Parents of children in Europe who went to Syria say they too are now treated as ‘black sheep’ and are ‘tracked for terrorism’
“I couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. That’s why I got involved in the fight,” says 66-year-old Dominique Bons, of Toulouse, who lost her son in Syria.
In December 2013 her son Nicholas, aged 30, blew himself up in an attack on a Shia village.
Since then, Bons has been fighting so that no other family would have to go through what she suffered.
Three weeks after receiving an SMS announcing her son had died a “martyr”, she founded the non-profit organisation Syrien ne bouge agissons, a play on words which translates as “If nothing (in Syria) changes, then act”.
“I founded the organisation in January 2014. The idea was to reach out to families in similar situations, to warn them of the dangers of radical Islam and the spread of jihadism,” she tells Middle East Eye.
Bons’s organisation counts over 150 families today, all of whom are coping with either a child’s departure for Syria – or their death.
She says she hopes to “help families and raise awareness to prevent other young people from enlisting.”
In her battle for further prevention, Bons condemns what she calls the government’s “reluctance” to help families whose children left to fight in Syria, particularly those families of Muslim and North African origin.
According to Bons, the government views close relatives as “black sheep”, undeserving of help, and “it’s even worse for Muslim and North African families”.
Those families, already “frowned upon because of their origins and religion”, are now being “tracked for terrorism”, she adds.
‘Zero opportunities for young people’
Saliha Ben Ali, the daughter of Tunisian immigrants in Belgium, also voiced concerns to MEE over issues of “stigmatisation” and “racism”.
Her son, Sabri Refla, left for Syria at the age of 19. He died in the region of Aleppo a few months later.
“The problems of racism, discrimination, joblessness and zero opportunities for young people, these are major challenges that need to be addressed along with prevention says,” says Ben Ali.
And she makes no bones about it.
“It’s not just a fight against radicalism, it’s a fight against violence,” she adds, insisting on the need to “raise awareness, prevent enlistments, and help families at risk”.
Six years ago, after the departure of her son, she decided to act. She founded the association Save Belgium, to “accompany other parents struggling [with radicalism]. We participate in conferences, share our experiences and take on jihadist propaganda,” she told MEE.
In October 2018, Ben Ali published “Maman, entends-tu le vent?” (Mother, do you hear the wind?), in which she tells her story and “exposes jihadist recruitment strategies”.
“I try to understand what made young people leave for Syria to fight,” she explains.
Her book points to “the problem of the far right” in particular, which Ben Ali says is “a form of political violence”.
“The far right has been normalised, just like violence has,” Ben Ali continues.
“Just because terrorist attacks are being called ‘Islamist’ doesn’t mean that other, more elusive forms of attacks are not turning out in strength,” she insists, referring to Islamophobic attacks such as the Christchurch, New Zealand shootings of 15 March that killed 51 worshippers.
Ben Ali writes about Sabri being subjected to “frequent ID checks, suspicious attitudes and widespread racism within the Flemish community”.
And the wariness continued even after his death.
‘The wrong kind of victim’
In October 2018, Ben Ali and her husband were scheduled to fly to the United States via Dublin to attend a conference. They were turned back in Ireland.
The immigration authorities, she says, had been instructed by Washington not to let through her husband, Larbi Refla.
“My son’s last name is a problem because he’s on a list of terrorists thought to be alive. He’s not dead, he’s ‘presumed dead’, and having Refla as a last name constitutes grounds for rejection,” Ben Ali comments bitterly.
Sabri was sentenced in Belgium to a five-year prison term and a 18,000 euros ($20,227) fine.
An international arrest warrant was also issued against him, as the courts lack evidence of him having died in Syria.
“For example, travellers with my son’s last name [minors included] are denied entry in some countries. Or they are held for questioning for so long, they end up missing connecting flights,” Ben Ali goes on.
“It’s as if we’re not allowed to talk about our pain because we’re the wrong kind of victim.
“European families whose children have left for Syria are treated differently than Muslim families.
“But it is neither my fault nor my husband’s that Sabri went to Syria”, she insists.
Despite the difficulties, Ben Ali refuses to “lose hope” because for her fighting violence and radicalism is tantamount to “having my son at my side” and fighting “the people who kidnapped him”.
‘I have faith’
In May 2013 Nora, aged 18, left for Syria without a word.
Since then her mother, Samira Laakel, has never been the same. The 47-year-old Belgian woman “is fighting tooth and nail” so that other families and children will be spared “her misfortune”.
“I have faith. My only hope is that I will see her safe and sound,” Laakel tells MEE.
Her daughter is still in a camp in Syria, along with her four grandchildren.
Nora became a mother after losing her first husband in Syria and being forcibly “remarried” by members of the Islamic State (IS).
“My daughter was hit by a shell and seriously injured while waiting to be moved to another camp,” Laakel goes on.
Though still fighting “violent radicalism” through awareness campaigns, Laakel today has taken up another battle: the repatriation of the orphaned children of foreign fighters.
“Most of the children in the camps in Syria are suffering from malnutrition, injury and neglect,” she says.
“They are the primary victims of the chaos in Syria, and they are innocent. They are Belgian citizens, and we must do everything we can to repatriate them,” she insists.
“Public opinion is negative even when it comes to children, it’s crazy. People say they can just go ahead and die over there,” she says indignantly, though they have “grandparents who are hoping to give them a home. First, we need to repatriate these children, then the courts can see to the rest.”
‘Orphaned, isolated and particularly vulnerable’
France, though particularly reluctant to recover its nationals including children who are by default denied entry with their mothers, has repatriated the children of 12 French fighters who were in northeastern Syria, along with two Dutch citizens who will be returned to the Netherlands, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on 10 May.
All of the French children are “orphaned, isolated and particularly vulnerable. Some are sick and malnourished,” a ministry official reported at a press conference, adding that “medical examinations [were] underway”.
Local Kurdish authorities in Syria handed them over to a French delegation earlier this month.
This is the second such return since the last IS pockets of resistance were wiped out in eastern Syria: five orphans were repatriated to France on 15 March.
In addition, a three-year-old girl, whose mother is imprisoned for life in Iraq, was returned on 27 March.
According to reports from the French foreign ministry, approximately 450 IS-affiliated French nationals are being detained in prisons and refugee camps.
On Monday, a ministry spokesperson said a third operation to repatriate nationals based on “the same criteria – orphaned, isolated and vulnerable” was liable to take place “in the future”.
Deleted from history
Every Wednesday, Laakel marches with other parents and grandparents whose children left for Syria, to demand the repatriation of the families stuck in camps. “Bring them back!” the protesters chant.
“My daughter and my grandchildren need to be rescued. My daughter didn’t go there to fight. She went to Syria out of love. She felt useless in Belgium. She wanted to do something worthwhile, she went to Syria to help,” Laakel disconsolately explains.
In 2015, Laakel published her story, Le Bonheur est parti avec toi (Happiness left when you did), described as the “heartfelt cry of a mother fighting to get her daughter back, and to save other young people and families from dying”.
Laakel is determined to stop “the indoctrination of youths”.
Her own daughter, Nora, was deleted from the official family record book at the local town hall.
“She was stripped of her status by her own country, by Belgium, but she can never be erased from our hearts”, her mother says.
“I will continue fighting for you until you come back,” she says as if addressing her daughter, “I will never give up.”