A child rehabilitation center in the Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria is hosting dozens of Islamic State (IS) child recruits in an effort to reform them back to normalcy.
Horie Center for Child Protection and Education was established in 2017 by Prisons Authority in the Internal Security Forces of the Kurdish self-proclaimed administration in Tal Maroof town. It currently houses about 70 children, ages 12 to 18, who were brainwashed by IS ideology and participated in violent acts.
Abir Khalid, the manager of northeastern Syria's Prisons Authority in the Internal Security Forces, told VOA the children were radicalized by IS in Syria between 2014 and 2018 and the center is attempting to reintegrate them into the society.
"There are almost 70 children in the center, most of them are Syrians," said Khalid. "There are also some foreign children. We do not know anything about their parents who are either killed or have fled."
At the center, the IS teenagers are taught about morality and peaceful coexistence to undo IS indoctrination. They are enrolled in engaging activities like sports and board games to ensure they can improve their communication and social skills. The center also provides a medical facility to treat children who were injured during the battle against the Islamic State terror group.
Khalid said the Kurdish self-proclaimed administration has plans to expand the facility and bring hundreds of other IS children currently placed in refugee camps in northern Syria. He said the success of the centers has prompted authorities to open another center either in Manbij or Raqqa.
"We also need to increase our capacity to work with more children and add more facilities like sports center, arts and crafts center and include vocational training as a part of their education," he told VOA.
Cubs of the caliphate
Since its early emergence in Iraq and Syria in 2014, IS created a program called Cubs of the Caliphate, to brainwash and train hundreds of children as early as four years old for combat. IS through its propaganda has also encouraged foreign parents to bring their children with them to live under the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Officials and activists who monitor the Syrian conflict say thousands of those children have been registered in refugee camps since March when the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared the final victory over IS after weeks of clashes in the eastern Syrian town of Baghouz.
Near the Syrian northeastern border with Iraq, a makeshift camp known as Al Hol Camp is hosting about 10,000 women and children, with children under 12 accounting for about 65% of the group, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Local officials say they are struggling to provide these kids with basic services despite the need for urgent physical and psychological help.
In an interview with VOA, Zozan Allouch, the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs in northeastern Syria, said about 17,000 women and children who are tied to local and foreign IS fighters, are living in three camps of Roj, al-Hol and Ain Issa in northeastern Syria.
Allouch said the camp's administration and activist groups have launched initiatives to de-radicalize the IS family members. However, the ongoing efforts are overlooked as the humanitarian needs often outweigh the need for such programs.
"There is also the issue of expertise in designing and teaching deradicalization programs, especially when we take the social, educational and religious situation of the targeted group into consideration," said Allouch, adding that providing such rehabilitation programs would have little influence on the traumatized children if their basic needs are not met first.
Kurdish officials in northeastern Syria in the past have repeatedly pleaded with other countries to take back their citizens who joined IS, along with their children and wives. The response has been slow from most countries who fear the IS fighters and their family members could pose a threat upon their return.
Experts say those children are vulnerable to further radicalization and could become the next generation of IS recruits if they stay ignored in refugee camps. They charge that these children could grow up in dire conditions of refugee camps and find themselves rejected by society in Iraq and Syria.
Mia Bloom, professor of communications and Middle Eastern Studies at Georgia State University, told VOA it is in international community's best interest to take responsibility for the children and help them recover from the experiences they endured under IS.
She said even if these children were not trained to perform violent actions, they were deeply traumatized by witnessing acts of extreme violence in a war zone.
"I do think that such programs are important in order for these children to have better lives, and by having a better life, it gives them much greater choices," said Bloom.
She said those countries could adopt deradicalization programs implemented in countries like Pakistan, where more emphasis is put on the importance of economic incentives and improving livelihoods.
Pakistan in 2015 designed an extensive deradicalization program to reintegrate and rehabilitate extremists, with the main focus on the Swat Valley.
"Pakistan's deradicalization program was designed, executed and funded by the Pakistani government. The flip side of it is that it was expensive, and we can see why some countries are hesitant to fund such programs, and no country is stepping forward to claim responsibility for their fighters in Syria and Iraq either," added Bloom.