Orphaned in the fall of ISIS, London teen in Syria jail wants to return home

Abdullah was a child when his mother took the family to Syria. Gareth Browne meets a boy bearing the brunt of his parent’s choice

Orphaned by ISIS, London boy wants to return home from Syria

Orphaned by ISIS, London boy wants to return home from Syria
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The skinny boy in oversized glasses and a grubby tracksuit barely flinches as he reels off the grisly list of deaths of his family members during the fall of ISIS in Syria.

His mother and two of his siblings died in an air strike. His older brother was hit in the head by a sniper’s bullet as he carried out an ISIS attack.

The National has found Abdullah, a 13-year-old orphan, who says he's from London, stranded thousands of miles from home in a prison for minors in north-east Syria.

He is one of the thousands who emerged from Baghouz, a dusty town near the Iraqi border where ISIS made its last stand in March 2019 against Kurdish-led forces backed by an international coalition.

Orphaned by ISIS London boy wants to return home from Syria.
Abdullah, a young boy who calls London home, is stuck in Syria. Luke Pierce for The National

Among the ISIS ranks were men and women who had travelled from all over the world to join the group. Some of them brought young children – Abdullah’s mother, Rohana, was one of them.

Alongside the harrowing tales from Baghouz, Abdullah has fond memories of London, a city he once called home.

He remembers riding a red double-decker bus to school every day and weekend lunches at McDonald's.

Although he was born in Pakistan and lived almost half his life in Syria, he speaks with an English accent and repeatedly uses British turns of phrase.

He says England is home and he wants to go back.

“I love London more than I love Pakistan. London is a beautiful country," he says.

"I can do what I want there. I have a lot of friends and I can learn football there really fast and in Pakistan, they play cricket. I don’t like cricket. I want to go to London and learn football there.”

His time in Baghouz is etched into his memory.

Thousands of ISIS members, their families and others caught up in the conflict hunkered down in tents on a bend of the Euphrates as air strikes and artillery pummelled their encampment.

He pleaded with his mother to change tents because she insisted on staying with a group of other foreign women.

“On the last night, I said to my mum: ‘Come out of the house because they are going to strike the house because it’s so big’,” he said.

Fearing it could be a target, he ran away and stayed instead with some Turkish friends.

The decision saved his life.

The next morning, he says, he awoke to see that an air strike had hit the tent, killing his mother, his sister Zeinab and his younger brother, Mohammed.

Another sister, Aisha, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. His oldest brother, Rabi Allah, had already been shot trying to carry out an ISIS suicide attack in Al Shaddadi, about 230 kilometres north of Baghouz.

Abdullah understands that his father, who did not travel to Syria with the family, is also dead.

After the fall of Baghouz, he spent months living alongside other orphans in Al Hol camp. The camp is run by Kurdish forces to house those who surrendered in Baghouz.

For the past two years, unbeknown to extended family or the UK government, he has been held in camps and jails across north-east Syria.

The UK government is largely refusing to repatriate adult Britons who joined the group, but it has bought back a small number of unaccompanied children.

This policy has left as many as 60 British children stuck in Syria, something rights groups have condemned. Children, they say, should not live with the consequences of the decisions of their parents.

It was 2015 when a new, mysterious man entered the family’s life in London and, soon after, Abdullah’s mum packed up their home in the UK and moved the family to Syria.

“She said to me ‘pick up all the stuff you have, we’re going to sell this house’,” he recalls.

"There was a man who was helping us, he was taking our stuff and selling our house, I remember that."
On reaching Syria, Abdullah remembers watching his mother make the ultimate pledge of loyalty to ISIS.

“We had passports, but my mum burnt them,” he says.

The family moved between Raqqa – once the de facto capital of ISIS’s so-called caliphate – the village of Al Mayadeen and the Iraqi city of Mosul.

Now, alone and missing his life in London, he wants to go home.

After more than five years in the war zone, he struggles to remember the names of his relatives in the UK.

He says he and his mother would occasionally speak with family members outside Syria but they always pretended to be in Turkey. This means that what remains of his family may not be aware he is even in Syria, nor that his mother and four siblings are dead.

Tracking down his relatives in the UK may be Abdullah’s only chance of repatriation and a normal life.

The National has informed the British government of Abdullah's situation and whereabouts. The British government may choose to repatriate Abdullah if they can establish his citizenship or deem a duty of care.

Save the Children, which has campaigned for the UK government to take action on British minors stuck in Syria, said children are the victims of war and need protection.

“The UK government has demonstrated more than once that repatriation of British children from Syria is feasible,” said Orlaith Minogue, Senior Conflict and Humanitarian Advocacy Adviser at Save the Children.

“It is critical that all British children are repatriated and supported to recover from their experiences and restore a sense of normality. We call on the UK government to take urgent steps to work with the Kurdish authorities in control of north-east Syria to ensure the safe repatriation of all British children.”

Earlier this month, the UK's Supreme Court upheld a decision to deny Shamima Begum, who left the UK as a child to join ISIS in Syria and is now also in a camp in the country's north-east, the right to return. Ms Begum wanted to come back to the UK and fight a court battle to reinstate her British citizenship.

10-year-old Syrians reflect on 10 years of war

10-year-old Syrians reflect on 10 years of war