“I have never in my life seen children playing.”
A fifth grader at an elementary school in Aravan, Kyrgyzstan — a rural farming community in the lush Ferghana Valley on the border with Uzbekistan — could only count to 20 when this school year began. “It was like he dropped out of the sky,” his teacher said about his unfamiliarity with numbers, letters or the entire concept of school.
Her new student had just returned from a displacement camp in Iraq as part of a flight of 79 children that were repatriated by the Kyrgyz government last year. Their fathers had heeded the call to join ISIS in its attempt to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria and brought their wives and children with them. Some were born during the war.
Now their fathers are dead or in jail, and mothers and children sit in legal limbo in camps in Iraq and Syria with no education and no apparent future. Bringing children home to their families’ communities is now a priority for Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian Republics.
The Problem of Repatriating Fighters in a Foreign War
The Republics of Central Asia contributed a disproportionate number of foreign fighters to the ISIS ranks from 2015-2018 in Iraq and Syria. An estimated 5,000 emigrated from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Many were labor migrants in Russia and Turkey drawn to ISIS by sophisticated recruiting campaigns juxtaposed with isolating and perilous conditions in their adopted homes. Others made the trip from communities in Central Asia where poverty, ethnic tensions, and alienation from the government made them ripe for recruitment.
But poverty and discrimination alone does not make a terrorist recruit. If those underlying conditions are fuel, there still must be a spark to convince people to make a perilous decision to fight in a foreign country for a religious cause. Often, local social networks play a role. If a big brother heeds ISIS’ call, his cousins and friends from school are more likely to join him in the cause. This appears to be a factor in recruitment from Kyrgyzstan, where two-thirds of the families that were repatriated are from the small district of Aravan.
Unlike Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which have returned mothers and children together from Iraq and Syria, Kyrgyzstan decided to initially repatriate only children because adults who left to fight for ISIS were stripped of their citizenship. The first group of returnees were placed with family members who serve as their guardians. Often these relatives are poor and have children of their own. Being in a family and community setting helps with reintegration, but strains household and local resources.
It Takes a Village to Receive Child Victims of War
Returning children from a war theater presents daunting social services problems. Having traveled to Iraq as toddlers, or for those who were born there, many of the returning children have no memory of their home communities in Kyrgyzstan and are entirely unfamiliar with the context of school or village life. They have never met the aunts, uncles, grandparents or cousins they are now living with.
USIP spoke to teachers of 16 children in Aravan in June 2022 who are paid through a USIP partnership with a local non-government organization to provide supplemental tutoring that helps returning students get up to grade level in reading and math. The conversations revealed, however, that the teachers’ most important task is to help students adjust to new social norms after years of horrifying trauma.
Teachers said their first step was to observe their new pupils in the classroom and assess basic skills. Children range in age from first to sixth grades, but none were anywhere near the expectations for kids in their class. Asked about her school experience in Iraq, one girl told her teacher, “We didn’t study. We were just cleaning blood from the floor.”
All the teachers noted that the returnees were shy and reserved in their first months in school after returning, and their behaviors demonstrated clear signs of post-traumatic stress. One jumped each time the school bell sounded. Another huddled under her desk for the first several weeks. Others did not talk to their fellow students for two months. Asked to draw a picture of his “dream house,” one boy drew a simple structure where only one person could live, with no gardens or animals around. Prompted to draw elements of a larger community, he produced a picture with more identical houses.
“Why don’t you draw something with more people?” his teacher asked, thinking about parents, friends or maybe a playground.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “I have never seen in my life children playing.”
Most of the Aravan teachers are mothers themselves, and more than one referred to “my child” when describing their relationship to the returnees. One classmate from the local village was jealous of the hugs a returnee received during class. “When these kids are brought to us, it is like your heart explodes,” one of the teachers explained. “It is a big emotional burden.”
The teachers’ approach has been to let returnees adjust and provide gentle support. They are cautious about raising topics that will trigger sadness, like lessons that ask students to discuss the roles of parents or focus on traditional family units. While the community knows the children are returning from Iraq, the teachers tell their classes that the kids have returned from Russia, a common occurrence given that around a quarter of the male population are labor migrants. The deception is meant to protect returnees from taunts or invasive questions from fellow students. At the end of the day, “These are our kids, not Iraqi kids,” one teacher explained.
Slow Progress, but Just a Beginning
Over six months, the children who returned to Aravan have made remarkable progress. All know the alphabet and numbers. Most are interacting with their classmates and making friends. Their teachers note many are eager to learn. The tutoring program will continue over the summer so that students can approach grade level when classes begin in the fall and USIP plans to expand services to accommodate returnees outside of Aravan.
The progress the kids have shown so far belies the challenges that lie ahead, however. School is in session for only a few hours each day, and the homes the children are returning to have stretched resources. Many of the ISIS recruits came from poorer families that were more vulnerable to false promises of a better life in Iraq or Syria. UNICEF has provided their guardians with some clothes for the children and the Kyrgyz government gives some additional money for food. But in most cases the guardians are caring for the returnees out of love at the expense of other family needs. A whole net of family, community and government services is needed.
Children returning from a war zone also need significant psycho-social support. Some teachers and guardians received brief trainings on trauma-aware care through a pilot project sponsored by the State Department. But they rely on instincts more that clinical training. There are no trained psychologists in the Aravan schools, and the state lacks resources to fund an integrated program of psycho-social support. Comparative research is clear that traumatic childhood experiences manifest throughout their lives and resources will be needed well beyond elementary schools.
While the approach taken in Aravan elementary schools is successful, it may soon face a challenge of scale. Several hundred more Kyrgyz mothers and children remain in camps in Iraq and Syria the government is looking for ways to bring them home too. Most are from the same area in southern Kyrgyzstan. Teachers and communities have struggled to adapt to hosting a few students per grade in a school. Dozens will create more complex problems.
Another challenging issue is reintegrating family units when the children’s mothers are able to return from Iraq. They will have their own trauma and, in some cases, will bring with them more rigid views about religion and culture. One girl who calls her mother every other week in the displacement camp reported with pride about participating in a holiday festival only to be reprimanded that dancing is un-Islamic. Social stigma from the community about joining ISIS is more likely to attach to mothers than young children who are clearly innocent. Some mothers were themselves deceived into traveling to Iraq and Syria, but others are devoted to Islamist ideology.
Ultimately Kyrgyzstan will need to reintegrate all the families in Iraq and Syria as pressure grows in those countries for the detention camps to close. The experience from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which have repatriated whole families to their countries, is that resources must be dedicated to an entire community over the long term to normalize life for the returnees and reduce stigmatization of them from their communities.
The United States and other donors seeking to counter ISIS’ violent extremism would be wise to invest in support for community reintegration because while such programs are slow and challenging, the alternatives are worse. If women and children are left in camps — traumatized, stateless and without a new home and support — they may become the next generation of terrorists if they are left with “nothing to lose.”