Women returning from al-Hol face an uphill battle in Raqqa
Women returning to Raqqa from the al-Hol detention camp face major challenges as they seek to turn the page on their past. While they describe themselves as victims, some of their neighbors still view them as part of the Islamic State.
Members of Raqqa’s conflict resolution committees visit a woman who returned to Raqqa city from al-Hol camp, 18/10/2023 (Oxygen Shabab)
RAQQA — Nine years after her husband joined the Islamic State (IS) in Raqqa, Abeer is still paying the price. She continued living with her husband, and accompanied him on a journey that ultimately took them to Baghouz, the Deir e-Zor town near the Iraqi border where IS made its last stand in Syria. There, her husband and all but one of her children were killed.
Abeer says she did not stay with her husband because she accepted IS ideology. Rather, she explained her choice as “in line with prevailing social customs and traditions, which dictate that a woman should not disobey or disagree with her husband,” she told Syria Direct. But some members of her community consider her to be part of IS, not a victim.
Abeer, who is from the southern countryside of Raqqa, married her husband in 2014. His relationship with IS first began that same year, through its members who frequented the restaurant where he worked. Less than three months after the couple’s marriage, he swore allegiance to IS.
In the years that followed—up until the battle of Baghouz in which the international coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) destroyed IS’ last territorial foothold in Syria in March 2019—Abeer gave birth to five children. She lost four to bombings in Baghouz, in which her husband was also killed. She was also injured, and lost the vision in one of her eyes.
In the end, Abeer and her surviving son ended up in al-Hol camp, an SDF-run detention site for the families of IS members. Today, approximately 52,000 people live in al-Hol and the neighboring al-Roj camp, 60 percent of whom are children.
Abeer spent 20 months there, before leaving in 2021 under a tribal sponsorship program run by local conflict resolution committees. She is one of 3,000 people—900 families—who left al-Hol between 2018 and 2021 through tribal sponsorships, according to figures Syria Direct obtained from Oxygen Shabab, a civil society organization in Raqqa that provides programs for returnees from the camp.
This past September, 90 families left al-Hol for Raqqa through tribal sponsorships. Those released included 250 children who, like Abeer’s son, are paying the price for their parents’ choices. Back in Raqqa, they face challenges accessing official identification paperwork, as well as a social stigma that clings to them and their families.
Abeer’s nine-year-old son, who she asked not be named in this report, often asks his mother about his grandfather and grandmother, his father’s parents, wondering “why they don’t contact us or visit us,” she said. She is not sure how to answer him. “My husband’s father cut us off when my husband joined IS, and they still shun us,” she explained.
Negative stereotypes surround women returning from al-Hol camp, Abeer and other returnees told Syria Direct, as a portion of the community around them holds them responsible for what happened to the area after IS took control.
Clashing with the community
Life in al-Hol is difficult. It is closer to a detention site than a typical displacement camp, and persistent violence and human rights violations have been reported. Abeer expected that years of torment would end as soon as she returned to her hometown in southern Raqqa. But instead, the stigma of being linked to IS followed her home.
Members of her community often say “you all are IS women, you’re an IS wife,” Abeer said. “I didn’t hear [these words] in the camp to this degree, where my food and drink were also ensured,” she added. At times, she finds herself wishing she could go back. “I wish my foot broke the hour I left,” she said, in an expression of regret.
Um Abdullah, another woman who returned to Raqqa from al-Hol, explained why. “Although life in the camp is like prison, there is nobody there to look down on you. Outside, our environment rejects us,” she told Syria Direct from her home in Raqqa. She recalled one incident in which she was thrown out of her neighbor’s house when she found out she was one of the “al-Hol women.”
To leave al-Hol through the tribal sponsorship program, Abeer underwent a security check before she was approved. Leaving the camp was supposed to mean turning the page, starting a new life. But “we are a people who do not forget,” Abeer said. She lives in fear of “detention or retaliation, that at any moment I could be killed in the blink of an eye.”
“I can’t express an opinion on anything related to the area where I live,” she said. “The response will be: you’re an IS woman and you want to condescend to us?” Abeer emphasized multiple times that “some hold me responsible for ruining the country,” or “accuse me of still being IS.”
Stigma extends to Abeer’s young son, who is “isolated and rejected by children his age, under the pretext that he is the son of an IS member,” she said. But what she sees when she looks at her son is “the future,” a hope that he will “live a different life than the one we have lived these past years.”
Um Ruqqaya, another returnee, faces the same challenges in her community. She stressed that her wish is to “live in peace, and not belong to any party.”
Displaced from the Homs countryside to Raqqa in 2012, Um Ruqqaya taught at a school in Raqqa before IS took control. In 2014, she married another teacher—a Raqqa native—but he later lost his job. In 2015, he joined IS and worked at the group’s Zakat office, she said.
During the final battles against IS, Um Ruqqaya and her husband fled east, towards the Deir e-Zor countryside. In late 2018, he was killed in the town of al-Shaafa, while she was taken to al-Hol camp. She spent a year there before she was released and returned to Raqqa city under tribal sponsorship.
Today, Um Ruqqaya feels that her neighbors’ view of her is improving. They have broken an initial isolation imposed on her, thanks to “a group of relatives in the area where I live,” she said. They played a role in “correcting the neighbors’ image of me.”
While Um Ruqqaya feels hurt by how she has been treated by her community, she added that “the media bears some responsibility, because they exaggerate the danger of al-Hol residents, portraying the women living in it as IS affiliates.” She believes the majority of women in al-Hol “are victims of war, and dream of a dignified life.”
Beyond social stigma, returnees and their children face a range of challenges related to not having proper identification papers. Abeer’s family lost their papers in Baghouz, and her son has no proper identification.
As a result, for months after returning from al-Hol, Abeer’s son had no access to education. This was “an obsession for me, fearing for the future of my only surviving child, since he doesn’t have papers,” Abeer said.
He was later able to access alternative education through a program run by the Better Life Organization in Raqqa, in coordination with Oxygen Shabab. The program, aimed at out-of-school children in Abeer’s neighborhood, includes Abeer’s son and 15 others nominated by Oxygen Shabab.
But while the alternative education program is significant, it resembles a literacy program, and is not formally recognized by official institutions in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) or the Syrian regime. Abeer still cannot enroll her son in official AANES schools because he does not have identification.
Without proper documents, returnees from al-Hol also struggle to access services and subsidized goods provided by the local AANES authorities. Abeer has tried to apply to receive subsidized bread provided via the AANES delegate in her neighborhood, but she does not have the documents she needs to complete the transaction—including her husband’s death certificate.
Typically, the AANES provides family ledgers—vital documents containing official records of births, deaths, marriages and other civil status information—to citizens of areas under its control. People returning from al-Hol camp are excluded, and face major challenges when seeking to obtain identification documents, especially because some are issued by the Syrian regime, several civilian sources told Syria Direct.
One official at a civil society organization in Raqqa, called documentation “a true crisis for women returning from al-Hol, whether in regime or AANES departments,” speaking to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for administrative reasons. “The cost of obtaining a family ledger from the regime may reach $150,” and requires “connections,” he added.
Without proper legal documents, women returning from al-Hol “cannot receive gas, bread and fuel benefits allocated by the AANES,” the same source said. Um Abdullah, who lost her documents in Baghouz, said without these documents she is still “unable to access many services.”
On their own?
The tribal sponsorship system for women leaving al-Hol was launched in 2019. Sponsorships have been a lifeline for thousands of people detained in al-Hol, most of whom are women and children. But once women and children are cleared to leave al-Hol and arrive back in Raqqa, the role of those involved in the sponsorship ends. They find themselves largely on their own, confronting economic, social and official challenges.
Some efforts have been made to fill in the gap. In late 2021, a committee was formed in Raqqa province made up of 10 people, including clan notables, civil society activists and legal figures, through an initiative overseen by civil organizations in Raqqa and Deir e-Zor. The initiative is supported by the German organization Crisis Simulation for Peace (CRISP), which runs programs in AANES-held areas of northeastern Syria, Bashar Karaf, the director of Oxygen Shabab, explained.
Subcommittees under this initiative, including one in Raqqa, work to “break the stereotype in society towards women returning from al-Hol camp, and their children,” Karaf said. “Each subcommittee oversees the area its members belong to, and benefits from the social capital of each member to communicate with the local community and resolve conflicts of various kinds.”
Karaf described women and children returning from al-Hol as “the weakest and most vulnerable to exploitation in society.” This underscores the importance of local committees in “directing public opinion and changing the perception of this group,” he added.
But while economic needs are most pressing for returning families, “the committees do not provide financial support,” Karaf said. Rather, they work to “solve problems related to housing, obtaining identification documents and resettling families in their home community.”
To this end, local figures and organizations—including Oxygen Shabab—launched a campaign entitled “Among Your People” to support reintegration efforts. As of September 2023, those participating in the campaign had organized 3,291 sessions related to reintegration, and had dealt with 2,000 cases in Raqqa and Deir e-Zor provinces, according to Karaf.
“The committees are working to solve service problems families returning from al-Hol face, such as the problem of [accessing] subsidized bread and fuel and helping people obtain identification documents from the AANES Civil Registry Department, with the help of lawyers working with the committees,” Karaf said.
Despite efforts to help women returning from al-Hol reintegrate into their communities, sporadic incidents of harassment, bullying or rejection of women and their children persist. Um Abdullah said her son was bullied, but she could not “go to the families [of the children involved] because the first word out of their mouths will be ‘she’s IS, and she wants to complain,’” she said.
“Bullying of women returning from al-Hol exists at high rates in the Raqqa community,” the civil society official, who is working on a report about the crisis faced by returnees, said. He explained that the amount of bullying is “relative, and varies from one segment [of the community] to another.”
“One segment of the community has a violent reaction to them, having lost members of their families to IS in the past,” the official said. “There is also a segment of people who are reconciled with the returning women, and consider them to be victims, too.”
At times, Um Abdullah feels completely abandoned—by her community and local organizations alike. The end of every month, when rent comes due, feels like a nightmare. She is unemployed, and every month has to go searching for someone to help her pay the $50 rent.
The civil society official attributed a lack of support for returning women to shifts in funding. “Organizations work according to the directions of the donors. After IS was expelled in 2017, there was interest in programs addressing violent extremism, then promoting stability, education, gender and governance issues,” he said. “Integrating women returning from al-Hol into society is desirable for the donors, but it is not a priority.”
Abeer, like Um Abdullah, has struggled to make ends meet since returning from al-Hol. Her economic troubles were “somewhat solved” when she got a job at a local organization with the help of the conflict resolution committee.
Her job is more than a source of income, however. Cut off from her family and ostracized by parts of the community, she considers her workplace something of “a family home.”
This report was produced as part of the second phase of Syria Direct’s MIRAS Training Program, in coordination with the Oxygen Shabab organization. It was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.