London, United Kingdom – A mother from Trinidad and Tobago has spoken of her relief after being reunited this week with her two sons who were abducted by their father and taken to ISIL-held territory in Syria four years ago.
Felicia Perkins-Ferreira braved sub-zero temperatures as part of a nearly 10,000km odyssey that began in the balmy Caribbean islands and ended in the icy hinterlands of northern Syria, where Ayyub, seven, and Mahmud 11, were being held by Kurdish forces.
The Trinidad and Tobago government had at first appeared reluctant to assist the boys but as the case drew international attention, including support from a leading human rights lawyer and a rock star, it quickly issued passports to facilitate the family’s travel.
“I was really shocked,” Perkins-Ferreira told Al Jazeera on Wednesday, after her trip. “I started crying and I just really wanted them to be out from there immediately.”
Perkins-Ferreira, who is now in London receiving support by the UK-based campaign group Reprieve, added that her youngest son, Ayyub, who was taken to Syria just after his third birthday handed her a gift of a thousand Syrian pounds when they met and immediately told her: “Mummy, I’m ready to go home.”
Clive Stafford-Smith, the lawyer of Perkins-Ferreira and founder of Reprieve, heaped praise on the Trinidad and Tobago government, which he expects will permit the family to return home later this week.
Meanwhile, a prominent imam who has helped Trinidadian nationals leave Syria called on authorities to help less high-profile nationals who are still trapped in the war-torn country.
In 2014, the boys were brought to live in the so-called caliphate by their father, a fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group who is now believed dead.
As the US-led coalition closed in on the group, the children were sent to Turkey, accompanied by their Belgian stepmother who eventually abandoned them on the side of a street where they were found by Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces.
They were then brought to Camp Roj, living among the families of imprisoned and dead ISIL fighters. Conditions were so bad they were forced to sleep in concrete toilets.
The rescue marks an important step in a four-year campaign to return the children, spearheaded by Perkins-Ferreira’s Trinidad-based mother, Gail Abdulsamad, who made initial contact with the International Red Cross.
Later, Stafford-Smith, whose clients have included a number of Guantanamo Bay detainees, was brought into the fold, with Roger Waters, cofounder of iconic British rock band Pink Floyd lending his jet to rescue the boys.
Stafford-Smith hailed the Trinidad and Tobago government for setting a “humane example” and decried the “populism” shown by other countries who have abandoned their nationals in Syria.
Of more than 2,000 foreign nationals currently held in northern Syria, swept up as local forces took over ISIL-held territory, 1,248 are children and another 584 are women.
“Trinidad and Tobago is not a large country yet they have set an active, sensible and humane example. Other governments whose nationals are in a similar situation ought to be doing the same, yet many refuse basic assistance necessary to secure the repatriation of innocent children to their homelands,” Stafford-Smith told Al Jazeera.
Even so, the government appeared slow to act, despite becoming aware of the boys’ case since at least August, leading to speculation they were unwilling to repatriate them.
For the most part, Trinidad and Tobago’s position on returnees has been ambiguous, as it tries to balance national security concerns with obligations towards its nationals while at the same time displaying a brave face among a security-conscious international community.
The government refused to answer the questions put to them about the case, but said in a statement that upon their return it “assesses the best environments for minors who may have experienced the trauma, and ill-effects of being around warzones and battlefronts”.
Cases of Trinidadians heading to ISIL-held areas
The fate of the other estimated 130 Trinidad and Tobago nationals who travelled to the so-called ISIL caliphate has been mixed, but rarely as positive. With a population of just 1.4 million, the country has one of the largest per-capita populations thought to have travelled to territories held by ISIL.
Shane Crawford, who became the country’s most notorious foreign fighter after calling for the slaying of Christians in the Trinidadian streets, was killed by a US drone in 2017.
In April, a Trinidadian woman was among a group of six women sentenced to death in Iraq for links to ISIL.
Last year, the Middle East Eye spoke to a woman who returned to Trinidad after escaping with her children on foot from an ISIL camp in Syria to Turkey. One male ISIL member is also known to have returned.
Many returnees have sought the help of Hasan Anyabwile, a UK-based Trinidadian imam who uses messaging apps – the same channels ISIL uses to spread its message – to convince people to leave and facilitates their travel back home by liaising with authorities and families.
Anyabwile, who has supported Perkins-Ferreira’s family, said the publicity garnered by the case meant that it had become too big for the authorities in Trinidad and Tobago to ignore.
“The government have now jumped onto the situation because of international exposure,” he said, adding: “A woman should not have to rally support from the international community just to get her children back.
“They have to be more sympathetic to the various dynamics people face.”
Anyabwile is supporting efforts by two Trinidadian women who are living under United Nations supervision in Syria to return home.
He claimed that government officials have “turned a deaf ear” to a letter written by one requesting help.