In Syria, An Orphanage Cares For Children Born To Yazidi Mothers Enslaved By ISIS

Jun 6, 2019
Originally published on June 12, 2019 3:01 pm

A little girl with enormous blue eyes watches, mesmerized, as Fajriya Khaled gives a tiny 3-month-old baby a bottle.

The girl is 1 1/2. She wears a white party dress with sequins and pink roses on the bodice, and a pink sash. On her wrist is a string bracelet — perhaps for luck. In her ears are the gold earrings she was wearing when she was brought to the orphanage as a baby — a sign that, although abandoned, she was not unloved.

She is one of 41 children in this orphanage in northeastern Syria born to ISIS fighters and the Iraqi Yazidi women they enslaved when ISIS ruled over large parts of Iraq and Syria, starting in 2014.

Forced by Iraq's Yazidi community to give up the children, and told that the children have been given to Kurdish Syrian families to adopt, many of these mothers don't know the orphanage exists.

The children at the orphanage were born while their mothers were enslaved by ISIS. A few Yazidi mothers come to the orphanage to personally hand over their babies. But others are separated from their children just before they cross back into Iraq, and they don't know what happens to them.
Jane Arraf / NPR

Yazidis are an ancient religious minority, considered infidels by ISIS. In a campaign of genocide, ISIS fighters in 2014 murdered more than 1,000 Yazidis and captured 6,000 others, using many of the women and girls as sex slaves.

The Yazidi religion and Iraqi law both consider the children Muslim. Faced with the loss of thousands of women in their small community, Yazidi elders decreed that women and girls captured by ISIS could be religiously purified and welcomed back. The same doesn't apply to their children with ISIS fathers.

Yazidi estimates for the number of children born with ISIS fathers in Iraq and Syria range from several hundred to more than 1,000.

"The mothers are told [by Yazidi authorities] they have to leave them here, because when they grow up, people will tell them, 'You are the sons and daughters of ISIS,' " Rokan Ahmed, the head of a Kurdish Syrian government committee that runs the orphanage, tells NPR. "If a community says, 'I don't want this child and don't want him to come back,' the child will have no rights."

A few mothers come personally to the orphanage to hand over their babies. But others are forced to leave their children in halfway houses just before they cross back into Iraq, and they don't know what happens to them.

Caregiver Fajriya Khaled (left) and Aria Osman, a member of the government committee that oversees the orphanage in the Kurdish-led region of Rojava in northeastern Syria. "Some of the women just leave [the children] and go, but some are very attached," Osman says.
Jane Arraf / NPR

"Some of the women just leave them and go, but some are very attached," says Aria Osman, a member of the committee overseeing the orphanage.

For some women, the children are an unbearable reminder of being raped and brutalized by ISIS fighters. Others, who leave their children behind unwillingly, are desperate for news of their little ones.

"I am in touch with maybe 10 of the mothers — they are very close to the children," says Osman. She says those mothers secretly ask her for photos and videos of their children, which she sends them.

She and Khaled, the caregiver, take NPR through a series of converted houses in the orphanage compound, in a village not far from the Iraqi border. The toddler in the pink-sashed party dress tags along after Khaled, holding her hand.

There is a house for infants, including a baby boy just brought back from a hospital, where he was being treated for a blood infection. In the same room, three siblings are fast asleep under a leopard-print blanket in a big, pink-and-purple bed.

A rack of colorful little shoes lines the doorway to an adjacent house for older children. A group of toddlers watching cartoons on TV rushes up to visitors to hug them.

The siblings in the group cling to each other. Aysha, 4, sits on the sofa with her arm wrapped around her younger brother's neck.

"Even when she's sleeping, she doesn't let go of him," says Khaled.

The children include a 2 1/2-year-old boy whom NPR first met in March in another village, the night before his mother left him behind. The boy's mother and 5-year-old sister were inconsolable. The little girl's father was Yazidi, taken away by ISIS and believed to have been killed.

Like many of the formerly enslaved women, this mother was told by the Yazidis caring for her in Syria that her boy would be adopted by a local family, that his name would be changed and his birth identity forgotten. Traumatized and penniless, the woman took her daughter back to her parents in Iraq, who told her she could not come home with the boy.

NPR was told the boy would be given to a childless Kurdish Syrian couple who could afford to take care of him. Instead, he was taken to the orphanage, along with the other children of Yazidi mothers — where Kurdish Syrian officials say they will stay, in the hope that some mothers can reclaim them.

"The reason they tell you these children are adopted by families is they want the women to lose hope of getting them back," says Ahmed.

In Iraq, some of the Yazidi mothers — forbidden by their families from even talking about children with ISIS fathers — say they don't know if the children they left behind in Syria are alive or dead.

Ahmed says the children will be cared for at the orphanage, funded by the Kurdish-led government and by donations, until the Yazidi religious leadership decides that they can go back to mothers who want their children back. If that doesn't happen, Osman says, the children will remain at the orphanage and go to school and, later, to university.

The Kurdish-led Rojava region, which broke from Syrian government control seven years ago, is secular and emphasizes women's rights. But Ahmed says they have to defer to the wishes of Iraq's Yazidi leadership.

"We just need the Yazidi spiritual council to solve this problem," she says.

It's an extremely controversial subject in Iraq. Although a few religious leaders say they have no objection to the children of ISIS fathers staying with their mothers, most oppose it. Since the Yazidi religion does not accept converts or children from only one Yazidi parent, they say the children can never be Yazidi — and because of their fathers, would never be accepted by the community.

In Iraq, the problem is even wider than in Syria. Hundreds of children — possibly more than 1,000, according to some Yazidi activists — were taken away from their mothers after they were freed from ISIS in Iraq. Most are believed to be scattered in orphanages across the country. Some have been adopted by Christian families.

Caregiver Fajriya Khaled holds new clothes for the children for an upcoming holiday.
Jane Arraf / NPR

The children at the orphanage in the Syrian region of Rojava are clean, well-dressed and appear well-fed.

Osman says those who came in the last few months from Baghouz — the last piece of ISIS territory to fall in Syria — were in much worse shape than those who arrived earlier. U.S.-led Syrian forces surrounded ISIS fighters in Baghouz, launching airstrikes and mortar attacks on fighters and their families, who had run out of food. The Yazidis held captive by ISIS were also caught in the attacks, and dozens were killed, according to relatives.

"When they first arrived, they were starving — they were just skin and bones. We gave them milk and good food and now they are better," Osman says of the children.

In one of the cheerfully decorated kitchens, Khaled reaches into a freezer full of frozen chicken. There are eggs and fresh fruit in the fridge, and a pail of homemade yogurt from a nearby village.

She opens up a closet full of new clothes to be given to the children for the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the holy month of Ramadan — for the girls, frilly dresses with the tags still attached; for the boys, crisp shirts and pants.

The children are encouraged to call Khaled and the other caregivers "Mama." But some of the older ones still remember their real mothers.

"Sometimes they say nice things about their mothers; sometimes they are angry at them," says Nazi Allawi, a psychologist who works with the children. "If they are under the age of 4, they will forget. When they see something new, they will forget the old."

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We're going to look now at one of the legacies of ISIS in Iraq and Syria - the children of mothers from the Yazidi religious minority and the ISIS fathers who enslaved them. Their mothers were forced to give them up in order to be allowed to return home to Iraq. Most women never learn what happened to their children. NPR's Jane Arraf has been searching for them.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing in foreign language).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: There's a roomful of little kids watching cartoons - normal, adorable kids at the center of a huge controversy. Their mothers are from the Yazidi religious minority in Iraq, and their fathers are the ISIS fighters who enslaved them. The women were freed in Syria from years of captivity.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: But the Yazidi community in Iraq hasn't let them return with their children of ISIS fathers, a group that committed genocide against the Yazidis. The mothers were forced to give up the children and told to forget them, that they've been adopted by Kurdish Syrian families - their names changed, their pasts forgotten. But we've been looking for these children. We finally find them here at this orphanage near the Iraqi border.

Absolutely surrounded by these little kids coming up and hugging us. There's a little girl with a beautiful sequined cat and her blue T-shirt.


ARRAF: There are 41 children here, born to Yazidi mothers. They're as young as 3 months old and as old as 4. We go into a separate house for the smallest children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: We've just walked into a room where there are babies sleeping. There's a pink and purple bed and three little children, a girl and two boys, who look like they're probably under the age of 2. They're all sound asleep under this fluffy tiger print blanket.

Next to those children is a baby, just 3 months old, with an IV tube in his hand. He's just been brought back from the hospital. One of the caregivers gives him a bottle. A little girl with enormous blue eyes, wearing a floaty white party dress with sequins and pink roses, silently watches. Her name is Berivan (ph). She came almost a year ago when she was just 6 months old. In her ears, there are real gold earrings she was wearing when she was brought here. Before she was given up, she was treasured.

ARIA OSMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: A local official, Aria Osman, says those who came in the last few months from Baghouz - the last piece of ISIS territory to fall in Syria - were in much worse shape.

OSMAN: (Through interpreter) When they were arriving, they were very weak and starving. They were just skin and bones. We gave them milk and good food, and now they are better.

ARRAF: A caregiver, Fajriya Khaled, opens up a freezer and shows me frozen chicken. There are eggs and fresh fruit in the fridge and a pail of homemade yogurt from a nearby village.


ARRAF: People children call the caregivers Mama. But a few of the older ones remember their own mothers. They believe they've just gone away for medical treatment.

NAZI ALLAWI: (Through interpreter) If they are under the age of 4, they forget - even the face, they forget. They are still little children. When they see new things, they forget old things.

ARRAF: That's Nazi Allawi, a psychologist who works with the children.


ARRAF: Yazidis don't recognize a child unless both parents were Yazidi. So when the women have been freed from captivity, they faced a heart-wrenching choice. If they want to go home, they have to give up their children from ISIS fathers. Osman is there when some of them do.

OSMAN: (Through interpreter) Some of the mothers just leave them here and go. But there are others who are very attached to their children.

ARRAF: She says she's in touch with about 10 of the mothers in Iraq. They ask her secretly to send them photos of their children, and she does.

OSMAN: (Through interpreter) Step by step, the families force them to forget their children and make them lose hope. But whatever they do, she is still the mother, and the baby is still from her flesh and blood.

ARRAF: A lot of Yazidi women in Iraq, forbidden by their families from even talking about their children with ISIS fathers, say they don't know if their children are alive or dead.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

ARRAF: In the orphanage, we see a 2-year-old boy we met in March, just before he was taken from his mother in another town. The mother and the boy's older sister were inconsolable. The mother was told he was being adopted by a family. But the children are in limbo. Osman says they will stay here in the orphanage in Syria until the Yazidi religious leaders in Iraq change their minds.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, northeastern Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.