At a center in northeastern Syria, foreign children, including Westerners, listen intently to a teacher’s explanations: They are the sons of jihadists from the Islamic State group who are following a rehabilitation program.
They are more than 50 boys between the ages of 11 and 17, including French, Americans, British and Germans, who are at the center of this Orkech, the first of its kind to be established by the Kurdish administration.
Boys in tracksuits play soccer in the yard, while others take lessons in Arabic and English, math and music. They can play chess and watch documentaries and cartoons.
The aim is to prepare these boys to “accept others, integrate into their society in the future and behave normally”, said AFP Aras Darwich, director of the rehabilitation programme.
Opened six months ago, near the Kurdish town of Qamichli, the high-security center welcomes children and teenagers transferred from Roj and al-Hol, two camps in northeastern Syria where relatives of jihadists are being held.
Other students at the center were held in Gueran prison, the target of a bloody attack by IS in January 2022 in an attempt to free prisoners from the group.
– “The Big Difference” –
The center is open to children at risk of radicalisation. “Daech (Arabic acronym for IS, editor’s note) needs boys to reorganize itself militarily,” explains Khalid Remo, a Kurdish administration official.
Kurdish forces, backed by an international anti-jihadist coalition, led the fight against IS and were defeated in Syria in 2019 after bringing terror to parts of the country.
Since then, the Kurdish administration has held thousands of jihadist fighters in its prisons and tens of thousands of their family members in these two camps.
The center offers psychological support sessions to children of jihadists.
In the classrooms, dozens of students’ paintings hang on the walls.
“We see a big difference between the day the children arrived and today,” Rim al-Hassan, a psychological consultant at the center, told AFP.
“At first, some refused to attend classes with female teachers,” because of the gender segregation imposed by IS. “Now we are seeing progress, albeit slowly,” adds the 28-year-old.
Children are encouraged to express themselves through drawing. One of them paints a sunset in pinks and oranges.
– Diplomatic delays –
The two-storied building, which houses the hostel, canteen and classrooms, is equipped with surveillance cameras.
The Kurdish administration opened the first center in 2017, which was meant to rehabilitate former jihadists.
The fate of the jihadists and their families is a headache for the autonomous Kurdish administration that governs these parts of northeastern Syria.
It continues to call for the families of jihadists to be returned to their home countries, but most countries involved are content with trickle-down and stagnant returns.
Al-Hol camp alone houses 56,000 people, mostly women and children, including relatives of more than 10,000 foreign IS fighters.
On Saturday, Kurdish authorities in Syria handed over 49 Russian children of jihadists between the ages of five and 15 to a Russian delegation, according to the Kurdish administration and Russian officials.
All orphans, they were in Roj and Al-Hol camps.
During a meeting with the Russian delegation, foreign affairs official Rubil Biho accused the international community as a whole of “indifference” and “not accepting its responsibilities”.
In December, the NGO Save the Children warned that some 7,000 foreign children “trapped” in these camps were at risk of attacks and violence.
The US Middle East Command (CENTCOM) said on Saturday that the children in al-Hol were “in danger of being trained on a daily basis”.
The fate of the children in the rehabilitation center once they reach adulthood is another problem for the Kurdish administration.
There are two options: to set up a new rehabilitation program appropriate to their age or to apply diplomatic pressure for their repatriation, Mr. Remo says.
“We don’t want children to stay in these centers permanently, but diplomatic efforts are slow,” he explains.
According to him, if the test is successful, it will “save the region from the emergence of a new generation of extremists”.
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