By Jabari Fraser
For two Trinidadian boys who were abducted and taken to live in Syria under the rule of Islamic State (Isis), the long nightmare is finally over. Mahmud and Ayyub Ferreira, now aged 13 and eight, found themselves in crowded refugee camps after the presumed death in combat of their father, who joined the short-lived caliphate in 2014.
They would still be there now if not for the combined efforts of their mother in Trinidad, a rock star, a British newspaper, human rights lawyers and the authorities in Port of Spain. The story behind their return to Trinidad is a typical example of the complexity facing countries struggling to deal with the problems posed by relatives of Isis fighters, caught in the crossfire and left stranded by the demise of the Islamist organisation.
In the countdown to Christmas, an article in the Middle East Eye (MEE) mentioned the exodus of relatives of Isis recruits from the overcrowded desert camp of al-Hol in northern Syria. Many of the people in those camps were displaced Syrian nationals, but MEE also indicated that some were from Trinidad and Tobago.
Preparing for the returnees
The problem of what to do with these non-combatants, mostly women and children, who were caught up in the decline of Isis has been building for some time. Trinidad, for one, has been preparing for this scenario for well over a year.
In August 2018, Trinidad and Tobago set up Team Nightingale, a multidisciplinary and multi-agency team in charge of the repatriation and reintegration of T&T nationals held in the refugee and detention camps in Syria and Iraq.
Team Nightingale includes Trinidadian experts in terrorism, policing, financial investigation and child protection among other areas. It has been meeting regularly since mid-2018.
In July 2019, Trinidad and Tobago’s National Security Minister, Stuart Young, opened a workshop on Working with Child Returnees. It brought together Trinidadian officials and civil society organisations who would be responsible for working with people of Trinidadian nationality returning from conflict zones, alongside British experts who have already been working on similar situations involving the UK.
The National Security Ministry provided a glimpse of the tangled work ahead. It said in 2018: “The verification and investigation process is a complex one, which was paralleled with developing a process and procedure for repatriation and reintegration, which would include assessing the status of returning nationals.
“During this process, which by its very nature is a confidential and multifaceted one, balancing public interest and national security concerns, there has been an understandable amount of media interest generated.
“However, very little could be shared and made public, due to the sensitive nature of the matter and the investigations and preparations for possible repatriation.
“Upon the return of any minors or adult nationals from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) battlefronts, the Nightingale Team and its various elements have different roles to play, including assessing the best environment for minors who may have experienced the trauma, and ill effects, of being in, or around, war zones and battlefronts. It is expected that any such returnees will be assessed by the appropriate authorities upon their return,” the ministry stated.
This joined-up thinking will be much needed, as it has been in other countries left with the displaced people left by the rise and fall of Isis.
Middle East Eye (MEE) reported in mid-November 2019 that there were nearly 100 Trinidadians – at least 70 of them children – being held at al-Hol camp alone. The children sent a series of audio messages to MEE pleading for help to return home.
MEE said that it had obtained a detailed list compiled by the families and shared with the news outlet which offered “an insight into the Trinidadian nationals held at al-Hol, who arrived as part of an exodus of people fleeing the capturing of Islamic State group territory by a US-backed military campaign spearheaded by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) earlier this year”.
MEE added: “Some 25 women and 71 child nationals of Trinidad and Tobago were at the camp as of the start of November, according to the documents. Previous reports put the total number at 25.
“Despite having a population of just 1.4 million, the country is thought to have contributed the highest number per capita of travellers to territories held by the Islamic State group. At least 130 Trinidad and Tobagonian nationals went to Iraq and Syria between 2013 and 2016.”
Some of the evidence came from Felicia Perkins, the mother of Mahmud and Ayyub.
On hearing that her sons had been located, she made the journey from Port of Spain to rescue them from the nearby al-Hawl refugee camp, where they had reportedly been sleeping in concrete toilets, trying to remember enough about their background to inform the authorities. They were taken to al-Hol following her lobbying and finally released into her custody.
It’s estimated that there are about 650 Europeans being held at the Kurdish-run camps, where space, food and medicine are running low.
Few countries have moved quickly to bring these children home, even when they can identify their countries of origin. The UK stripped one British woman, Shamima Begum, of her nationality in a high-profile case which is now being challenged in the British courts.
Sweden initially said that it would not attempt to retrieve trapped people, but has recently sent in personnel to extract women and children from the camps.
Australia had refused entry to such children, before toning down its position to allowing them back in. Germany, France and Ireland have been taking steps to repatriate their nationals once their identities are verified.
Back home in Trinidad, Felicia Perkins-Ferreira was featured last month enjoying her first Christmas with her returned sons. She has become something of a cause celebre for people seeking the return of their relatives once they can locate them in the Syrian desert refugee camps.
She needed the help of human rights lawyers to obtain documents, the co-operation of the Trinidad & Tobago government and a private jet lent by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to make her rescue mission work.
“Now they’re home, the brothers are recovering well. Ayyub likes cricket and Mahmud has gone back to playing football: he also likes art and has just been made a class prefect. Ayyub is adapting to his new English-language school: his form teacher loves him and says his grasp of the language is improving,” the UK Guardian, which has been following the boys’ plight for more than a year, reported.