The fate of children raised by foreign fighters in the Islamic State has become an international issue following the collapse of the group’s caliphate over the past year.
Facing a slow government response to issues surrounding her family, an Australian woman decided to take matters into her own hands.
Karen Nettleton traveled to the Syrian refugee camp of al-Hawl to find three of her grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. When she finally embraced them after years apart, one of her granddaughters, Hoda Sharrouf, said that she couldn’t believe it.
“I’m pretty sure I’m dreaming,” 16-year-old Hoda said, according to footage aired on Monday, captured by an Australian television crew with ABC-TV’s Four Corners.
“You’re not dreaming. You’re not going to wake up,” Nettleton said in response.
Hoda and her siblings — 17-year-old sister Zaynab Sharrouf and 8-year-old brother Humzeh Sharrouf — live with Zaynab Sharrouf’s two young daughters in the camp. They are believed to be the only surviving members of a family that fled to Syria and gained infamy in Australia.
The family was brought to Syria by Khaled Sharrouf, an Australian fighter who sparked worldwide horror in 2014 after tweeting a photograph of a young boy, apparently his son, holding a severed human head in a town controlled by the Islamic State.
“That’s my boy!” a caption on the photo said.
Khaled Sharrouf, who Australian authorities said had a history of mental illness, went to the Middle East to join the nascent Islamic State in 2013. His wife, Tara Nettleton, and their five children soon followed.
Tara Nettleton is believed to have died in Syria before 2016 because of complications with appendicitis, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Khaled Sharrouf is also believed to have died in a U.S. airstrike in 2017, along with his two oldest children.
Karen Nettleton has repeatedly campaigned to bring her grandchildren home. This is her third trip to the Middle East in the hope of reuniting with her family, but it is the first time she has met her relatives since they left Australia.
The Australian government has said it would refuse to help Australian citizens who went to fight with the Islamic State. However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this month that it would work with aid groups to repatriate the children of Australian citizens.
“Where there are Australians who are caught up in this situation, particularly as innocent children, then we will do what I think Australians would expect us to do on their behalf,” Morrison told reporters.
Aid groups have estimated that there are at least 2,500 foreign children in the camps that have appeared as the Islamic State lost the last remnants of its territory in Syria. The fate of these children has prompted an intense political debate in their home nations, with some such as Russia opting to repatriate them while other countries have hesitated.
Despite the reunion in Syria, Karen Nettleton hasn’t brought her relatives to Australia. She has since left the camp and is working with both the Kurdish and Australian governments to bring her grandchildren and great-grandchildren home.
It’s unclear how long the family will have to wait in the refugee camp.
Though Morrison has said he would not risk Australian lives to bring the children of foreign fighters home, the Daily Telegraph reported that if the children could get to an Australian Embassy, they may be given passports that would allow them to travel to the country.
Speaking to ABC-TV’s Four Corners, Zaynab Sharrouf said that Australian citizens had nothing to fear from the family returning.
“We were brought here by our parents,” she said. “And now that our parents are gone, we want to live. And for me and my children I want to live a normal life just like anyone would want to live a normal life.”