people walking down the street in a devastated area of the city

4 years later, the legacy of ISIS prevents these Iraqi children from going to school

​​​​​​​Thousands of Iraqi children who lived under the brutal rule of ISIS in northern Iraq still face obstacles. Iraqi families who were issued official identification documents by ISIS continue to have a hard time getting their kids into school, because the government doesn’t recognize their paperwork.

The World

Ameera Ismail Ahmed, 29, who lives in Mosul, Iraq, is having a hard time getting her children into school. 

The Iraqi government doesn’t recognize identification documents issued by ISIS, the militant group that captured Mosul in 2014. ISIS was eventually driven out, but many families are still living with the residual implications of ISIS rule. 

In order to attend school now, Ahmed’s kids are among thousands of Iraqi children who face the obstacle of acquiring new IDs — especially if they come from families with former ISIS ties, like Ahmed’s. 

In 2014, Ahmed noticed her husband whispering on secret phone calls. It didn’t take long for her to realize that he had joined ISIS. Ahmed said she was furious.

“We had a fight,” she said. “I told him to quit. We have kids. What if something happens to you? Who is going to take care of us?”

But Ahmed had nowhere to turn. Her mother-in-law tried talking her husband out of it, but he had made his decision to join ISIS. No one could stop him.

ISIS unleashed a campaign of terror when it captured Mosul in 2014 that included beheadings and torture. The violence displaced thousands of people and destroyed much of the city. 

It took five years for Iraqi security forces to drive ISIS out, with the help of the US military. Many ISIS fighters were killed. Some were detained. Others went missing. 

When the dust settled, women like Ahmed were left to raise their families on their own, living in a place filled with hatred for ISIS and anyone affiliated with it.

view of Mosul street
A street in Mosul, Iraq.Shirin Jaafari/The World

‘A lost generation’

Ahmed’s husband is in prison now. She said she stopped all communication with him.

But Ahmed and other women whom The World spoke to, whose families had affiliations with ISIS, say that getting new IDs to enroll their children in school is a daunting task.

Ahmed said that the state told her to renounce her husband in the presence of two witnesses. Finding witnesses is difficult, though, she said, because people either worry about testifying against someone who might have been wrongly accused, or they are concerned that the accused might eventually return and pose a threat to them.

Ahmed said the whole process is humiliating, and she felt abandoned and worried about her kids’ future.

“Every time I go to the office, they tell me my papers have been lost so I have to start the process again. I feel like they are just abusing me,” she said.

Her two sons — who are 12 and 13 — stayed at home for 2 1/2 years, she said, because people called them names, like “sons of ISIS.”

This is a reality for many families like hers.

“Tens of thousands of children continue to face barriers to accessing formal education due to a lack of civil documentation,” said Imrul Islam, advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq. 

“Often, because they come from families who are perceived to be affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State.”

In order to get new documents, these families have to go to court, and sometimes, they can’t even afford transportation costs. 

“We’re talking about individuals who don’t have jobs, who struggle to make ends meet and for these families, too often this cost is prohibitive because food and shelter are usually prioritized,” Islam said. 

So, kids end up languishing in camps or at home, unable to get an education, he said.

“We’re talking about a generation who might have never seen the inside of a formal school. These children, many of them were born in displacement. So, every month a child spends out of school is a month closer to a lost generation.”

officer near flag
Abdullah Hussein is the head of the community police for the Nineveh Governorate in Mosul, Iraq.Shirin Jaafari/The World 

Abdullah Hussein, the head of community police for the Nineveh Governorate, said that last year, the education directorate for the area agreed to allow kids to be admitted to schools without documents on a case-by-case basis.

He dismissed the problems these families face, maintaining that their issues have mostly been resolved.

“These formalities are simply the law. In some cases, women themselves don’t come forward to ask for help. That’s what slows down the process,” he said.

Hussein pointed to the thousands of victims of ISIS, who still need support. There are so many people still living in displacement camps because their homes were destroyed during the battle to retake the city. And, many people need help processing the trauma, as well.

Likewise, families with perceived ties to ISIS should also receive support, he said.

“First and foremost, these people are Iraqis, and in most cases, the women and children have not committed any crimes,” he said.

Women supporting women

Taif Ali, 30, has been helping families believed to have ties with ISIS get their documents.

Her goal is to break the cycle of marginalization.

“I was like them,” she said. “I have been through these stages. I know a lot of women who have been sidelined by society. I survived and now I am stronger. I want to empower them.”

Ali’s husband is in prison after a group of his co-workers, as she describes it, accused him of working for ISIS. She claims they framed him because of a dispute.

She hears from women who have been sexually exploited and abused simply because they need help with getting their documents.

She faces harassment herself, she said, pulling up a Facebook post from the same day. The user cursed for her husband’s actions.

“It’s not fair,” she said. “What’s more, this kind of treatment leads to another generation that will grow up with hatred. If any other group tries to recruit these children, it will be very easy.”

Ali connects with families believed to be affiliated with ISIS and she walks them through the process of getting new documents. She also warns them of scams and potential abuse.

There are an estimated 30,000 Iraqis still held in the Al Hol camp for ISIS suspects inside Syria.

The Iraqi government has started to repatriate them.

That means more children trying to get places in schools without official Iraqi IDs.

Human rights groups say there needs to be a better process for vetting and integrating these families.

Meanwhile, recently, Ahmed managed to get one of her four kids into school in September. She’s also trying to negotiate spots for her other children. But it’s time-consuming, she said.

Safa, 10, started classes this year and said her favorite subjects are Arabic and math. Adjusting has been hard.

“The girls in school talk badly about me, and they don’t want to play with me,” Safa said.

Her mother said she understands the anger and resentment toward families like hers.

But she also sees education as a way to help build a better future for her children, especially her young son.

“I hope he finds a good job one day, so he becomes better than his father.”

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