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The Syrian civil war which started a decade ago and has claimed more than 400,000 lives, has created “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time and a continuing cause for suffering,” according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

Among the approximately 6.1 million children affected by that conflict are 65 who are T&T nationals or children of citizens of this country. Information obtained by Guardian Media is that 53 of them are under the age of 12, while at least 18 are under the age of five.

In 2013 and 2014, some 130 T&T nationals left to join the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, lured by promises of paradise in a caliphate. Some of them took their children with them but were later killed in battle, leaving families behind in a land torn apart by the horrors of war.

At present, 72 children with links to T&T are in refugee camps in Syria and Iraq, including some born to Trinidadian parents in the Middle East who have been left stateless.

More than 6,300 miles away from his home in T&T, Amral Khan’s five grandchildren live in a tent in the Al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. They don’t have adequate access to clothing, food, healthcare, clean water or electricity.

“Once you have a family member there, whatever activity you are involved in at home, from the moment you wake up in the morning, if you even have to brush your teeth or get some water, you imagine what is taking place on that side,” Khan said.

His two daughters and five grandchildren ages two, three, four, six and seven, have been at the camp, run by Kurdish authorities, since March 2019. Only his eldest grandchild was born in T&T.

In 2013, Khan’s daughters told him they were going with their families on a pilgrimage in the Middle East but they failed to return on the date they said they would.

“It was a surprise, a shocker. We didn’t know their final destination. It was only months later that we got the call of where they were,” Khan recalled.

While he misses his daughters, he said his constant worry about his grandchildren is a pain unlike any other.

Khan admits that his daughters made a grave mistake but insists that his grandchildren do not deserve to suffer.

“Every aspect of human dignity is appalling. They eat beans and rice every day. You find that malnutrition is rampant. All that goes through our mind as grandparents/parents,” Khan lamented.

As the largest camp for displaced persons in Northern Syria, it is estimated that more than 70,000 people live at Al-Hol. The camp is primarily a shelter for people who were part of ISIS and the Levant. Approximately 66 per cent of the camp’s inhabitants are children.

Between December 2018 and September 2019, 339 children died at the camp, according to the International Rescue Committee. The main causes of death were severe malnutrition, diarrhoea, dehydration and pneumonia. Freezing temperatures during winter have also killed many children.

Khan, who lost a grandchild to the winter is determined not to lose another.

Looking through photos of the children, he shook his head and his voice softened: “These are citizens. Look at these babies. Look at how cute they are. Look at that little smile. Have a look at these kids. What are we doing?”

‘They are traumatised’

Like Khan, Sylvia Santos, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, has devoted her time to ensuring that her grandchildren return from Syria. Two of them were taken there by their parents, while the others were born in the region.

Santos said when her son said he was taking his family on a trip, she never imagined they would end up with ISIS.

At first, they sent her pictures from amusement parks and stores. They seemed genuinely happy, she recalled.

Then, gradually she received fewer pictures and messages. They never returned home.

Santos knows little about the trauma they suffered in the years lost in between, but what she does know is that her five grandchildren and two daughters-in-law live in the Al Roj refugee camp near the Iraqi border.

“It’s heartbreaking and devastating. Every single morning, every single night, tears come to my eyes, especially as I’m eating, to know they don’t have anything—no clothes, no proper shelter, they don’t have running water,” Santos said.

“This is our children. This is Trinidadian children. We need them to come back. They cannot be punished for what their fathers did, and for the mistakes of their parents,” she said.

After a recent fire at Al-Hol killed three more children, UNICEF appealed last month for countries to repatriate and reintegrate children from the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps. There are 22,000 foreign children from 60 countries at Al-Hol alone, according to UNICEF’s estimates.

“Children in Al-Hol are faced not only with the stigma they are living with but also with very difficult living conditions where basic services are scarce or in some cases unavailable… Children should not be detained based solely on suspected family ties with armed groups or the membership of family members in armed groups,” UNICEF’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North America Ted Chaiban said.

About seven years ago, Alana Roberts’ sister, whose name was changed, left T&T with her husband and three children who were seven, five and three-years-old at the time. Their childhoods ended shortly after.

Living in a tent with their mother, two younger siblings—a five-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy—and their two orphaned cousins, they are refugees at Al-Hol.

Whenever Roberts speaks with her sister, she asks about the children. Her sister’s responses are a sobering reminder of how different their lives now are.

“Helicopters and planes pass and the kids just drop on the ground for cover. She said they are traumatised. The children shake and run for cover. They don’t sleep because they are afraid the helicopter will drop a bomb on them. This is what these children know,” Roberts said.

“The older kids just sit and they cry, and they want to know when we are going home? When is grandma coming for us? When is our government coming for us? But what can I say?” she lamented, saying she doesn’t want to give them false hope.

Repatriation and reintegration

In 2018, the government launched Team Nightingale, a team of terrorism, child protection, financial investigation and law enforcement experts responsible for the eventual repatriation and reintegration of nationals from refugee camps in Syria and Iraq. National Security Minister Stuart Young said the process was complex and due to the sensitivity of the issue, little can be revealed about the team’s work.

In an October 2019 update, Minister Young said the government was still doing verification checks.

“Our security agencies and teams set up to do the necessary work with respect to those persons who may be Trinidad and Tobago citizens who went out to war and conflict zones to join ISIS, is ongoing… We’ll continue to act responsibly and do the work that is necessary to balance the competing agendas with the priority being to protect the safety and security of Trinidad and Tobago,” he said.

According to relatives of the children, two years have passed and the government’s checks are still ongoing. With each passing day, conditions in the camps are worsening, placing the lives of the children at increased risk.

“For two years? Since 2019 you have to verify? Yet, the authorities there have conducted DNA testing last year. They took fingerprints. They took eye scans and they put them on a database, and they said it is available for any country,” Roberts complained.

Dismayed by what they see as the failure of the state to act, the relatives, represented by attorney Criston Williams, filed a lawsuit against Chief Immigration Officer Charmaine Ghandi-Andrews in January.

The application for judicial review is seeking to have passports and other travel documents granted to the women and children in Syria under Regulation 13 of the Immigration Regulations.

“We provided all the documents of these children—their birth certificate, their school cards, immunisation cards, everything, but I mean, they are still saying they don’t know. We even provided them with pictures of the children,” Roberts said.

“The families down here have said we will pay for the repatriation costs, all we need is their travel documents and for you to contact the authorities there to acknowledge the citizens.”

A team of repatriation and rehabilitation experts has already started putting things in place for an eventual release and return of the children. Mental health experts, who will work with the children, have been trained in de-radicalisation techniques.

The group hired a UK-based firm, Quantum Consultancy, to help facilitate the release of the children and their mothers from the camps and their return home. The organisation’s owner, Mike Jervis, has experience in reintegrating women returning from Syria, as well as men released from prison, into British society.

The East London community activist said he fully understands the scepticism surrounding the possible return of women who took their children to the Middle East. He admitted that few Trinidadians could understand how a woman could put a man before her children in any circumstance that could cause harm.

“It is not a concept easily sold. So, from a public perspective, we start off in a bad position… The public is correct, no one knows the role these women played in their stint abroad. No one knows the post-traumatic stress that these children have encountered and no one knows which of these adult women will be a risk to Trinidad and Tobago security,” he said.

However, Jervis is adamant that the government cannot sit back and do nothing given the call from the United Nations for countries to repatriate children from the camps. He said the reality is the women and children will likely return to T&T at some point, even if it’s through deportation. Because of this, measures must be taken to protect and rehabilitate the children as soon as possible.

Jervis said the children are exposed to threats to their well-being and development in the refugee camps, including ISIS messaging and recruitment.

“If we are going to protect Trinidad and Tobago, we must put measures in place to return and reintegrate them within society with the focus of creating well-being for them,” he said.

“We must remember the intense recruitment tools which ISIS applied, which no government in the world was able to counter and prevent thousands of people from leaving their homelands.

“The last thing we need to do is leave the seeds in the camp that will grow into a grievance and where that grievance is exploited to grow into a revengeful act in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Jervis believes a civil contract arrangement between the government and returnees will mitigate, as best possible, public and national security concerns. It will comprise obligations and restrictions that returnees must follow to develop public trust and to assist in their rehabilitation and reintegration in exchange for their return.

A High Court ruling on the groups’ judicial review request is expected on March 31.

In January 2019, with assistance from a well-known human rights lawyer and Roger Waters, a founding member of the rock band Pink Floyd, two T&T boys aged eleven and seven, returned from a Syrian refugee camp. The children, who were taken to the Middle East by their father in 2014, live with their mother Felicia Perkins-Ferreira in Petit Valley.

Attempts to get updates on the repatriation of the children from National Security Minister Stuart Young and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi were unsuccessful.

Dr Varma Deyalsingh, Psychiatrist:

“Some refugee children and adolescents exhibit resilience despite a history of trauma. However, trauma can affect a refugee child’s emotional and behavioural development and we need to recognize and treat if they are to fit in as productive members of our society.

“Many refugees, especially children, have experienced trauma related to war or persecution that may affect their mental and physical health long after the events have occurred. These traumatic events may occur while the refugees are in their country of origin, during displacement from their country of origin, or in the resettlement process.

“Prevalence of mental illness dramatically increases if at least one parent has been tortured, or if families have been separated, or one or both parents died.

“It is never too late to try and rehabilitate. If we don’t give life skills, stress relief management, psychological support and sometimes medication, these children can become dysfunctional adults suffering from PTSD, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, depression, adjustment disorders and even substance abuse, as some turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their stress. They can pose a health burden and forensic risk which is far more costly to treat in the long run.”