fear. Like, fear of basically what happened to Nuseiba is just—you're there one day and gone the next.
Habiba: Is there a part of you that's scared?
Yasmin: Yep. It's part of the reason why I'm choosing to remain private. If there is something to be scared of then ...
Habiba: You were gonna say "If." If what?
Yasmin: If there is someone out there that did do harm to her, and they're walking around the community like nothing happened, that is scary.
Habiba: Yasmin's fear was whoever may have harmed Nuseiba, what if they found out that she had a daughter? Would they come after her too? I've been an investigative reporter for more than a decade, and I've worked on all kinds of stories. So at first, Nuseiba's case didn't seem that complicated. I figured I just need a few weeks to get to the bottom of this. But little did I know that it would take me into a three-year journey, and bring me to stories of transnational kidnapping, SWAT teams, allegations of abuse and violence. And at the center of it all? A large family, big secrets, and a missing woman.
Habiba: On the next episode of The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan, we enter the world of Nuseiba, and hear two wildly different explanations about what happened to her.
Detective Peter Thom: We're considering this to be a murder investigation.
Sara Hasan: Well, what do you mean? Like, she's out there. No one can say otherwise to me. I won't hear it.
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 and fact-checking by Kelly Bennett. This episode was produced by Alyssa Edes. Our producers are Hannah Harris Green, Chris Neary and Anya Shultz. Our supervising producer is Matthew Nelson. Our editors are Alex Blumberg, Collin Campbell and Heather Evans.
Habiba: Original music, scoring, sound design and mixing by Catherine Anderson. Music supervision by Liz Fulton. Archive audio courtesy of CTV and CBC.
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: Special thanks to: Nazanin Rafsanjani, Chelsea Gomez, Lydia Polgreen, Caitlin Kenney, Connie Walker, Brendan Klinkenberg, Jen Hahn, Jessie Harte, Talia Rochmann, Matt Cauley, Jay Cockburn, Iris Fischer, Natalie Russel, Whitney Potter, Rachel Strom, Pacinthe Matter, Edward McGee, Sharon Mashihi and Azma Khan.
Habiba: Thank you for listening.