February 22, 2022

Episode 2: Trail Stopped Cold (S3 The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan)

by Conviction


Background show artwork for Conviction

Habiba sits down with key people in the investigation and gets two wildly different theories about what happened to Nuseiba.

Where to Listen


Habiba Nosheen: Previously on The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, police presser: The Hamilton Police Service homicide unit is actively investigating the disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan.]

Habiba: So you hired a private investigator.

Jackie: Yeah.

Habiba: And what happened? What did he say?

Jackie: No trace. No trace of anything.

Yasmin: It's—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.

Habiba: Is there a part of you that's scared?

Yasmin: Yep. 'Cause 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: It was an email from Nuseiba Hasan's daughter Yasmin that first alerted me to Nuseiba's disappearance. It's hard for me not to think about the fact that when Nuseiba walked into that Children's Aid office to put her child up for adoption, she had no way of knowing that 20 years later the daughter she gave up would be the person unwilling to let the world give up on her. In order for me to solve the mystery of what happened to Nuseiba, I know where I have to start.

Habiba: Okay, we're rolling.

Habiba: With the Hamilton police.

Habiba: So can you introduce yourself?

Detective Peter Thom: Yeah, I'm Detective Sergeant Peter Thom with the major crime unit.

Sergeant Daryl Reid: My name is Daryl Reid. I'm a sergeant with the Hamilton police major crime unit.

Habiba: Detectives Peter Thom and Daryl Reid have been investigating Nuseiba's disappearance for years. I want to know what they can tell me about the case. And there's this one thing I'm especially curious to ask them about.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, police presser: My name's Constable Steve Welton of the Hamilton Police Service. And today I have important information in regards to a missing person investigation.]

Habiba: Around the time of the farm search, the one you heard last episode, the Hamilton police had a press conference about Nuseiba's disappearance. And there's something the police say in that conference that's hard to miss. It's about the timing of when Nuseiba was reported missing.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, police presser: She was last seen alive by her family in the fall of 2006. Her disappearance was not reported to police until early 2015.]

Habiba: Nuseiba was last seen in 2006. But then why wasn't she reported missing for almost a decade? Here's Detective Reid, who clearly also thinks that this is kinda weird.

Sergeant Daryl Reid: That kind of was a red flag for us as well. It wasn't a person who had been missing for 24 hours or a couple of days. She had been missing for years already at that point.

Habiba: There were a lot of people in Nuseiba's life who you would've thought might have noticed that she was missing. She had a large family—four brothers, three sisters, her parents. And Detective Thom tells me that when she went missing, she was living in downtown Hamilton with a boyfriend of several years.

Detective Peter Thom: They were living in an apartment together in the east end of Hamilton.

Habiba: But a 26 year old, you know, with a life in Hamilton, it's not middle of nowhere. Had a boyfriend. And for nine years, nobody notices that she's gone? Is that—what do you make of that?

Detective Peter Thom: Well, I think it's certainly strange. That's what feeds into our belief that something untoward has happened to Nuseiba.

Habiba: The detectives tell me that there were other red flags as well. For example, Nuseiba was someone with a long history of using social services. So before 2006, most of her life can easily be traced by a series of records like an appointment at a welfare office, or a transcript from a community college where she had been studying travel and tourism. But right around the time she went missing, that trail stopped cold.

Sergeant Daryl Reid: As of late 2006, basically everything just came to an end. There was no trail of any government involvement. None of that stuff occurred after that November 2006 time.

Detective Peter Thom: There was nothing. We reached out to all the banks, which there was one bank that had her as a client, but nothing post-2006. There's nothing with income tax returns. No visits to dentists or medical services.

Habiba: There is no record of travel, nothing on her passport. She just fell off the grid.

Habiba: So you've been doing this for almost 30 years. You've been doing this for more than 20 years. Have you ever encountered a situation where a person has—no trace of a person and then they just show up? Have you ever encountered that?

Sergeant Daryl Reid: I guess to be honest with you, I'm not sure I've really been in a position of ever having an investigation come to me where someone was found that many years later to be living with such an abrupt end to all of the documented involvement with them.

Detective Peter Thom: Yeah, I would concur with that. We're considering this to be a murder investigation, or highly suspicious missing person.

Habiba: So in the eyes of the detectives, she wasn't just a missing person. She might have been murdered. And there was this other thing the police told me: that it was a sibling that reported Nuseiba missing. But here's the thing: Nuseiba went missing in 2006, and it took nine years for someone from her family to go to the police? Why? Why did it take nine years? And then there's this other thing that just seems odd. Usually when someone goes missing, the family is front and center on TV, in the news, telling people, telling the world that their loved one is gone. But that's not what happens here. In fact, I don't find a single relative quoted in any news report about Nuseiba's disappearance. So I have a lot of questions, and only one way to answer them—I have to find Nuseiba's family.

Habiba: From Spotify and Gimlet Media, I am Habiba Nosheen, and this is The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan.

Habiba: After I walked out of my meeting with the detectives, I felt pretty sure that they think something happened to her. But in order to find out what that might be, I need to find people who knew Nuseiba. I need to find her family. But finding someone from Nusieba's family to talk to me wasn't easy. I messaged pretty much everyone I thought might be related to her. And finally, after dozens and dozens of messages and months of dead ends, one person responds via Facebook. Sara Hasan.

Habiba: She told me she's Nuseiba's older sister. At first, she doesn't seem eager to talk to me, but to be fair, not many people are when they hear that I'm an investigative journalist. But eventually, she agrees. The day we meet, it's pouring outside. Most places are shut down because of COVID. So I rent a conference room at a local Holiday Inn.

Habiba: One, two, three. So can you just introduce yourself?

Sara Hasan: My name is Sara. I'm here because of my sister Nuseiba Hasan. She's been missing for quite a long time. Hoping to find her. That's why I'm here.

Habiba: Sara's in her 40s. Her hair is tied back in a ponytail. She works as a nurse at a nursing home, sometimes on the overnight shift. She looks tired as she sips her cup of Tim Horton's coffee. I explain again the podcast I'm working on and that I want to learn more about Nuseiba, about her disappearance, and about what she was like.

Habiba: Can you describe what she looked like?

Sara Hasan: Nuseiba?

Habiba: Mm-hmm.

Sara Hasan: Beautiful girl. Big eyes. Big, gorgeous eyes. What does she look like? Curly, dark brown hair, lovely smile, sparkly eyes, [laughs] brown eyes. Pointy nose. She's very petite, maybe 5'3", 5'4", maybe 130 pounds.

Habiba: What was she like?

Sara Hasan: Nuseiba was very sensitive, sweet. Loved cats. She's very artistic. Liked to sing.

Habiba: What would she sing?

Sara Hasan: She sang with my mom a lot. A lot of songs. Tina Turner songs. [laughs] Nuseiba, very sensitive. Introvert.

Habiba: Can you explain what you mean by that? Just the sensitive part.

Sara Hasan: I mean, you know, if she hears someone, like, raise their voice or something, she'd kind of like retrieve. And you can tell she'd, like, retrieve into her little shell, and you'd see the effect on her.

Habiba: Hmm.

Sara Hasan: But at the same time, if she needed to be tough, she was. Like, she was a strong girl. Strong girl. Yeah.

Habiba: Strong girl who often butted heads at home. Her sister Sara told me that around the age of 14, Nuseiba started rebelling against her family's religious expectations of her, and that led to Nuseiba leaving home many times, and even staying at shelters.

Sara Hasan: 'Cause it was like, come, go, come, go. And she would never talk to us about what she was doing when she was away. Like, she kept that stuff to herself. She wanted to do her own thing. She just wanted to do her own thing.

Habiba: Nuseiba was the second youngest of eight siblings, and seemed to have been a thorn in the side of her parents. She was persistent, tenacious, strong willed. She grew up in Canada in a town called Milton. Her parents were both born in Palestine. And the family's back story different people have told me over the years is this:

Habiba: In his late 20s, Nuseiba's father Musa married Yamenah, who was a teenager at the time. The couple would go on to have eight kids together. Musa started out working manual labor jobs in agriculture and construction. The kids and Yamenah would kick in with odd jobs of their own, and by the early '80s, using money the children had saved up from their paper route, the family bought a backhoe, you know, one those yellow diggers you've probably seen? That's how their family business got started: Bethlehem & Sons Excavating Ltd.

Habiba: Three decades after moving to Canada, Musa had taken that backhoe and grown it into a successful company. The Hasan kids referred to him as "Baba Dig," a term of endearment because Baba is the Arabic for "Dad," and dig because well, that's what he did for a living. And while dad was busy digging, the mom ran a gardening center on their large property. Coming from such humble beginnings and building such a successful enterprise was a source of pride for the Hasans.

The business was a regular sponsor in the local Milton kids sports leagues, and the large family house on a sprawling property—or the mansion, as some people in the town referred to it—was hard to miss.

Sara Hasan: Pretty much everyone knew us in Milton. We were a close knit family, and there was always family time on the weekends.

Habiba: But there might have been another reason everyone knew them in Milton: most people around town didn't look like them. There's a group photo from 1984 of Nuseiba's brother's soccer team, which Musa sponsored. The boys look around 10 or 11, some have big proud smiles on their faces, others are just trying to look tough. What clearly stands out is that dad and son are the only people of color in an otherwise all-white team. Census records suggest that the Hasans were one of the only mMslim families living in Milton, which was around 96 percent white at the time.

Habiba: And an elementary school photo of Nuseiba shows that by grade five, she started wearing the hijab, something that Sara told me all Hasan girls were expected to do.

Sara Hasan: My dad kept to the religion as much as he could: no dating, no alcohol, no parties. You know, we wore a hijab. Curfew at night, you know, in bed by nine.

Habiba: Do you recall when you started to wear a hijab?

Sara Hasan: Oh, I started wearing mine when I was in grade five.

Habiba: I started wearing it in grade six.

Sara Hasan: Did you?

Habiba: Yeah. Yeah.

Sara Hasan: Yep. Right?

Habiba: And, look, it was tough.

Sara Hasan: Yes.

Habiba: This neighborhood doesn't strike me as very multicultural. Maybe it is.

Sara Hasan: Oh, Milton? Hell, no!

Habiba: Okay. [laughs].

Sara Hasan: When we—we were like the only—there was only a couple of minority families in Milton.

Habiba: Yeah.

Sara Hasan: Just a—just not even a handful.

Habiba: So, you know, you stood out. You definitely stood out.

Sara Hasan: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Habiba: And I can tell you from experience, if you are a kid who wants to not stand out, it's virtually impossible to accomplish that when you show up at school wearing a hijab. As I started to piece together Nuseiba's life, I started to see so much of myself in her.

Habiba: The best way for me to explain this is to describe these two photos that come up when you Google her. One is kind of official looking, as if from an ID of some kind. In that, she's staring straight at the camera, and wearing a hijab that covers her hair. But in the other photo, she looks completely different. In that one, Nuseiba doesn't have a hijab, and instead you can see her short black curly hair. It looks kind of like a selfie.

Habiba: It's the contrast in these photos that feels so familiar. Both of Nuseiba's pictures side by side bring back memories of my own struggles as a teenager—to exist uncomfortably in two different parallel universes. One world inhabited by my family, the world in which covering your head with a hijab was supposed to be about our religious obligation and pride. And this other world, where I removed my hijab when my parents weren't around, keeping my fingers crossed that I won't get caught. In that world, I was just a teenage girl from a Muslim family, who just wasn't hijab-level religious.

Habiba: While investigating this story, there have been so many moments like this—parts of Nuseiba's life that mirror my own. Parallels that I never could have imagined. Just like Nuseiba, I grew up in a deeply religious Muslim family. Just like Nuseiba, I was also a first-generation Canadian. Just like Nuseiba, I had a troubled family history that forced me to run away from home as a teenager.

Habiba: I know in part those parallels fueled my determination to unravel the mystery of what happened to Nuseiba Hasan, a young Muslim woman whose life and struggles had been so similar to mine. Except for this one big difference: I made it out of those turbulent years—and she vanished.

Habiba: More after the break.


Habiba: I talked to Sara for a couple of hours in that Holiday Inn conference room. And some details of Nuseiba's life came back to her fairly easily. But other details she didn't remember that well.

Habiba: Did she have a lot of friends?

Sara Hasan: Not that I know of.

Habiba: So no friends ever came home, or ...

Sara Hasan: No.

Habiba: Hmm.

Sara Hasan: No. Good question. Friends are important, eh?

Habiba: Right.

Sara Hasan: Honestly!

Habiba: Yeah. Yeah. But you didn't see her hanging out with friends or anything?

Sara Hasan: See, I was in my own world too.

Habiba: When she was a kid, four year old, five year old, how would you describe what she was like?

Sara Hasan: Well, I was in my own world. [laughs]

Habiba: What world were you in?

Sara Hasan: [laughs] I don't know! I was in Sara's world! No, but, like, four or five year old, she was a happy go lucky kid. Sweet girl. Just like any other four or five year old, I'd say. Very bright and happy.

Habiba: Is there a moment that you can think of her, where she was, like, happy as a kid? Like, a particular moment or a day that something made her happy? That might seem like an odd question, but I'm just trying to get a sense of what was she like. What—what made her happy?

Sara Hasan: Oh, she loved her cats.

Habiba: Okay.

Sara Hasan: She loved her cats.

Habiba: Did she have a cat at home?

Sara Hasan: She had a couple of cats.

Habiba: Really? Okay.

Sara Hasan: [laughs] Yeah, she loved her cats. What would make her happy? Going to school. She loved school.

Habiba: Yeah.

Sara Hasan: It'd put a smile on her face. Her cats. I don't know. Because I'd—like, I didn't hang out with her.

Habiba: Okay.

Sara Hasan: Because we were—the age difference. But I remember those things making her happy as a child.

Habiba: Anything else that you could think of that made her happy? Or things that made her sad or upset?

Sara Hasan: She loved Arabic coffee. Make her upset?

Habiba: I'll give you an example. For me, it was when my sisters would steal my clothes. That was like—I would hate it. I would get so mad. Like, what pissed her off, I guess?

Sara Hasan: I don't know. I don't know. What made Nuseiba mad? I don't—like, I don't recall.

Habiba: It's—it's—I mean, not that—it is kind of strange to hear you say that, because it almost sounds like I'm asking you about an acquaintance. Like, what do you think? Do you think it's because your mind doesn't want to think about her? Do you think there is—like, there's a barrier. I sense that.

Sara Hasan: With Nuseiba?

Habiba: Just ...

Sara Hasan: Yeah.

Habiba: ... not being able to recall some details that I would recall with my siblings. Or do you think it's just because you haven't wanted to talk about her or think about her for a long time, or what is it?

Sara Hasan: No, I think—because I—it may be strange to you, but coming from myself, and—and coming from a family of eight, I just saw her in pockets.

Habiba: Hmm.

Sara Hasan: So it may be weird to you, but it's not really. That's just the way it was.

Habiba: I think one of 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. This is from when she was 14 to, when did we—2000 and what, 7? That was the last time. And then, I don't know, 2013, did my brother go to the cops? I don't know.

Habiba: I think it was a nine-year gap between.

Sara Hasan: There was a nine-year gap? It's just we're all busy with our own lives. But I don't think everybody else gets it. It's like when you—you just hope she's okay.

Habiba: Yeah.

Sara Hasan: And everybody's busy with their own flippin' life. You know, all my brothers have, like, six, seven kids each.

Habiba: Wow.

Sara Hasan: You know? Everybody's going through whatever issues in their own life that you don't stop to think about any—you're just worried about yourself. And then time flies and you're like, "What the hell!?"

Habiba: Obviously, I don't know what was going on in Sara's life at the time, but I have to say, "Everyone was too busy to notice my sister was missing for nine years" is just about the strangest explanation I've ever heard. And the other thing about that exchange that started circulating in my head was, how come she doesn't seem to know the dates—even the years—that her sister went missing and was reported missing? How did Nuseiba become so insignificant in the lives of everyone in her life? How come no one was alarmed when presumably Nuseiba never called them on their birthday or holidays year after year? How come no one who loved her put up billboards, went on tv or radio, pleading for people to come forward? Even after the police announced that she was missing?

Habiba: It would be a while before I would be able to answer any of these questions. In my interview with Sara, I learn her thoughts on what happened to her sister are very different from what the police think.

Sara Hasan: [sighs] Nuseiba's never out of my mind. I think of her when I wake up, I think of her when I go to bed. I think of her when I look at my son.

Habiba: Hmm.

Sara Hasan: My older one reminds me so much of her.

Habiba: Hmm. 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? Walk me through that.

Sara Hasan: My mind—uh, I don't know. Is she in a cult? Because I've heard of other people where they've gone missing and they've been into a cult. I know, like, a family friend that's happened to their son. Human trafficking.

Habiba: Mm-hmm.

Sara Hasan: That's crossed my mind, thinking, "Oh my God. Like, good God." I like to think positively, because I remember going rollerblading and seeing someone that looked like her with a family, and I thought, you know, I'm hoping she's happy wherever she is. Could she have got a different identity? That's crossed my mind. Is that possible?

Habiba: Not that easy in Canada, as you know.

Sara Hasan: Is she in Canada? I don't know.

Habiba: There doesn't appear to be any travel in her passport or anything like that, from what I understand.

Sara Hasan: Realistically?

Habiba: Yeah.

Sara Hasan: Realistically, where my thought goes is she's with somebody. I mean, this may be crazy to you, but I've consulted psychics.

Habiba: Psychics? [laughs]

Sara Hasan: Seriously! That's how, like, I'm like ...

Habiba: Okay.

Sara Hasan: And they—I know, but I'm just like, where the hell is she? Psychics. And they told me she's with somebody and she's got serious mental health issues. Like, she's—she's ill. So I don't know. Prostitution's crossed my mind. That's horrifying.

Habiba: Yeah.

Sara Hasan: That goes along with human trafficking, right? In a way. She's—she's vulnerable. She's vulnerable.

Habiba: When Nuseiba left home as a teenager, Sara told me that there were long stretches when Nuseiba wasn't in touch with her family but would eventually turn up, which is what gives Sara hope that the same thing will happen this time. But the detectives had told me that the chances of Nuseiba being alive are very, very slim. So I broach the subject delicately, and I ask if Sara had ever thought about the possibility that her sister might not be alive.

Habiba: Did you explore that theory? Does your mind ever let you explore that theory?

Sara Hasan: No. No.

Habiba: Why?

Sara Hasan: Because—because there's no facts for that to be. Do you know what I mean? I feel—I feel she's alive. She's out there. And I always will.

Habiba: If you saw her, what would you say?

Sara Hasan: I would say, "I love you. Welcome home. Come home!"

Habiba: Hmm.

Sara Hasan: I hope you're happy. I hope she's happy with whatever she's doing. I'd just—I'd hug her. Tell her I love her.

Habiba: And say 50 years go by, and you don't hear from her.

Sara Hasan: I hope it's not that long. Like, I pray it's as soon as possible.

Habiba: What's going through your mind?

Sara Hasan: Not a day goes by that I don't think of her. Where is she? I think does she think of—like, does she not think of us? Sometimes I think, like, what did I do to her? Was I not there enough? Could I have been better? Like, I don't know. I hope she's happy, whatever. But ...

Habiba: You're crying.

Sara Hasan: I don't think I can relax in my life. I need to know where she is.

Habiba: Are you open to all options?

Sara Hasan: What do you mean? Like, she's out there. No one can say otherwise to me. I won't hear it.

Habiba: Where do you get your positivity from, given that it's been a long time?

Sara Hasan: You know what? Intuition.

Habiba: Okay.

Sara Hasan: Intuition and hope.

Habiba: Do your siblings share your theories about what could have happened to her?

Sara Hasan: [sighs] My siblings? I never know. They think—I don't think they think as positively as I do.

Habiba: Do you guys talk about the fact that she's been missing, and ...

Sara Hasan: It's a—it's a painful issue in the family.

Habiba: What do they think?

Sara Hasan: You'd have to ask them that.

Habiba: Okay.

Sara Hasan: Because I don't agree with anything that's been said with them.

Habiba: Okay.

Sara Hasan: Yeah.

Habiba: Sara's pretty cryptic when I ask what her siblings think happened to Nuseiba. She won't clarify what she means, and says I should just ask them. There's a level of secrecy when I ask about her siblings that's hard to understand. In fact, she told me that no one in her family knows that she's talking to me. This meeting is a secret. And when I do try the other siblings? All I get from them is radio silence. So I have no choice but to start piecing together Nuseiba's life on my own.

Habiba: And that's when I discover the shocking ghosts in Nuseiba's past.

George Robbins: I just said to the secretary, "I'm gonna take Nuseiba. We're going into the girls phys ed office. I said, "I won't come out until I know that it's you and the police at the door for us."

Habiba: That's on the next episode of The Disappearance of Nuseiba Hasan.

Joyce Finley: He didn't want to be told by anybody what he could do with his family.

Habiba: Hmm.

Joyce Finley: Very disturbing.

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 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.