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Returning Home From Syria to Tunisia: Aziz's Story

Violent extremism affects many lives in Tunisia, but now there is a new challenge. Around 3,000 Tunisians left to join terrorist groups abroad, 600 of which have returned home and 800 have been killed whilst fighting. But many women and children born to ISIS fighters have been unable to return. They remain stuck in Syrian and Libyan refugee camps, where they are susceptible to recruitment and radicalization. This is a grave situation.

“They were very young - four, five and six years old. The children had spent all their lives in detention and they had no relation to the outside world. They had only communicated with their mothers. This experience really impacted me."

Rabeb Ayari (pictured left), Delegate at the General Office for the Protection of Children in Tunis, explains that around 200 children and 100 women are expected to return from Libya and Syria. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings the parents of these minors traveled from Tunisia to join ISIS in Libya and Syria. Some traveled with their children, others had them there. Now, many of these Tunisian children are living in refugee and displacement camps.

A 14-year-old child in a Social Defense and Integration Center decorates the Tunisian flag with glitter. This kind of activity reinforces a sense of belonging.

Upon arrival, the Regional Delegates for the Protection of Children, are responsible for ensuring their well-being. They monitor them, and are in charge of the logistics for their rehabilitation and integration into society. Last year, Majdi Aroussi, Delegate of Mahdia – a coastal city in the north of Tunisia - received two minor returnees. Aroussi in conversation with Hedayah talks about both cases. The first child he received was in 2020, a five year old called Karim*, who lost both his parents in Libya. The second case, a boy, called Aziz*, returned from Syria, with his mother, but she was sent to jail. His father also died - so Aziz also lost both his parents.

Ramdha, an educator, conducts an artistic activity with three kids like Aziz in Mahdia Social Defense and Integration Center. Staff from such centers have been trained by Hedayah to ensure they are equipped to provide a safe and trusted space for dialogue and social and emotional learning.
One of the challenges in the process of repatriating children who have lost their parents is proving their identity. With Karim, "it was done through DNA tests conducted with his grandparents here in Mahdia. There were records of death certificates in Libya and a record of his parent’s marriage that took place before they went to Libya. With that, the identity of the child was proven,” explains Majdi.
Majdi Aroussi sits in conversation with three kids in one of the Centers. “I used Hedayah’s Activity Guide in a youth center in Mahdia. Our job as child protection delegates is very technical, but this activity was very fun for us and the children.”
Aziz was confidentially enrolled in school to avoid bullying or stigmatization. Today, Aziz is doing well, which makes his grandmother proud. The outcome so far has made Madji Aroussi optimistic, however, he says that these cases will continue to be monitored and followed in the coming future.

Hedayah works closely with the Tunisian Government to support children like Aziz. The International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism, has already trained over 99 educators, psychologists and social workers working in detention centers and rehabilitation and reintegration centers to support the effective reintegration of children. Cristina Mattei, who manages Hedayah’s youth programs in Tunisia, explains why this is so important:

“It is not just a protection and human rights issue, but reintegration also helps prevent a cycle of violent extremism. Children who have grown up in a culture of extreme violence and lost their parents may be extremely vulnerable socially and emotionally. This may attract recruiters of violent extremist groups who prey on such vulnerabilities. Our work prevents that from happening”

*Names changed for security purposes

Credits:

Images by Paula González