‘Running from memories’ of the Islamic State, parents and children transition to a new life

AMMAN: An unusual silence filled Muhammad Mahmoud’s home in central Syria during the three years in which he and his family lived under the Islamic State.

The former engineer and his wife worried that any candid discussion of the militant group or life in its so-called caliphate posed a risk, especially with three young children around. “We were afraid that they might repeat what we said elsewhere,” he says. So “we didn’t tell them anything.”

In Islamic State (IS)-controlled Uqayrbat, a cluster of desert towns spanning eastern Hama and Homs provinces, mere hearsay could lead to brutal punishment, and “children aren’t aware of the consequences of their words,” Mahmoud tells Syria Direct.

Mahmoud was himself lashed by the extremist group on three separate occasions: for smoking, displaying a photograph in public and serving a woman who violated IS dress code at the pharmacy where he worked. 

Each time he was beaten, Mahmoud reluctantly told his young children that he deserved the punishment.

“Dad, why did they whip you,” he recalls his now-seven-year-old son Waleed asking. “Did you do something wrong?”

“Yes,” he told him. “I’m guilty.”

Students at a recently reopened school in Deir e-Zor province in February. Photo by Ayham al-Mohammad/AFP.

The silence endured until approximately nine months ago, when the family of five was finally able to flee IS-held Uqayrbat for relative safety in the countryside of rebel-held Idlib.

At the time, the Islamic State was on the defensive as pro-government forces swept through Syria’s eastern desert and coalition airstrikes pummeled the group’s besieged de facto capital in Raqqa. Since then, the caliphate has been reduced to a handful of fragmented territories along the country’s periphery and an embattled pocket of the southern districts of Damascus.

But while the armed fight against the Islamic State winds down, another struggle has emerged in homes across Syria: Parents like Mahmoud—who were compelled to abide by, and at times enforce, the Islamic State’s extremist views while living under its authority—must now teach their children “right from wrong.”

‘No longer afraid’

In the central Idlib city of Maarat a-Numan, Mahmoud has returned to old habits shunned under the Islamic State, such as smoking and using a mobile phone in public without fear of a sudden search.

He has also returned to his full role as a parent, breaching his self-imposed silence and censorship and, for the first time in years, criticizing IS in front of his children.

“Now, I speak to them in a firm voice, and I tell them that Daesh is wrong,” Mahmoud says, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “We are no longer afraid of our children.”

The sudden shift—from submission and restraint under IS to outright rejection of the group and its ideals—has left Mahmoud’s children, all below the age of 10, befuddled. “We used to tell them everything [Daesh] did was correct, and now we’re contradicting ourselves,” he says.

At first, the children were suspicious. “You didn’t talk like this back then,” Mahmoud recalls them saying. So he acknowledges the inconsistencies, and explains that what the children saw at the hands of the Islamic State was “all wrong,” and that he had been afraid to to speak freely in front of them.

Although fears of IS have diminished in displacement, Mahmoud asked to be identified with a pseudonym, citing concerns about Islamic State sleeper cells and sympathizers in northwestern Syria.

Waleed, 7, stands near a displacement camp in Maarat a-Numan, Idlib in April. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Mahmoud.

Despite lingering fears, Mahmoud’s says his children are now gradually forgetting IS teachings, recognizing that the group caused their displacement.

Abd al-Karim al-Madani, a schoolteacher living in Deir e-Zor province, says his seven-year-old son Fadi experienced a similar transformation after the Islamic State was pushed from the family’s town, Abu Hamam, in December 2017.

In the months since IS control ended, al-Madani took a number of measures to “rehabilitate” his child, enrolling him in first grade and purchasing him a new mobile phone loaded with games and educational programs that were banned by the extremist organization.

“He’s on the right path,” the teacher says. But “there are many things that cannot be forgotten.”

In the caliphate, fighters roamed the streets in cars and on motorbikes, their speakers blasting Islamic State nasheeds: catchy anthems about war, glory and devotion to jihad. School curriculums taught youth to multiply and divide using images of IEDs and pistols. Children and adults alike were forced to watch decapitations in public squares.

“They saw and experienced every type of violence,” one mother says of her children—two boys and a girl—who lived for almost four years under the Islamic State in the Deir e-Zor town of al-Bukamal, which lies along the Iraqi border and whose outskirts still harbor some of the group’s remaining fighters.   

“We adults know right from wrong,” the mother says from displacement in Idlib, using the pseudonym Umm Hamouda. “We knew a day would come when we would be rid of their darkness,” she adds. Young children, however, “learn and absorb what they see.”

Schoolteacher al-Madani tried to shield his son Fadi from “religious extremism and bloodshed” during more than three years of IS rule. To keep an eye on him, he brought his son along to the odd jobs he worked after the school he taught in closed: making ice cream, selling gas and repairing cell phones. And he warned his child about the “dark thoughts” that other boys in the area might profess.

But the environment IS created was too all-encompassing. “My efforts failed,” says al-Madani. Fadi carved a toy gun out of wood and started singing the rhythmic nasheeds that echoed around him.

Al-Madani, like Mahmoud in Uqayrbat, was hesitant to criticize his child’s actions, worried Fadi might discuss his father’s opinions with friends. “The Islamic State would use children as spies,” he adds, instructing them to inform on any behavior that strayed from the group’s rigid guidelines.  

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A school used by the Islamic State to manufacture explosives in Aleppo province in 2016. Photo courtesy of STR/AFP/Getty Images.

Despite the progress Fadi has made in the six months since the Syrian Democratic Forces expelled IS from Abu Hamam, the slightest mention of the militant group can still trigger the boy’s memory, his father says.

“He’ll want to imitate them,” says al-Madani. Fadi still remembers and sings IS nasheeds. When that happens, his father tries to return his attention to schoolwork, games or once-banned television programs.

Hundreds of kilometers to the west of Deir e-Zor, in the Idlib countryside, Umm Hamouda says her children’s actions also show the enduring influence of the Islamic State.

Recently, she overheard her two young sons discussing IS ideology at their new home in Idlib.

“Didn’t they tell us, ‘If you blow yourself up, you’ll get rewarded,’” asked seven-year-old Samy.

“No. I think that talk is a lie,” his older brother Hamouda, 12, replied. “We shouldn't sacrifice ourselves.”

Umm Hamouda intervened, an act that she could not have risked just months earlier. She told her sons they were discussing was something called suicide. And suicide, she said, is considered haram—forbidden—in the Islamic faith.

“I’m teaching them the true Islam,” she says.

‘A kind word’

While parents reclaim parental authority, their children are discovering—and embracing—a new world that they knew nothing of during years of Islamic State-enforced isolation.  

“My children feel completely ignorant when they see what they missed out on,” says Umm Hamouda. When they arrived to Idlib in late 2017, they were “fascinated by everything,” she adds, from the variety of shows that appeared on television and the vastness of an unrestricted internet to the colorful garments worn in the streets of Sarmada, the town where they now reside.

“Mama, are we going to wear jeans, blouses and t-shirts?” asked her four-year-old daughter, Ghazal, at the time. “They won’t whip us here?”

“You’ll wear whatever you want,” her mother replied. Soon after arriving in Idlib, she bought her children new sets of clothing, including items forbidden by the Islamic State.

Adjusting to the new outfits has not been easy for Ghazal, the only daughter in the family of five. While shopping in a Sarmada market one day, she broke down in tears, telling her mother: “Mama, I forgot to cover my hair.”

Despite reassurances from her mother that showing her hair was no longer a punishable offense, Ghazal remains skeptical. “Are you sure it’s okay that people can see my hair?” she sometimes asks.

Each time Ghazal anxiously asks the question, “I feel pain deep within me,” Umm Hamouda says.

Fadi does schoolwork at his home in Deir e-Zor in April. Photo courtesy of Abd al-Karim al-Madani.

But as Umm Hamouda’s children slowly adjust to their new community, she sees them growing increasingly eager to move on, “running from the memory of what they experienced.”

“They want to erase any trace of the Islamic State within them,” she says.

And the transition to life in Idlib has brought moments of joy.

After years without a formal education, all of Umm Hamouda’s children are back in school and thrilled to be there, she says. “Even when there’s a day off, they still want to go.”

Her eldest, Hamouda, is particularly excited to be in school, even though he was placed in a class with children much younger than him. “He wasn’t upset one bit,” she says, “and he’s one of the top students.”

One day, the 12-year-old returned home and found a special note written in one of his notebooks.

“You’ve done great,” his teacher had scribbled in. “You’re a hero.”

Hamouda spent the next week with the notebook in hand and a grin across his face as he raced between friends and relatives, insisting that they take a peek: “Look at what the teacher wrote!” he demanded.

“I realized how important positivity and encouragement were for him, emotionally,” says Umm Hamouda. Under the Islamic State, “he never heard a kind word.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Leila al-Ahmad

Leila is from Damascus. She left her country because of the war and came to Jordan, where she studied journalism and media. She joined the Syria Direct training program to further develop her skills and to make the voice of her people heard.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.