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The children of ISIS need our help to grow up as peaceful citizens

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Over the past year I have sat with, talked with, and played with several children of ISIS fighters.  Innocently, these children drew pictures, told stories, shared dreams and played imaginatively like other children. Some were guarded at first, then spoke of crimes or cruelties that the grown-ups in their lives had brought upon them or made them do.

Some openly struggled to understand why those who loved and raised them had made decisions that led them and others to be hurt or killed. After being with them, it was easy for me to conclude that these children are victims, even though some may have done terrible things at the request of their parents or other adults.

The children I saw were being repatriated to their countries and helped on a path towards recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration. Kazakhstan and Kosovo are among a small group of countries that is welcoming back the children of their citizens who became foreign terrorist fighters. Although several European countries and Australia have thus far chosen to disown the children of their citizen fighters, the U.S. has taken back a small number and Canada is preparing to receive some.

At first glance, the challenges posed by the ISIS children seem shockingly unprecedented and unfathomable, but we’ve seen children in no less dire circumstances before, such as child soldiers or trafficking victims. We will be better prepared to face the formidable challenges involved in supporting these latest victimized children if we remind ourselves of lessons learned from prior experiences. The lessons suggest that these child victims are redeemable. 

One, the traumas and adversities that these children have experienced should be familiar to any child protection officer, mental health professional or teacher who has worked with other traumatized children. Research with child soldiers shows that addressing their traumas without adding to their stigma is key to school success and to better adult lives. Efforts are under way in several countries, such as Kazakhstan, to prepare local health and mental health agencies, schools, and youth services with extra training and expert input that they need to address these children’s needs.

Two, this is yet another humanitarian crisis that calls for simultaneously addressing health, mental health, education, security, community, finances and work. These kind of blended agendas have been put forward under the banner of “human security,” which offers a framework for broad-spectrum interventions beyond narrower counterterrorism agendas.

Three, moving beyond the immediate crisis calls for repatriation policies that support the development of sustainable locally based programs that can help these children and their families to cope with traumas and stigma, build upon their strengths and integrate into their communities.

Over 40,000 thousand children linked to captured Islamic State fighters who came from more than 50 countries were being held in the Al-Hol detention camp in northern Syria. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the invasion of Turkish troops, the Kurds’ deal with the Syrian government, and many countries refusing to take them back, it is not clear what will happen to these children. 

However, if countries take them back, and if the international organizations or donor governments step up to support those countries requiring assistance, then there are no reasons why they cannot grow up as peaceful citizens. 

ISIS children, many of whom are orphans, want a family, a home and a neighborhood, but cannot regain those without our help.

Just as the U.S. and its allies failed to anticipate and prevent the rise of ISIS, we are now on the brink of single-mindedly focusing on states’ short-term security needs and failing to address the clear short- and long-term needs of the children of ISIS — which down the road could lead to countless other personal and societal tragedies, but which are preventable. 

The real question is not whether we have seen these children before. The question is whether our governments and the wider international community have the political courage and resourcefulness to find ways to not let them down and sow the seeds for future tragedies.

Stevan Weine, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, where he also is the director of Global Medicine and the director of the Center for Global Health.

Tags Child protection ISIS Mental health Terrorism

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