#AMARInsights: Mosul clinic set to open doors

Work is now complete on AMAR’s Bazwaya Primary Health Care Centre on the outskirts of Mosul. When it opens later this month, the clinic will provide vital healthcare to approximately 15,000 people within the immediate catchment area. 

It will become the fifth AMAR clinic to open in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. Once a multi-faith community, thousands fled Bazwaya to escape the ISIS invasion three and a half years ago. 

Now, families returning to their old homes to rebuild their lives must do so from the rubble left by three years of conflict. They will have few resources and face an increasing threat of disease and infection. As a result of a fantastic fundraising effort by our supporters, AMAR commissioned the rehabilitation of the existing, heavily damaged, government clinic. 

It is now fully equipped and locally-hired medical staff will support a range of units providing vaccinations, ultrasound, a gynaecology department, dental services, maternal and child care, a malnutrition unit, a GP service and a laboratory. 

Following our model of locally-led development, Women Health Volunteers and Community Based Workers have been appointed to promote health awareness within Bazwaya and surrounding villages. 

The campaign includes daily visits to local families and regular lectures encouraging both physical and mental health education. Our volunteers will also play a pivotal role in the Escaping Darkness programme which provides psycho-social care for women and girls kidnapped by ISIS.

by Rachel Addison


#ArabAmerica: Ralph Nader to Speak at SSU

Ralph Nader, American political activist, author, lecturer and attorney, noted for his involvement in consumer protection, environmentalism and government has been named speaker for Sonoma State University’s annual H. Andréa Neves and Barton Evans Social Justice Lecture Series in 2018. 

Nader will speak March 5 at 7:30 p.m. in Weill Hall of the university’s Green Music Center. His topic is “One Person Can Make a Difference: Social Justice and World Affairs.” Tickets are now available

The lecture series hosted by the Green Music Center kicks off Social Justice Week, an annual event at Sonoma State University sponsored by the Sociology Social Justice and Activism Club and other campus groups. 

Access, equity and other central themes of social Justice are at the heart of Sonoma State University’s mission, and a priority of the current administration. Dean of the School of Social Sciences John Wingard said the lecture series, made possible by the generosity of Andréa Neves and the late Barton Evans, is a critical component of the university’s efforts. 

Andréa Neves said, “My husband, Bart Evans and I, have always been involved in issues of social justice. The lecture series is our attempt to bring to campus noted lecturers, researchers and the like, who ordinarily would not be available to our students and the SSU community because of the cost to bring them to campus. Thus far, we have been able to bring to campus 13 internationally known speakers such as Cornel West, Dolores Huerta and Jamaica Kincaid. We hope to bring many more in the coming years.” 

Nader’s analyses and advocacy have enhanced public awareness and increased government and corporate accountability for decades. His example has inspired a generation of consumer advocates, citizen activists and public interest lawyers, who in turn have established their own organisations throughout the country. 

He first made headlines as a young lawyer in 1965 with his book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a scathing indictment that lambasted the auto industry for producing unsafe vehicles. The book led to congressional hearings and the passage of a series of automobile safety laws in 1966. In his most recent book, “Breaking Through Power,” Nader draws from a lifetime waging—and often winning—David vs. Goliath battles against big corporations and the United States government. 

One of his top priorities is defending the U.S. civil justice system. Corporate lobbyists and anti-consumer legislators have worked on both the federal and state levels to restrain consumers' rights to seek justice in court against wrongdoers in the area of product liability, securities fraud and medical negligence. Nader continues working to advance meaningful civic institutions and citizen participation as an antidote to corporate and the lack of government accountability. 

Tickets for the Nader lecture are $15. Students with valid ID will be admitted free. Tickets are available online and at the university box office. For more information, please visit www.gmc.sonoma.edu or call (866) 955-6040 

About the H. Andréa Neves and Barton Evans Social Justice Lecture Series 

The H. Andréa Neves and Barton Evans Social Justice Lecture Series is sponsored by philanthropist and former SSU professor Andréa Neves and her late husband, Silicon Valley engineer and executive Barton Evans. 

It is co-hosted annually by the School of Education and School of Social Sciences. Beginning in 2005, the series invites a distinguished and inspiring speaker to address the topic of social justice in a public lecture at Sonoma State University. Past speakers have included Cornel West, Dolores Huerta, Julian Bond, Jonathan Kozol, and many others.


Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi fights terrorism through music

When a car packed with explosives detonated just streets away from his home in Baghdad, renowned cellist and conductor Karim Wasfi res­ponded in the only way he knew how. 

Wasfi tucked a stool under his arm and carried his cello to the scene of the explosion. Setting up his chair amid the debris, just metres from the blackened shell of a building, Wasfi began to play. 

“I was serenading the dead and wanted to show that in spite of the constant fear of terror, life is worth living,” Wasfi says. “Partially in condolence of those whom we have lost to the terror. But at the same time I wanted to send a message of peace and perseverance.” 

Many of the people who stopped to watch the impromptu performance had witnessed the bombing, which killed 10 people. “They loved it. They were amazed. Soldiers cried, the crowd hugged and clapped,” Wasfi says. He named his composition Baghdad Mourning Melancholy. 

A video of the striking scene, captured by Wasfi’s friend Ammar al-Shahbander, who has since been killed in another car bomb explosion, went viral. The poignant image of the cellist amid the rubble captured the attention of 33 million viewers, a juxtaposition of beauty and the destruction of war. 

Wasfi has since played at dozens of bomb sites and at refugee camps. “I want to show that we have a choice to fight back,” he says. “We can’t surrender to this sense of impending doom by not living properly. We have to choose to live.” 

Half-Iraqi, half-Egyptian, Wasfi, who splits his time between Iraq and the US, was speaking to Review by phone from his home in Washington, DC. 

This month, the cellist will perform in Sydney and Hobart with his friend and fellow Iraqi-American Rahim AlHaj, who is a composer and “maestro of the oud” or Arabic lute. “We are very excited to be visiting Australia for the first time,” Wasfi says. 

“We are hoping to share stories about Iraq and continue our approach of connecting the East and West through sound. Our performance with the cello and the oud will hopefully bridge different cultures not often heard in Australia. I think it’s a great opportunity to share our music with a lovely new audience.” 

For the Sydney Festival, AlHaj and Wasfi will perform in a harbourside penthouse designed by architect Harry Seidler, and in a concert featuring Tunisia’s Emel Mathlouthi. In Hobart, the duo will perform at the Museum of Old and New Art. 

Wasfi began his study of the cello at the Music and Ballet School in Baghdad. A child prodigy, at 13 he became the youngest person to join the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. At 23, he was offered a place at Indiana University to study under Hungarian maestro and cellist Janos Starker, an opportunity Wasfi describes as “an enormous privilege”. 

It was while Wasfi was living in the US that he decided to pursue another passion — politics — and he completed a degree in political science at Boston University before returning to Iraq after the 2003 US invasion. 

Wasfi’s dual interest in music and politics would prove critical to his pursuit of cultural diplomacy and his philosophy of using musical performance “to fight back”, an idea that Wasfi has said first came to him back in 2015, during the height of Islamic State’s occupation of Iraq. 

During his illustrious career Wasfi has held many prominent positions including director and chief conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. However, it is his work for the Peace through Arts Global Foundation, a program he established to promote peace in war-torn areas, of which is he is most proud. 

For the cellist and conductor, music is an “underestimated soft power” that not only can foster “intercultural understanding and respect for cultural diversity” but also can be used in the battle to fight extremism. 

“I felt my performing and conducting was already contributing to stability, but by 2015 I sensed another wave of violence that was going to rapidly escalate,” Wasfi says. “So I decided not to limit my performances to the performance house. I decided to perform out in the street at bomb sites. 

“I want to transcend the limitations of instability, war, sanctions. My artistic vision is to show how music in different genres can be used as a tool for peace building, stability and interaction. I am waging my own battle against terrorism through beauty, overcoming violence through beauty and encouraging others to do the same.” 

Wasfi’s cultural diplomatic endeavours are admirably comprehensive and include a music mentoring program that teaches musical skills to underprivileged Iraqi children and refugees. He says: “I want to awaken society from intimidation. I don’t want people to be intimidated or live in fear of terror but fight back through persistence and dedication to life.” 

Karim Wasfi will perform as part of Sydney Festival on January 17, 18 and 19; then at Mofo 2018 at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, January 20 and 21. 

by Olivia Caisley


Yazidi Children Rescued From IS Getting Psychological Help

Dozens of Yazidi children who have been rescued from the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria are now receiving counseling to cope with and recover from the trauma they experienced during their years in captivity. 

At Qadiya refugee camp near the Iraqi Kurdistan Region's northern city of Duhok, more than 100 Yazidi boys and girls aged between 4 and 13, who were kidnapped by IS in August 2014, are getting assistance to recover from the psychological harm they sustained under IS control. 

The children were smuggled out of IS-controlled territories in Iraq and Syria in recent months. Most of the boys were trained by IS to engage in militancy, while many girls were sexually abused. 

Zahid Suhail, 12, is one of the boys who was indoctrinated with IS extremist ideology in Iraq and sent to Syria for military training when he was just 9 years old. "I was first sent to a military camp in Tal Afar for three months and later transferred to a military camp in Mosul," Suhail told VOA. 

"I received religious training on the Quran, creed, and the main obligations. They later arranged a test, which I passed," he added. While in Mosul, Suhail said, he also was taught Arabic and was prevented from using his native Kurdish language. 

He is still unable to speak Kurdish. His family and psychiatrists are trying to help him to recover his native tongue. After finishing his religious training, Suhail was sent to the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, where he was trained for fighting. 

"Someone called Abu Khatab al-Iraqi took me to Syria. They sent me to a group of [IS] special forces in a military camp near the airport of Deir el-Zour," Suhail said. 

'Cubs of the caliphate' 

Suhail told VOA that shortly after finishing his military training, he was made a member of a group of IS child recruits known as the "cubs of the caliphate." There is no official data on how many children were schooled and trained by IS since 2014, but human rights organizations estimate the number to be in the thousands. 

In Iraq, the government's counter-terrorism program has listed about 2,000 children as having been potentially influenced or brainwashed by Islamic State ideology. Many of those child recruits died while fighting on behalf of IS in the last year. 

An IS video released in February 2017 showed two teenage Yazidi brothers purportedly blowing up their explosives-laden vehicles in an attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul. Psychologists at Qadiya refugee camp said Suhail was fortunate to have been smuggled out of Deir el-Zour, because IS fought a losing battle against the Syrian army and its allied forces last October. 

Now their job is to help him overcome the mental stress and health effects caused by years of IS indoctrination. "They brainwashed him for 3½ years and, in many ways, made him act exactly like one of them," Naeef Jardo, a psychiatrist at the camp, told VOA. 

"We are working hard to bring him back to normal." Jardo is among several specialists at the camp who are working to help rehabilitate the children. French organization Yahad In-Unum is funding the children's recovery and reintegration process. 

In addition to psychological counseling, the camp provides several recreational activities and learning programs to help the children learn new skills. Jardo said the younger children have shown a lot of improvement, while those older than 9 might need a longer period of treatment, particularly traumatized girls who were sexually abused. 

One of the girls at the camp, Madeha Ibrahim, 13, said she was still in shock from the horrors she suffered at the hands of IS as a sex slave. "Abu Usuf raped me and beat me a lot with a hose," she told VOA while recalling the story of her enslavement by an IS fighter in Mosul. 

"He tortured me a lot." Ibrahim said she was later sold to another IS fighter of Turkish origin. "The Turkish [IS member] grabbed my ponytail and hit my head on the wall three times until I became unconscious," she added. 

'I offered to convert' 

Evana Hassan, another 13-year-old girl at the camp, told VOA she experienced similar abuse from an IS fighter because she refused to convert to Islam. "He told me, 'I will sell you.' I suffered a lot from being sold to different people. I told him, 'Don't sell me. I will convert to your religion.' " 

Hassan said the IS fighter repeatedly raped her at age 12, claiming she had reached the age of sexual maturity. "When I turned 12 years old, he told me, 'You have reached the age of marriage. I will marry you now,' " Hassan said. 

The camp organizers said that while they would continue to care for the 108 rescued boys and girls, they were prepared to receive more children as they were found across Iraq and Syria. Yazidi organizations say about 2,000 Yazidis, mostly women and children, remain missing even as IS has lost most of its enclaves in Iraq and Syria. 

"We are continuously welcoming new survivors at our camp," Khalaf Alias of Yahad In-Unum told VOA. "We expect hundreds more children to be found." Alias said it would most likely take years for the children to recover and that more international support would be needed to help the Yazidi community in Iraq. 

"Those children have gone through a lot of suffering. They deserve more attention from everyone," Alias said. 

by Rikar Hussein and Kawa Omar


Exhibition in Brussels on the Yazidi community in Iraq

The Yazidis in Northern Iraq have suffered many persecutions, most recently by the Islamic State (Da'esh).An exhibition which opens on 13th January puts the community in the limelight. 

Da'esh's acts of terror from 2014 onwards have been the most gruesome manifestation of internal violence so far and they targeted in particular the Yazidi religious minority. 

The exhibition, "The Yazidis, a people between exile and resistance", is organised by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation and the NGO ULB-Cooperation.It brings together photographs and texts on the crimes perpetrated by Da'esh. 

The exhibition can be seen from January 13th to February 21st at Espace Architecture La Cambre Horta, Place Flagey in Ixelles. The exhibition is the result of several years of work by two journalists, Johanna Tessières and Christophe Lamfalussy, and includes filmed interviews of ULB professors. 

Their expertise allows the public to understand the Yazidis. The floor is also given to members of the Yazidi community. The Yazidi population has been decimated during Da'esh’s terror regime. Thousands of women were abducted and kept in sexual slavery. 

Men were executed and many children were indoctrinated and converted into child soldiers. Some 420,000 people fled and found refuge in mainly Iraqi Kurdistan or abroad. In Belgium, there are between 35,000 and 45,000 Yazidis, mainly settled in Liège. 

The European Commission wrote in a recent document (8th January) on a strategy for support to Iraq that the Iraqi Government has agreed under UN Security Council resolution 2379(2017) to hold Da'esh accountable for its actions in Iraq. 

A UN team will be deployed to Iraq to collect, preserve, and store evidence of acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed by the terrorist group in Iraq. 

by Christopher Vincent


AMAR’s new health centre to serve Mosul residents

We’re delighted to announce that work on the AMAR Foundation's new Bazwaya Primary Health Centre near Mosul, is now complete! 

The clinic is fully equipped and locally-hired medical staff will provide vaccinations, gynaecology, maternity and dental services, child care, along with GP access to local residents. 

You can help AMAR rebuild more lives in Iraq by making a donation online, or if you’re in the UK and would like to request a media interview, please call the AMAR Foundation on 0207 799 2217.


Dominican sisters help educate Iraqi children returning home

When Iraqi residents fled their homes during the Islamic State invasion, they left behind their houses, neighbors, and day-to-day lives. 

For the children who fled, leaving their home behind also meant an interruption in their education – in some cases for months or years. 

While some refugee camps offer classes for children, challenges abound and students often fall behind. Now, a group of Dominican sisters in one Iraqi town is working to help educate displaced children as their families return to their homes and work to rebuild their lives. 

With the support of Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need in Spain, the Dominican Sisters of Saint Catherine of Sienna were able to restore their convent, which had been destroyed by the Islamic State in Iraq. 

Today, they offer classes to hundreds of children who had been displaced by the war. “We try to help the children, giving them peace: in our convent we offer them a safe place,” Sister Ilham told ACN in late December. Despite the expulsion of ISIS, security in the area remains unstable. 

In May 2017, ACN funded the restoration of Our Lady of the Rosary Convent with a grant of $54,000. Located in Teleskuf, north of the plain of Nineveh, the convent is just over 20 miles outside of Mosul. 

The sisters worked 12-hour days to prepare the convent to welcome the children, Sister Ilham said. They provide daycare for children between three and five years old. In the mornings, they teach about 150 children between the ages of six and 12. 

In the evenings, they teach students 12 years of age and older. Sister Ilham, 57, was working for a church in Mosul when the rapid advance of the Islamic State forced her and her community to flee. However, after the fall of the terrorist group, she returned to the area and today is helping those displaced from Teleskuf. 

“None of us wanted to leave where we come from, but as the attacks continued, we had to flee to save our lives,” she said. “In 2016 some 6,000 people had to leave Telskuf. When I returned to this area, all the houses were abandoned and many of them destroyed,” she continued. 

“In Teleskuf all that is left of many of buildings are the ruins. The school and the children's home are destroyed, the doors of the convent were forced open and the sisters' home was sacked.”

In addition to teaching at the convent, the sisters visit the members of the Christian community in their homes, teach catechism to the children, and prepare them for their First Communion. Once the local school is rebuilt, the children will no longer need to attend the convent classes. 

In the meantime, the sisters hope they can help the children from falling too far behind in their studies. “Before the Islamic State invasion, there were five sisters in the convent, while now there are only two of us. Fortunately, we are will soon receive reinforcements,” Sister Ilham said. 

In addition to helping fund the convent reconstruction, Aid to the Church in Need is currently helping rebuild 13,000 houses and more than 300 church properties destroyed by the Islamic State in Iraq.


Sorrow stalks Iraqi Christians in Lebanon

In the hardscrabble Beirut suburb of Sad al Baoushriye, the narrow apartment rented by the Yousifs, a family of refugees from northern Iraq, is shrouded in sorrow. 

The Yousifs were forced to flee the Nineveh region near Mosul in Iraq in 2015 amid a wave of reprisals against Christians and minorities, and persecution by extremists. 

The family of seven, who span three generations, first moved to Erbil. Then, still feeling vulnerable, they travelled on to Lebanon, with little more than memories. Though the security worries have diminished, life in exile has itself been fraught. 

Soon after escaping from Iraq, Mirna, the mother, suffered another loss – her husband, Munzer, died in Beirut of natural causes. The four children, aged between 12 and 22, who are still with her in Lebanon, were left without a father. 

“First my son had to leave Iraq as he was being forced to go and fight, then we followed. It was too dangerous to stay,” Mirna told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, during a visit to the apartment alongside an Iraqi volunteer from the Catholic NGO Caritas, a UNHCR partner. 

As she spoke, Mirna rustled around for a photo printout of the former family home, now just pockmarked walls encasing bricks, dust and twisted metal fragments. “We’ve lost our home. It was completely destroyed. What have we got to go back to?” 

As well as keeping the immediate family together, Mirna has to care for her bereaved parents-in-law. Her mother-in-law, Faheemah, 82, is nearly blind and almost entirely bedridden, having suffered a stroke and other complications; her swollen legs only carry her from bed to bathroom, when assisted. 

The cost of medication has stretched family finances to breaking point. Her father-in-law, Gorgis, 83, sometimes leaves the apartment but generally ventures no further than the local church or a plastic chair in the ground-floor car park, from where he surveys the street through glassy eyes. 

During the visit, Gorgis broke into a mournful Chaldean chant that appeared to an outsider to be a lament for home, and perhaps the family’s current plight. Dreams of the future are mostly on hold. The family’s daily preoccupation, like that of so many other refugees, is financial. 

The apartment that they rent in Beirut’s poor quarter costs US$700 a month. Food, utilities, medicine and other costs add hundreds more to monthly outgoings. UNHCR cash assistance helps cover some of this, but it is far from sufficient. 

That means the two older children, Michael and Medea, 22 and 18 respectively, have to work menial jobs in Beirut to keep the family afloat. Hence their prospects are dimming – something that is a preoccupation for refugee parents the world over. 

As fighting continues in parts of northern Iraq after extremists were pushed from Mosul last year, many of those forced to flee – like the Yousifs – have abandoned hope of returning home, fearing sectarian tension may endure, and are looking at a protracted exile, or moving on to other countries under UNHCR resettlement programmes, though places are few and reserved for the most vulnerable. 

Earlier in the day, at a weekly therapy and discussion session for Iraqi refugees run by Caritas, dozens of Iraqi Christian refugees spoke over black tea about the pain of limbo. It is a life of frustration at best, often leaving psychological scars. 

“I feel I’m living on borrowed time,” said Laith, a man in his 60s. “I want to provide for my kids, but I can’t. My son used to be top of his class in Iraq. Now he’s a labourer.” Among the daily challenges cited by Laith and other Iraqi Christians at the session were depression, health issues, lost opportunities for their children and financial hardship. 

Most expressed a desire to move on to a new life elsewhere, if possible. A study published by the World Council of Churches and Norwegian Church Aid indicates that sectarian feelings in Iraq had “become deeply ingrained” and warned that the defeat of extremists alone “will not solve these underlying dangers or ensure that minorities return to their place of origin.” 

It stressed the need to keep providing flexible and sufficient humanitarian funding in Iraq. The diaspora is spread wide: Last year there were nearly 260,000 Iraqi refugees registered in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. 

A number of refugees at the Caritas session said they felt more at ease in Lebanon, partly because of its large Christian community. “Although the conditions here are extremely difficult, the most important thing is that we feel safe,” said Josephine, an Iraqi mother whose son was an engineer in Iraq. 

“He now gets small jobs in Lebanon, and earns no more than US$400 a month.” Minorities in Iraq have been especially affected by recent violence, not least Nineveh’s Christians. In all country offices, UNHCR has measures to ensure that all asylum-seekers, regardless of their religion or background, have access to its services. 

Indeed, the Agency assists all refugee communities – including religious minorities – to register, including via mobile registration units, trained outreach teams and help desks in areas where these groups are concentrated. 

Back in Beirut, one thing that provides a constant for the Yousifs is the local church, where most of the family joins other Iraqi Christians to pray for better times. Gorgis, the father-in-law, worries about the family’s future while they are in limbo. “Every day I ask God to help us,” he said, his voice cracking as he fought back tears. 

By Matthew Saltmarsh and Lisa Abou Khaled


Born in the wrong place: Europe's Islamic State offspring

People had told Houssein throughout his life that there is nothing more beautiful than becoming a grandfather, but now when he sees a grandfather walking down the street with his grandchildren, he only feels aggrieved over his own loss. 

Houssein's grandchildren are among the hundreds of European children born in Iraq and Syria in areas formerly controlled by the Islamic State (IS). He has never seen them. 

“What did they go through? Do they need medical care? Do they have enough food? These are questions that are constantly going through my mind,” Houssein, a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent, told Al-Monitor. 

“My daughter might have made a barbaric decision by joining a terrorist organization, but her children did not have a choice. They were simply born in the wrong place.” Houssein, who asked that his last name and place of residence be withheld for fear of reprisal by IS supporters, lost half of his family to the extremist organization. 

In early 2013, his daughter, Meryem, left the Netherlands to accompany her radicalized boyfriend to Syria. Houssein’s ex-wife kept in contact with her daughter, and Meryem eventually persuaded her to join them, in August 2014. Houssein’s ex-wife took their son Ilyas, 14 at that time, with her. 

He was killed a few months after arriving in Syria, when coalition forces targeted an IS weapons depot in Tell Abyad, where Ilyas worked as a guard. Houssein lamented, “A grave to mourn, a last kiss on my son’s forehead, even an answer from his mother to the simple question why. IS took everything from me.” 

Meryem gave birth to two girls who are now 4 and 2 years old. Houssein had no illusions of ever seeing his grandchildren, but when IS' self-proclaimed caliphate collapsed, he felt a small glimmer of hope. 

Though uncertain, he has good reason to believe they are being held in a camp for wives of IS fighters. Media outlets reported that with IS as good as defeated in Syria and Iraq, hundreds of foreign wives, most of them widows, and children of suspected IS combatants are being held in camps by the Syrian Democratic Forces, such as at Ain Issa, in Syria. 

Many of them had expressed their desire to return to their home countries, often complaining that they only did housework or had been lured by IS fighters into a lifestyle or situation they came to regret. 

Some foreign women are awaiting trial in Iraqi jails or remain on the run in the few areas the terror group still holds. The foreign women associated with IS and their children present a big challenge to European nations, because most governments, including in the Netherlands, do not actively help IS jihadis return home. 

The wives and children of IS fighters must travel to their country's embassy in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, but this is almost impossible, since they no longer have travel documents. Even if they did have papers, they are not being allowed to leave the camps or prisons where they are being held without mediation from their home countries, many reports show. 

According to Daan Weggemans, a terrorism researcher at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University, most governments are not actively repatriating children and women because by joining IS and other terrorist organizations, they have become a security risk. 

“Children are the victims here,” Weggemans explained to Al-Monitor. “They were taken to Syria by their parents, sometimes with false claims, like that they were going on a holiday. Others were simply born in the Islamic State. 

Ideally, European governments only repatriate the children who were taken or born over there. However, they cannot just say, 'Let’s take back the children and leave the mothers there.' This is not likely going to happen, due to several humanitarian and legal reasons.” 

From 2014 to 2016, IS is believed to have recruited and trained more than 2,000 boys between the ages of 9 and 15 as “cubs of the caliphate.” “Even if they weren’t trained, they may have memories of living in a war zone,” Weggemans said. “Investigations show that even the youngest children are affected by it. It is a very sad story.” What about the children who were born in Syria and Iraq? 

In December 2017, the Belgian Council of Ministers decided that Belgian children under the age of 10 will automatically receive laissez-passers to come to Belgium if DNA research confirms that they are descended from Belgian parents. 

The Dutch Children's Protection Service is taking a similar approach. “Parents must go to a foreign affairs post so that DNA material can then be collected to determine if they have a Dutch parent,” a spokesperson told Al-Monitor. 

Belgium IS expert Pieter Van Ostaeyen questions the practicality and feasibility of this regulation. “It all depends on the efforts governments are willing to take,” Van Ostaeyen told Al-Monitor. “It is currently not clear where European fighters, and therefore their families, are located. 

The security situation on the spot can also vary enormously from area to area. It is a bit strange to think that children under the age of 10 can just go to an embassy in Turkey. How are the diplomats going to arrange that? How are we going to trace them? Nobody knows.” 

Van Ostaeyen also noted that many European countries do not have extradition agreements with Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, it seems that some European governments are slowly starting to take action. In late December, three French-born children belonging to suspected IS militants and who were being held by Iraqi authorities were flown back to Paris. 

Their father was killed in the battle for Mosul, and their mother and her youngest child remain in detention in Iraq. It was the first such repatriation of French children from Iraq. Houssein and parents of Dutch jihadis feel that the government is not doing enough and hope that more will be done in the future to get women and children back from Syria and Iraq. 

“We do not ask them to send an airplane, but only to contact the camp leaders in Syria,” Houssein said. “Now, the Netherlands is trying to look away and pretend it doesn’t exist, but looking away won’t solve the problem.” 

He added, “Once they are back, you can prosecute the parents. The caliphate might be destroyed, but the IS ideology is still alive. Therefore, it is better to take control instead of letting them wander around without knowing where they are or what they are up to. That might be very dangerous, especially when it comes to Europe, where you can travel through dozens of countries without border control.” 

Lodewijk Hekking, a spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security, told Al-Monitor that there are no plans to repatriate the approximately 80 children taken from the Netherlands as well as those born abroad. This could change if the government decides on a shift in policy. 

“Currently, that is not the case,” he said. Houssein looks at photos of Ilyas at least three times a day. He is afraid he will forget what he looked like. He already has difficulty remembering how he sounded. 

“I have already lost my son and my daughter, even though she is still alive,” Houssein remarked. “Please help me bring my grandchildren to the Netherlands. They belong with me.”

Brenda Stoter is a Dutch journalist who writes about the Middle East, with special attention to Syrian women and Western jihad brides.


Preventing sexual abuse and exploitation in Iraq

“As humanitarians, we have a collective responsibility to prevent and safely respond to sexual abuse and exploitation in Iraq,” said Jennifer Emond, a UNFPA specialist on the subject, during a training programme in Iraq. 

Risk of sexual exploitation and abuse escalate during times of crisis. Community protection systems are disrupted when populations are displaced, and breakdown in law enforcement enable perpetrators to abuse with impunity. 

Under conditions of deprivation and fear, people with power – even aid workers – may coerce others into sexual relationships in exchange for food, medicine or safety. 

UNFPA and its partners are working to end these abuses through a range of actions known as “protection from sexual exploitation and abuse” (PSEA). UNFPA and the World Food Programme are together co-chairing the Iraq Network to Protect from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. 

For the last two months, UNFPA and its PSEA network partners have been training humanitarian workers across Iraq on the principles of PSEA, including how to prevent abuses and respond if they occur. 

“So far, we have trained up to 400 humanitarian workers in Sulaymaniyah, Dohuk, Baghdad, Basra, Soran and Erbil,” Ms. Emond said. Those aid workers will themselves act as trainers, reaching out to hundreds more with critical information that can improve protections for vulnerable populations. 

Improving reporting and protections 

The trainings help humanitarian staff understand how sexual exploitation and abuse can occur in different scenarios, as well as the consequences for survivors, the community and all humanitarian actors. 

Participants are taught to understand the power imbalance between aid actors and vulnerable populations, and to realize what behaviour is not acceptable. Humanitarian staff also learn how to respond when they receive complaints or witness abuses. 

One important action is to report misbehaviour to the PSEA Network. “Now that we have a confidential system in place, we are trying to raise awareness… among partners and staff on what kind of behaviour we should follow when interacting with beneficiaries, and for staff to know how to report when they come across such cases,” said Ms. Emond. 

As the training has been rolled out, other organizations and government agencies have expressed an interest in participating. 

“The Department of Labour and Social Affairs of Thi Qar Governorate requested UNHCR to conduct the same PSEA training for their staff,” said Alia Albuswailem, the focal point for addressing sexual and gender-based violence in Iraq for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). 

A safe environment 

Training participants are also guided in the development of an action plan to ensure that their staff understand what SEA is, what policies are in place, and what their obligations are. 

“The training gave us a wider perspective on gender-based violence. I want my staff to be well-informed on gender-based violence issues and challenges,” said Akram T. Hamasaiid, from People's Development Organization, a UNFPA partner that manages six women’s support centres. 

“We serve more than 1,500 women and girls each month. They reach out to us for advice and psychosocial support, and it is important that we inform them about their rights,” he said. “We need to provide them with a safe environment,” Mr. Hamasaiid added.


Teachers in Mosul learn to cope with traumatised pupils

On a classroom whiteboard in the battered city of Mosul the words "rediscovering how to smile" outline the heartbreaking task of Iraqi teachers striving to heal their students' mental scars after brutal Islamic State group rule. 

Dozens of Iraqi teachers -- many battling trauma themselves -- have gathered at a university, where instructor Nazem Shaker seeks to guide them in helping children still struggling to cope months after IS was driven from the devastated city. 

Shaker has drawn a "problem tree" on the board whose roots are a litany of anguish: "relatives killed", "witnessing beheadings", "destruction" and "poverty". He hopes that through a programme of games, mime and sport, teachers will be better able to help students reach the goals outlined in the top branches of his diagram, where "hope" and "optimism" join the aspiration to smile again. 

"How to live together and eradicate violence," he says are key lessons that have to be passed on. The teachers must help show students how to reconstruct their lives and escape the stress, pressures and bad memories that haunt them, he adds. 

'Executions, deaths, explosions' 

It is not just the years of IS rule that haunt the waking lives and sleeping hours of the children in Iraq's second city. The ferocious nine months of urban combat that saw Iraqi troops force out the jihadists in July with the help of airstrikes by a US-led coalition have left deep marks -- both physical and mental. 

School headmaster Noamat Sultan encounters the destructive impact of the psychological trauma daily. "One of our students was very aggressive and kept on picking fights with his classmates," he says. "We had a long discussion with him and discovered that his father and brother had been killed recently in an explosion." 

With the help of the boy's older brother and more attention from teachers, he has gradually been coaxed back to himself. "We have already managed to convince him not to drop out of school," said father-of-eight Sultan. 

Physical education teacher Rasha Ryadh has seen the heavy toll from the "psychological pressures caused by seeing executions, deaths, explosions and the loss of loved ones", but is sure the students can recover. 

"They are ready to respond positively to the rehabilitation programmes because they want to banish the thoughts and memories that drag them back to the period of Islamic State group rule," she says. Such is the case for 12-year-old schoolboy Ahmed Mahmud, who despite his youth says he is "exhausted" by everything he has seen. 

"When I sit down in class I don't have the will to study," Mahmud says. "I think back to the time of IS and I remember those who were executed like my uncle. They threw people off buildings and forced us to watch." 

'Didn't say a word' 

The 900 students at head teacher Sultan's school are able to study in just half of the building after fighting reduced the rest to rubble. The few remaining classrooms are seriously overcrowded, and benches meant for two pupils often have five or more crammed on them. 

Twelve-year-old Osama is not yet among them. He is still reeling from seeing an air strike send most of the other houses in his street crashing down on top of his neighbours. "For weeks he didn't say a word," says his mother Umm Osama. 

The boy still needs help to dress, wash and eat, and often seems lost inside himself. "Sometimes without warning he'd leave the house and just wander around aimlessly for hours," his mother says. "Several times it was hard to find him."


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