A woman walks inside a medical center that deals with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing in Idlib, Syria, April 13, 2020.

ISIS families held in Syrian camps face uncertain futures. Now, the coronavirus also looms.

COVID-19 is a threat for many refugee camps across the world. Sanitary conditions are typically not ideal and social distancing is nearly impossible. But at two camps in northern Syria, residents face the virus as well as stigmatization tied to their lives under ISIS. 

The World

Five years ago on a summer day, Michelle said goodbye to her sister who told her she found a job in Austria. Her sister had a friend there, so it wasn’t completely out of the blue.

“When I hugged her, it didn’t feel like I was going to hug her for the last time,” said Michelle, who asked that her full name not be used and that her sister not be identified because she fears backlash against herself and her family.

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Michelle’s sister sent some pictures after she arrived in Austria, but then she went silent. Michelle said her sister was going through a rough patch. She grew up in a Christian family in Canada, but had converted to Islam. She had been through several unsuccessful marriages and struggled with her mental health.

“I could tell she was kind of cycling, like she’s going to do something because things weren’t going so well for her,” Michelle said. “I had some concerns about her when she did leave, but I thought, ‘Well, OK, maybe this will do her some good.’”

The next time that Michelle and her family heard about her sister was from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. They told them she was in Raqqa, Syria, the capital of the so-called ISIS caliphate. Michelle’s sister had married a man online who was a member of ISIS, and she’d gone to Syria to join him.

Michelle never imagined her sister would take such actions. “What could I have done differently, and how did it ever get to be to this extent?” she wondered.

Today, Michelle is in touch with her sister and claims to have proof that she wasn’t involved in fighting for ISIS, but whether she’ll be allowed to return to Canada is unclear.  

Since the fall of ISIS, countries have grappled with the question of what to do with individuals who left to join the group. Those suspected of having ties with ISIS face stigma back home. And now, there’s a new threat: the coronavirus. 

Michelle worries that her sister, now a mother of three, is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus in a camp in Syria. “She is malnourished. She’s got broken teeth, and her hair and skin is a very strange texture. She is already in a fragile state.”

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Already dire circumstances 

As of Monday, 39 COVID-19 cases and three deaths have been reported in Syria. Health experts and aid workers warn that once the pandemic hits the area, it will spread through the camps very quickly.

The coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult to get aid to the camps in northern Syria. Borders are closed. Airports have shut down. Aid workers themselves have to take precautions so as to not spread the disease.

The Syrian civil war has severely impacted the health care infrastructure, and the camps especially, are not prepared to deal with an outbreak, said Sonia Khush, Syria response director for Save the Children. Crowded conditions will accelerate the spread of the virus, Khush added.

These concerns prompted the US-led coalition to deliver $1.2 million worth of medical supplies, such as latex gloves and masks, as well as surgical kits, defibrillators and oximeters to hospitals and detention facilities in northeastern Syria in late March.

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There are now only 28 intensive care unit beds and 11 ventilators in all of northeastern Syria, according to Khush.

“I mean the population of al-Hol camp is four times the density of New York City. So, the idea that all these social distancing measures can be easily put in place is just not realistic.”

Sonia Khush, Save the Children

“I mean the population of al-Hol camp is four times the density of New York City,” Khush said. “So, the idea that all these social distancing measures can be easily put in place is just not realistic.”

Already, the circumstances in the camps were dire. Last summer, representatives from Human Rights Watch visited the al-Hol camp three times. They found “overflowing latrines, sewage trickling into tattered tents, and residents drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs, and swollen bellies sifted through mounds of stinking garbage under a scorching sun or lay limp on tent floors, their bodies dusted with dirt and flies.”

Aid groups and camp managers told Human Rights Watch that children were dying from acute diarrhea and flulike infections. Now, with the threat of the coronavirus looming, human rights watchers and local doctors are urging the international community to act to prevent an outbreak. 

Foreigners flocked to Syria and Iraq

In 2014, with the rise of ISIS, an increasing number of foreigners flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the group as fighters or to live under its rule. Among them were young women from Europe, Canada and the US. Some, like Michelle’s sister, got married online. Others married once inside the caliphate. Many became mothers.

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By 2017, the US-led coalition and local forces drove out ISIS from most of its territory. ISIS fighters were either killed or taken to prisons. In Syria, most of the women and children who survived the fighting ended up in camps in the Kurdish-held territory in the northeastern part of the country. Al-Hol and Roj are two of these camps.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, explained that before the offensives against ISIS, al-Hol held displaced Syrians and Iraqis. Some were victims of the group’s brutal campaign to create a caliphate. These residents still live in the camp, Tsurkov said.

In early 2019, al-Hol became a holding place for families suspected of having ties with ISIS. The camps are administered by Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria.

“In the screening process, in most cases, children above the age of 12 were separated from their family and taken to prison,” she said. “Those who are at the camp are overwhelmingly women and children and are not suspected of carrying out any activities on behalf of ISIS. If such information reaches the Kurdish authorities, then they are arrested.”

According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, al-Hol and Roj hold 66,000 and 4,000 women and children, respectively. Most are relatives of ISIS militants, but some are former affiliates of the group themselves. The majority are either Syrians or Iraqis, with the numbers roughly split, and around 13,500 are from other countries.

What to do with ISIS families 

Both the United States and the United Kingdom have revoked the citizenship of women who left to join ISIS. But they have also taken back some of their citizens. France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway have repatriated some citizens, most of them children. Canada is an outlier so far.

“Some countries are not interested in having any children back or anyone from the camp, no matter their age, due to political considerations essentially,” Tsurkov said.

“At the moment, we have 45 Canadians in al-Hol, camp Roj and the prisons in northeast Syria,” said Alexandra Bain, director of Families Against Violent Extremism, who adds that 27 of these Canadians are children.

Bain’s organization works mostly Canadian families who have had someone caught up in violent extremism. She wants the Canadian government to bring back all of its citizens, but especially the children.

“I think we owe it to ourselves to make sure that Canadian citizenship means something,” she said. “People have fought wars before. There have been camp followers before. We’re big enough to do this.”

“Each person’s story is different,” Bain said. “We’ve had cases where mental health has been a prominent factor; we have young women who went off in search of love and idealism; and we have a young man who was a sniper.” She believes they should all be brought back to Canada and properly investigated.

Investigating and prosecuting individuals with suspected ties to ISIS is one possible solution put forward by Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert and author of several books on the issue. But there are challenges.

“Ordinary courtroom requirements are difficult to meet in conflict zones.” 

Brian Michael Jenkins, errorism expert and author

“Ordinary courtroom requirements are difficult to meet in conflict zones,” Jenkins writes in a piece for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

“The countries from which ISIS children originate are confronted with a grave humanitarian crisis,” Mia Bloom writes in an essay. Bloom is a communication professor at Georgia State University and author most recently of “Small Arms: Children and Terrorism.

She describes how ISIS took advantage of children to further advance its ideological goals.

“Given that ISIS indoctrination in many cases started at a very young age, the children have to unlearn their knowledge of the Islamic faith that was profoundly distorted by ISIS and re-learn basic life skills. They also should participate in vocational training to facilitate their transition to everyday life,” she writes in the essay.

The World contacted the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and asked about the repatriation of Canadian citizens, including Michelle’s sister, but did not receive a response.

Still, Michelle remains hopeful that her sister will be able to return to Canada — and that one day, she’ll be able to hug her once again. 

“I don’t condone anything that ISIS has done. They have done awful, awful things. I hate what they have done […] but it’s not humane to keep somebody captive without letting them know when they can get out or give them access to legal help.”

Michelle, whose sister married a man who was an ISIS member and went to Syria to join him

“I don’t condone anything that ISIS has done. They have done awful, awful things,” Michelle said. “I hate what they have done […] but it’s not humane to keep somebody captive without letting them know when they can get out or give them access to legal help.”

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