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Center for children of jihadists in Syria tries to keep children away from radicalization


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France has decided to increase the number of repatriations of citizens who joined the Islamic State organization in the Middle East.

On 24 January, 15 women and 32 children, who were being held in jihadist prison camps in northeast Syria, were repatriated. But many remain trapped in these camps, under Kurdish control. In Al Hasakah, near the women’s prison where radicalized foreigners are detained, a center tries to help children regain a normal life.

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The place looks like a school. In a prefabricated house, a Kurdish teacher teaches Arabic to young children, aged between 3 and 5, who are well dressed, who participate enthusiastically and speak several languages. “They learned Arabic from the Koran, so the common language is Arabic,” says teacher Shirin*. “When they’re with their brothers, they speak their mother tongue,” she explains.

Russians, Americans, Indonesians, Tunisians or Azerbaijanis, they come from all over the world. All are children of jihadists who joined the Islamic State organization years ago in Syria. The mothers of these children are now being held in a prison in the city of Al Hasakah, where they sleep with their children at night. But during the day, children are welcomed in this space, which works as a school and leisure center.

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The teachers, Kurds, are volunteers. “They are innocent children, they have the right to live a normal life and to get rid of the bad things they have experienced”, defends Shirin. “And it’s not possible for these children to stay 24 hours a day with their mothers in prison.”

In the next room, teenagers are noisy. Teachers find it difficult to channel them. There is a majority of girls, all veiled from head to toe.

Among them, a 15-year-old American named Jenny*. Originally from New York, her story is confusing: a father in the United States, a mother in prison in Al Hasakah, an older brother also held somewhere in Syria and a sister in the Roj camp in the north of the country. Jenny says she doesn’t remember her home country. All she wants is to leave Al Hasakah with her mother and go to Roj, which is still a Syrian prison, but open-air.

Kurdish caregivers manage to bond with some of these teenagers. The complicity is visible, but it is not always easy to get the girls out of their radicalized environment, explains Selda*, another teacher.

“We teach them to be free, not to hide their faces. We explain to them that Islam is not just war and murder. But when they see their mothers in prison, they tell them the opposite”, laments Selda. “They tell their daughters not to listen to us. They teach them to hate us, they say we are unfaithful.”

When trying to talk to a boy who watches the news team, with his feet on a table, the resistance is palpable. He refuses to speak, calling them “infidels”. With an embarrassed smile, the teacher explains: “he doesn’t talk to western women”.

In the courtyard, the centre’s director, Hevi*, tells a story that illustrates the difficulties of volunteers working with minors. “Once, we gave the children fruits and told them they would eat and become strong. They answered us: yes, we will be strong and then we will kill you!”

Despite the radicalism of some, Hevi says he wants to take care of the children of foreign jihadists while their parents are detained in Syria. But she asks for the repatriation of the minors.

“They must return to their countries of origin to attend rehabilitation centers, because here there will always be this radical environment. If these children stay here, they will be even more dangerous than their parents”, he warns. “They also say they will avenge them. The solution is for them to be repatriated”, she emphasizes.

Hevi has been running the center for children of jihadists for six months. The previous director resigned, she says, after receiving death threats online.

*Names have been changed

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