16 Jun 2015

Islamic State: Syrian child refugees’ reflections

Most refugees are scared and miserable. Not Ayad and Haifa (pictured below). Aged 10 and 12, two days ago the girls and their families fled fighting between the Islamic State and Kurdish forces in their hometown of Tel Abyad in northern Syria.

They’re now sleeping in a park in the Turkish border town of Akcakale. They have no tents or washing facilities but for the first time since IS occupied Tel Abyad 14 months ago they don’t have to wear head-to-toe black, covering their entire skinny little-girl bodies and their faces.

“We thought we would die,” said Haifa, curly brown hair framing her face, green eyes sparkling. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

“It was so hot we couldn’t breathe. Also we had to wear gloves which made our hands dry.” It’s 33 degrees in the shade here.

“We weren’t allowed to play. All we could do was pray.”

“They stopped us studying,” said Ayad, who wore a brown checked headscarf and and similar jeans and t-shirt. “We were good at school but they closed it.”

The two girls were jostling to talk to me, their voices excited, their determination apparent. Then the boys crowded round.

“Sharia training is better than school,” said one. Aged between eight and 15, the boys had all absorbed the lessons of the Islamic State. “They call us the Sons of Khalifa,” said one.

“Islamic State is good,” said 15 year old Mohammed (pictured below), a raggedy kid with browning teeth. “The girls don’t like it because they have to cover up but that’s right in Islam.”


His family had tried to stop him from attending three days of sharia training so he ran away to do it. It had given him strong views on the Kurds, whose interpretation of Islam is much more liberal than that of IS.

“The Kurds will knock down the mosques,” he said. “Their women don’t cover up. It’s a problem.” Only the recent fighting had stopped Mohammed from training as a fighter – his family had forced him to flee with them.

I asked about how things were in the days before IS.

“Women wore hijab but not the full niqab,” he said. “Sometimes their scarves would fall back and you could see their hair and ears. It wasn’t good.”

How easy it is to make a boy like him feel important and righteous, I thought. What malleable, impressionable creatures these boys were, putty in the hands of the jihadis.

I asked the kids if they had been scared when the bombs fell and they’d had to flee. The girls shook their heads.

“I’ll tell you a secret,” I said. “Girls are braver than boys.”

They laughed. The boys looked puzzled.

“Not in the Islamic State,” said one.

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