A Mother's Journey To Get Her Daughter And Grandson Back From ISIS

Aug 15, 2019
Originally published on August 16, 2019 9:42 am
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Imagine if one day your teenage daughter leaves home and disappears. You hear nothing. And then you learn she has gone to Syria and is living under ISIS. This happened in 2016 to an Austrian woman. Her daughter and grandson remain in a Syrian camp with thousands of others. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has followed the efforts to get them out.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE RUNNING)

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: I meet Edith in Iraq, near the fast-flowing Tigris River that marks the border with Syria. This is her third trip across that border, and she says it's never easy.

EDITH: You know, always they make troubles for me.

SHERLOCK: Always like this? Yeah.

EDITH: But this time we'll make it with the lawyer. And the lawyer, yesterday, he called me that he need the names again to send the papers for border, yes? And now we have to wait.

SHERLOCK: A financial adviser back in Vienna, Edith's life was a world away from here. She's had to learn from scratch how to navigate in the Middle East, how to cross into a war zone.

The first time you went to Syria, were you afraid for your life?

EDITH: No. No, not one second.

SHERLOCK: Really?

EDITH: No.

SHERLOCK: Why?

EDITH: Because my daughter is there - and for me, this was the most important to take - to see her, to take her. I never think about my life, never.

SHERLOCK: Of the thousands of foreign parents of people detained after they joined ISIS in Syria, Edith is one of the very few that's made it all this way.

In Syria, we go to the house of a local friend she's made. Edith sits on the couch - too thin from a diet of stress and cigarettes.

EDITH: I want stop with the smoking, but I cannot. I need it. I try, but I cannot.

SHERLOCK: We're not going to use Edith or her daughter's full name because they fear reprisals in Austria. But Edith tells me about her daughter, Himena - how she grew from a girl who rescued animals and wanted to be a vet to a confused teenager. She was bullied in school and sought solace in religion. At 13, she became a fundamentalist Christian. By 14, she'd converted to Islam. And then there was the day she disappeared.

EDITH: It's difficult for me. Sometimes it's very, very difficult to speak about that.

SHERLOCK: Himena had already run away once, at 15, to elope with her older, Afghan boyfriend. When she came back, Edith wouldn't let her out of her sight. A year passed. And then one day, Himena asked to go alone to a friend's place.

EDITH: I say, oh, no. I go, and I take you and I bring to you. Mom, please trust me. And yet - you know. And I say OK. OK, my dear, I will trust you. Yes?

SHERLOCK: She promised she'd be back by 3 p.m. that afternoon but didn't return. Weeks passed with no news - until four months later, when Edith says she received a video. Himena was sitting on a bed behind her Afghan husband.

EDITH: And he say, I'm so sorry and she's here. And in the video, she's crying. She only cry, cry, cry.

SHERLOCK: She is in Raqqa, Syria. At just 16, Edith's daughter is in a city controlled by the Islamic State. And then, as months pass and ISIS collapses, she ends up in the al-Roj detention camp. That's where Edith is headed. We go with her.

We're just waiting at the entrance now.

EDITH: (Unintelligible) Approaching.

SHERLOCK: It's a sprawl of canvas tents with thousands of people from dozens of countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHERLOCK: The women are almost all dressed in dour, covering black. But Edith strides through in a bright red linen shirt with short sleeves. She wants to look nice for her daughter. And also, I think, she's making a statement in defiance of the values ISIS tried to impose.

Salaam. (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: We find Himena in her tent. She's 19, and her boy is a 2-year-old toddler. He's in a Batman T-shirt and cries.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)

EDITH: What's up, baby?

SHERLOCK: Edith holds her grandchild tight against her chest and rocks him. And there are moments when you remember just how much Edith's daughter is herself still a teenager. At one point, Edith tries to put her arm around her daughter in front of us. And Himena shrugs her off, embarrassed.

EDITH: (Foreign language spoken). I go with you. No, you are my baby.

HIMENA: Mama, does it look like I'm 10 years old?

(LAUGHTER)

SHERLOCK: She says her husband went to Syria first and she just went to bring him home.

HIMENA: Because I think I come back. I say I come back.

SHERLOCK: But ISIS wouldn't let them leave. They'd already jailed him once for trying, so they lived in a small apartment in Raqqa. She got pregnant. The U.S.-led coalition began its offensive on the city. And she says just after the baby was born in 2017, the bombardments intensified.

HIMENA: At night, I don't sleep because it was just bombs, bombs - screaming, bomb, bomb. But you can't run even.

SHERLOCK: They eventually got out, but they were captured by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Her husband has ended up in a prison in Iraq. It's hard to know for sure how active they were in ISIS. Himena insists she barely left the house.

HIMENA: For myself, I'm clean. I know I don't do nothing. I know I'm clean. My husband - I know, too, he don't do nothing. I was with him at home.

SHERLOCK: That are true ISIS believers in al-Roj camp. But a guard tells me in private, Himena is not one of them. Kurdish authorities in Syria say they will only release detainees if their home countries will take them back, and Austria hasn't. This means Himena and her son are in limbo, trapped in this camp.

She's trying to say goodbye. She's giving her grandson a big kiss and her daughter a big kiss. After long goodbyes, we climb back into the car.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOORS CLOSING)

SHERLOCK: Edith begins to cry, especially for her grandson.

EDITH: He's a little child. This - all children are all victims.

SHERLOCK: He didn't do anything, yeah.

EDITH: Nothing. She come here for herself. But my grandson...

SHERLOCK: He didn't. Yeah.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: I go to Austria to see Edith a few months later at the family home. She seems drained. Over three years, she's made more than five trips to Syria, pleading with authorities and taking supplies. Her husband works seven days a week to pay for the travel.

EDITH: I feel like trauma and...

SHERLOCK: Traumatized, yeah.

EDITH: Yes, I feel very - but I feel it now very, very strong.

SHERLOCK: In Austria, she has a lawyer and a social worker to urge the government to allow her daughter back. But newspapers have carried headlines opposing the return of Austrians who went to ISIS. Johannes Huebner, a former parliamentarian with the main far-right Freedom Party, agrees.

JOHANNES HUEBNER: Yeah, I think they have to bear the consequences for what they did. If they went down, they must be aware of the fact that they are not welcome back. And I think Austria has the right to refuse these people.

SHERLOCK: Recently, Edith has heard that the government might agree to bring her grandson to Austria but not Himena. And then she could even lose her grandson to Austria's social services.

EDITH: I not want there to break my grandchildren from us. I'm not a stranger for him. He know me. He see me, and he remember my wife. You know? But people who I never see in my life want to take my grandchildren. For what?

SHERLOCK: She says she's going to keep fighting. She knows her daughter may face jail time if she returns. But that would be better, she says, than leaving her behind in Syria forever.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News.

KELLY: And this story comes from our Embedded podcast, which features other accounts of people trapped after the fall of the Islamic State.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARIEL ABRAMOVICH'S "RICERCAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.