Trinidadian Mom Reunites With Kids Taken By Their Father To ISIS
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Two small boys from Trinidad were recently brought home from Syria. They'd been taken there by their father who joined ISIS. The boys wound up living in a detention camp in Syria with other relatives of western ISIS fighters. Western countries have resisted taking these people back. To get these boys home, it took a determined mother, a human rights lawyer and a rock star. NPR's Ruth Sherlock was allowed to follow them on their journey.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Felicia Perkins-Ferreira lists how she's felt these four years since her young sons, Mahmud and Ayyub, were abducted by their father. He was joining ISIS, and he took the boys with him the many thousand miles from Trinidad to Syria. She couldn't even contact them.
FELICIA PERKINS-FERREIRA: Nervous breakdowns, panic attacks - I had a seizure once. I couldn't go nowhere because I'm crying and screaming all the time.
SHERLOCK: We talk in a hotel lobby in Switzerland, part of her trip to bring her children home. Her cause is aided by a noted British lawyer, and he enlisted a rock star, Roger Waters, the founder of Pink Floyd, to help.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome aboard.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning
SHERLOCK: We pick up the conversation on the private jet that Waters has charted to Iraq. She talks about the father of her children.
PERKINS-FERREIRA: I mean, it hurts me a lot to know that you trust someone, you've lived for them for so long and then to come now to just take what you cherish the most, carry them so far and then put them in harm's way.
SHERLOCK: As the U.S.-led coalition bombed ISIS areas in Syria over a year ago, her husband left the boys with a Belgian woman he'd married and told her to take them to safety. But the boys were found abandoned on a roadside and taken to a detention camp for foreign women and children of ISIS. They couldn't remember their mother's name, but they had a photo of her. Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the human rights group Reprieve, was given the photo by another detainee and he passed it to a journalist in Trinidad who found the mother, Perkins-Ferreira. But now that seems like the easy part, compared to getting them out, Stafford Smith says.
CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: I don't think there's a sane person on the planet who's against us getting two children out. But you've got to convince everyone that's what's happening and that there's not some thing going on where they're actually Osama bin Laden's grandchildren or something.
SHERLOCK: There are hundreds more foreign women and children in these camps. But there's so much suspicion and fear in the wake of ISIS atrocities that many of their governments have shown little interest in taking them back. Attorney Stafford Smith, who's best known for his work securing the release of Guantanamo detainees, says the idea that countries can leave their citizens in these camps is shortsighted.
STAFFORD SMITH: I find it utterly perplexing that everybody agrees that if you're accused of, you know, mass murder as a serial killer you have the right to a fair trial. But somehow if you're a child stuck in a camp in the middle of Syria, and you're from Britain that we should all presume you're guilty of terrorism. I think that is utter madness.
SHERLOCK: He hopes this case, with two little boys, aged just 11 and 7, will build support for others to be released.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Welcome to Irbil.
STAFFORD SMITH: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And I hope you enjoyed the flight.
SHERLOCK: Touching down in Iraq, they get a VIP reception.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Hi, how are you?
SHERLOCK: Hello. Good, how are you?
Waters' celebrity helps them get meetings with high-level officials. These take a couple of days. Waters tinkers on the piano in the lobby of the hotel in between.
ROGER WATERS: (Playing piano).
SHERLOCK: What was it about Felicia's story that drew you?
WATERS: Well, just the story. It doesn't take a lot - a mother, couple of kids, separated. Obviously, put them back together.
SHERLOCK: The next day, Waters stays behind, but we drive with Perkins-Ferreira and Stafford Smith to the Iraqi border. Perkins-Ferreira hopes for a quiet reunion with her children, a time to hug them after four years apart. Her youngest, Ayyub had just turned 3 when they were abducted. But we arrive to a media frenzy. Kurdish authorities in Syria are keen to show their humanity in releasing the boys who cling to their mother. They're all scared and overwhelmed as dozens of cameras are trained on them.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERAS SNAPPING)
SHERLOCK: And there are more surprises to come.
STAFFORD SMITH: OK, come on everyone.
SHERLOCK: We take a boat across the Tigris River back to Iraq. But authorities hold the mother and the boys for hours waiting for their bosses to permit the family to transit through Iraq.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).
SHERLOCK: Inside a police station, 7-year-old Ayyub draws a picture of the house he wants to return to in Trinidad. Mahmud passes the time looking at photos on his mother's phone.
MAHMUD: This is my sister. This is my cousin.
SHERLOCK: Oh, cool.
MAHMUD: And this is my cousin, too, and this my mommy.
SHERLOCK: But as the hours pass, exhausted and afraid under the neon strip lights of the police headquarters, Mahmud bursts into sobs.
SHERLOCK: It's dark now, and back in the hotel in Irbil, Waters from Pink Floyd is worried and angry at the delay. He questions officials who host him.
WATERS: Why are your immigration officials keeping them up all night in a border post? Why don't they go, are you Trinidadian? Is this your photograph? Thank you, have a lovely life.
SHERLOCK: The officials make a flurry of calls. Why the holdup? Eventually, the pressure works.
WATERS: You must be Mahmud and you must be Ayyub. You must be so tired.
SHERLOCK: The family arrive back at the hotel at 1 a.m., exhausted and unnerved but happy to be together and on their way home. Even with a famed lawyer and an international rock star at their side, this has been hard. Many others left behind in the camps that the boys came from don't have that support.
Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Northern Iraq.
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