First Kiwi Christmas for boy embroiled in tug-of-love

A wonderful ending to a sad all too common story when alienating parents kidnap their own children. Not only do the left behind parents suffer along with the children, extended family including Uncles, Aunties, cousins and grandparents also suffer.

A New Zealand-born boy embroiled in an international tug-of-love is looking forward to celebrating his first real Kiwi Christmas.

Eighteen months ago, Dylan Laybourn, 13, was reunited with his father Bruce and older sister Gerry, but they didn’t get to celebrate with all the family.

“For me, it was 12 years dreaming of a Kiwi Christmas with Dylan and all of the extended whānau he has been missing. Every day is Christmas now – it has been a long journey but the destination has been worth it,” Bruce said.

Dylan was 4 months old when he was abducted in 2007 by his mother Gulsen Nil Laybourn and her Kurdish mother during what was supposed to be a three-week trip to Turkey.

Bruce still regrets the day he hugged his newborn son in Auckland and handed him over to his maternal grandmother. He thought they were taking Dylan to visit Nil’s family – but they never returned to New Zealand.

“My mother did warn me, ‘Nil’s mother is going to steal your baby’.

“The grandmother kept grabbing Dylan, so that was a bit of a clue. She tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘I want to take Dylan home’. I said ‘no, that is never going to happen’.”

Under the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, any custody dispute should be heard in the child’s country of origin. But Turkey did not recognise New Zealand’s membership of the convention at the time and granted custody to Nil.

Diplomatic efforts escalated to the point former Prime Minister Helen Clark wrote to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the case.

Attempts to bring Dylan home to New Zealand were emotionally and financially taxing. Every year Bruce made two trips to Turkey.

Despite the geographical distance, the pair were close.

“He never understood why his dad never stayed. We have talked about how exciting the reunions were and the gut-wrenching departures. He had an utter determination to come back here and he did it.”

Dylan lived in a tiny apartment with his mother, a fitness instructor in Emirgan, a city on the European side of the Bosphorous in Istanbul.

He attended an Armenian Christian school in Ortakoy and is fluent in Turkish, English, and Armenian.

Dylan says he doesn’t miss the concrete cityscape and being cooped up.

“I didn’t get to experience much stuff living in an apartment,” Dylan said.

Now, out of his window in Ōmāpere on the Hokianga Harbour, Dylan sees golden sand dunes, flowering pōhutukawa trees, and the never-ending ocean.

The “strapping” teenager, who towers over his dad, loves the simplicity of rural life in New Zealand and has inherited his love of fishing, sailing, cycling and kayaking.

“He didn’t have to learn how be a Kiwi boy, he was born here, it’s in his DNA,” Bruce said.

After a visit to New Zealand with his mother in 2018, Dylan didn’t want to leave.

“I calmly told my mother I loved this place and wanted to live here. She didn’t take it too well and said ‘You can’t be serious?’ but I’d already made up my mind,” Dylan said.

Bruce and Nil came to a custody deal agreeing for Dylan to return to live in New Zealand permanently and now he talks with his mother via Skype every day.

But for much of his life, Dylan was shielded from the truth about his abduction.

When he was 9, he Googled his name and was “shocked” to find his mother’s family wanted $500,000 in exchange for him.

“As soon as I saw a video [report] of me being abducted on YouTube, my mind was made up. I told my mother’s family, ‘I am going back to New Zealand.’ I was enraged when I found out they wanted money for me. I thought ‘Wow, what a lowlife thing to do. To steal someone’s child and then ask for money’.”

The only thing he misses about Turkey is his grandmother’s cooking.

“There aren’t too many kebab shops in Ōmāpere.”

Dylan says he is now ready to forgive his grandmother.

“She has been nice to me, she was a great cook and looked after me. There is no denying I share a bond with her. In the end, if she apologised and came to terms with me living here, I would probably forgive her.”

At Kerikeri High School he is “just Dylan” to his friends.

“Only a few kids knew he was abducted and when people do know they are generally supportive and sympathetic – his story is fascinating but he’s so casual about it,” Bruce said.

His advice to parents who are going through a custody battle is to “be patient”.

“It’s a patience game. I know you are desperate to see your child and how heartbreaking it is. If you get too excited about a response, prepare yourself for disappointment. It is a slow process.”

During the holidays Dylan is looking forward to picking mussels off the rocks, having barbecues and swimming in the sea.

“I don’t think anyone should have to go through this, it was unnecessary and caused a great deal of damage. I want to thank my dad who never stopped fighting for me, he is incredible. Most dads wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to fight for their kid but mine did. I am happy because I am here now and we are together.”