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Children of the “Caliphate”

Children in Aleppo [ATS Pro Terra Sancta]

Syria: thousands of children were left behind during the Islamic State’s retreat. A project involving Muslim and Catholics in Aleppo aims to build them a better future

Last update: 2018-05-10 15:14:55

For four years Aleppo, the most populous Syrian city and the economic capital of the country before the war, had been divided into two parts: the western one, controlled by government forces and militias allied with Damascus; and the eastern one, under the control of a group of forces opposed to President Bashar el-Assad.


With the decisive and controversial contribution of the Russian and Iranian forces, the battle of Aleppo ended in late 2016, with the rebels and jihadist militias abandoning the eastern part of town.


Over 2.000 orphans

However, a city destroyed by bombings and thousands of dead are not the only legacy of the conflict in this corner of Syria. During years of occupation within the urban center, militiamen from Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group originally linked to al-Qaeda, and from the Islamic State, took local women for wives as well as kidnapped girls, often belonging to religious minorities, to make them their sex slaves.


From these unions, thousands of children had been born who - since their fathers are either dead or gone - have remained orphans and are not recognized by the State. Some of them are now six or seven years old: «It is a part of society that nobody wants to look at, a problem that is often hidden so as not to create scandal,» reads a document from the Association pro Terra Sancta.


Monsignor Abou Khazen, Apostolic Vicar of Latin Catholics in Aleppo, and friar Firas Lutfi said that a project called A Name and a Future was launched in collaboration with Aleppo religious authorities to deal with this emergency. It is entirely dedicated to these children, as well as to their mothers and sisters.


The project

For now, the recipients of the initiative are about 2.000 children of unknown relatives who, if abandoned after suffering war traumas, are at risk of being exploited by criminal or terrorist networks, the priests said. These children are not registered in civil registries, and therefore do not receive any kind of State assistance. On the contrary, often «they are looked at with hostility because they are considered children of sin.»


The first proposal of the project is to change Syrian legislation by promoting the approval of a law that will allow a process to “censor” these children, in order to relieve them of the stigma as “children of sin.” Currently, a law is being discussed in Parliament.


Parallel to this first phase - and thanks to the logistic support provided by the Association pro Terra Sancta, which is also taking care of fundraising - the project aims at providing essential needs for 500 families: food, clothing and other essential goods.


However, the project, jointly managed by local Catholic communities – which according to Monsignor Abou Khazen serves as a bridge – and by Muslim authorities, goes beyond first assistance. Through psychological and pedagogical support and the participation in specific educational projects, the initiative aims to allow each child to fully integrate into society, encouraging the overcoming of war traumas.


Access to the school system is an additional problem. When children will be registered, they should be able to go to school but, often, the effects of traumatic situations experienced make learning difficult and dig a groove between them and their peers who have experienced relatively simpler situations.


Precisely for this reason, the next step after registration and legal assistance is the start of intensive courses that will allow those children from the areas most affected by battle and bombings to reach their peers’ level and be able to place them on the official schooling path.


A Name and a Future is the first project to deal with this emergency through a comprehensive approach, taking into account the mothers of these children who, as Monsignor Abou Khazen and Father Firas said, often hide their identity as parents of these children, pretending to be sisters instead. Specific activities will be dedicated to them: medical, legal and psychological assistance, literacy courses and specific professional education programs that will allow them, according to their abilities and preferences, to obtain a legal job to support their children.


Hope for peace

While the Turks are continuing to advance in the areas controlled by the Kurds, and the regime and its Russian allies are bombing the region of Eastern Ghouta, from which attacks to the capital Damascus often come, the war in Syria does not seem to stop. «The hope for peace comes from the population, which is tired of the conflict,» –Monsignor Abou Khazen said. This is why, he said, carrying out the project together with the Islamic authorities in Aleppo, shows the value of «a practical form of interreligious dialogue that aims to build a better society for all.»


Relationships born during the war, Father Firas said, are necessarily authentic: «When we are both faced with the practical needs, we must take off our masks and respond. This is why the project will involve both Christians and Muslims


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Oasis International Foundation