LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Germany is one of the few countries that has promised to take back citizens who joined the Islamic State. It's given priority to children who spent time in the caliphate and has begun repatriating them. NPR's Joanna Kakissis met one German father who has spent the last five years trying to find his daughter.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Danisch Farooqi loves listening to this recording of his daughter. She made it at the sunny apartment he shares with his second wife in Hamburg.
DANISCH FAROOQI: We were sleeping. And she was sleeping between us. And at some point, she got up. And she took my mobile. And she wanted to take a picture, but she actually pressed record. Yeah, and it was recording a video. But because it was so dark, you couldn't see anything. You could just hear her voice sing, Baba, Baba. Get up, let's take a picture (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AALIYAH: (Speaking German).
KAKISSIS: Farooqi shows me a picture of a curly-haired girl with huge, brown eyes. She's clutching a phone and wearing a pink T-shirt that reads, I heart Dad.
FAROOQI: Her name is Aaliyah. She used to be this little, very cute baby - chubby cheeks and always smiling and laughing, very independent.
KAKISSIS: Aaliyah was a year old when her parents divorced. Farooqi and his ex share custody. One Sunday night in June of 2014, he dropped her off at her mom's.
FAROOQI: And as normal, like, went to the door, said, OK, I'll see you next week because she used to come to our place on the weekends.
KAKISSIS: A few days later, he got a call from an unknown phone number in Turkey. It was his ex-wife's husband.
FAROOQI: He told me, yeah, I went to Syria. And I got injured over there. And I'm now being treated in the hospital in Istanbul. And my family came here to take care of me. And I was shocked. I was like, who are you talking about - like, which family? And then he explained, yeah, it's my wife and our child. Like, they have a son together - and your daughter.
KAKISSIS: Aaliyah was 4 years old. Farooqi demanded her return, but her stepfather hung up. A month later, he got a WhatsApp message from his ex-wife.
FAROOQI: We went to the Islamic State. We can't believe how somebody can want to stay with the unbelievers.
KAKISSIS: Farooqi is a devout Muslim who was born to a German mother and a Pakistani father in Germany. He remembers Syrians fleeing the war with their children.
FAROOQI: And I couldn't understand how you could take your own child that you say you love into such a situation.
KAKISSIS: He filed a police report accusing his ex-wife of kidnapping. He asked the Red Cross for help. Months passed with no word of Aaliyah. Farooqi grew so desperate he even corresponded with jihadis on Facebook.
FAROOQI: Just to find out if she's still living, if she's feeling all right - is she hurt?
KAKISSIS: One man claimed to have seen Aaliyah in Mosul living in a nice house and making up funny songs and poems. But most of the time, Farooqi heard nothing.
FAROOQI: I had nightmares. I was in a very, very bad state, physically and mentally.
KAKISSIS: He finally got word last year that Aaliyah and her mother are in a detention camp in northeastern Syria. Children are dying in these camps. Daniel Heinke, the chief of detectives in the state of Bremen, says Germany must immediately repatriate these children.
DANIEL HEINKE: It's not only a legal obligation; it's a moral obligation. Those kids did nothing wrong. It was not their choice that the parents took them there. And we, as a society, have a duty to try to help them to integrate or reintegrate into German society.
KAKISSIS: Some Germans don't want these children. They fear they are ticking time bombs. And their mothers face prosecution upon return to Germany.
HEINKE: From my position, anyone who willingly joined the Islamic State and supported their activities contributed to the efforts of the Islamic State fighters.
KAKISSIS: Farooqi doesn't know if his ex-wife wants to come home. He can't afford to travel to the camp in northeastern Syria to see his daughter.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY FUSSING)
KAKISSIS: He has two other small children with his second wife.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What are you talking? What are you saying?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Babbling).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, yeah.
KAKISSIS: Even if Farooqi managed to get to the camp where Aaliyah is living, it's not certain he'd be able to find her among the thousands of women and children there or bring her home.
FAROOQI: I have missed her so, so much. And the situation of having her in front of me and not being able to take her with me, that would literally break my heart.
KAKISSIS: Aaliyah is almost 9 now. Her father hasn't seen her since she was 4.
FAROOQI: Being realistic, you have to really think that she most probably will not remember who you are. And you will have to find your way back into her life.
KAKISSIS: And Danisch Farooqi vows that he will, just as soon as he can find a way to bring her home.
Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Hamburg.
(SOUNDBITE OF C.W. VRTACEK'S "POISON")
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