Fatiha Lakaaj is a grandmother of six children aged from 11 months to seven years. But hers is not the story of fun weekend visits like that of any ordinary grandmother. Fatiha’s story is one of anguish and pain. Between 2013 and 2014 her son Noureddine and his wife Tatiana, as well as her daughter Bouchra, and her son-in-law, flew to Syria to join militant groups with their young children.
Less than a year after leaving, both men were killed, leaving Bouchra and Tatiana behind as widows with young children. In 2014 the two widows returned to Belgium where Fatiha, despite initial anger and hesitation, graciously allowed the women back into her life. Then in 2015 with no notice the two women disappeared with her grandchildren in tow. Fatiha described her feelings at that moment she discovered they had left again, she said,
“I felt like I was stabbed in my back. I felt like I didn’t want to have anything to do with them.”
Since then, the grandmother of six has been trying for more than a year to bring them back from Syria, where they are being held by U.S.-backed Kurdish militias. Last year, a judge ordered Belgium to return the two women and the children they had with the militants. But in a sad twist the Belgian state fought the case due to fear of setting a precedent for the children of other militants. The state won their appeal and Fatiha’s grandchildren remain stuck.
The response from the Belgian government has been limited.
On Thursday 14 March the International Observatory of Human Rights organised a discussion hosted by Valerie Peay, Director of the International Observatory of Human Rights, that brought together families of British and European children to share their first-hand experiences of trying to get the children back to safety from Syria and Iraq. At the discussion Fatiha said,
“I could not believe that the judge would say no to the children…They are Belgian children and we must treat them as such.”
A question of identity?
Fatiha herself is Belgian and fully identifies as such. She is a second-generation Belgian daughter of parents who emigrated to Belgium from Morocco. She speaks Dutch/Flemish and was educated in the language, as any other native Belgian is. She told the Washington Post,
“I never asked myself, ‘Am I Moroccan or Belgian?’ I said I was Belgian…I was born here. I work here. I pay my taxes here.”
However, the treatment of Fatiha’s case seems to call this into question. In a statement in January 2019, Belgium’s migration secretary Maggie de Block said,
“We won’t punish young children for their parent’s misdeeds. They have not chosen the Islamic State. That is why we want to make efforts to bring them back to our country.”
Commenting on the fact that Fatiha’s children family had returned to fight in Syria for a second time, de Block then went on to say:
“Solidarity has its limits…The freedom you enjoy in our country to make your own decisions also means you bear responsibility for the consequences.”
Despite the Belgian government’s claims to ‘not punishing children for their parents’ deeds’, Fatiha is still waiting for the authorities to help return her grandchildren to the loving safety of her home. At IOHR’s panel discussion she commented on the lack of support from the Belgian government, saying,
“I have a feeling that the doors are closed. We hear nothing from them. There is only one MP in Belgium that is speaking out about my case.”
Child Focus is a Belgian based NGO that has been supporting Fatiha in her plight to bring her 6 grandchildren back, they have travelled to various camps in Syria and have first-hand experience with meeting over 30 Belgian children and more than 150 minors currently stuck in the camps. Kristien Gillis, Case Manager, who works closely with cases of children says that they need good psychological support systems. Kristien said,
“They frequently receive bad news so they need to keep positive and at the same time facing unfavourable public opinion.”
Radicalisation and deradicalisation
Fatiha feels that the divorce from her husband may have been a turning point in the radicalisation of her children. A family breakdown, divorce or separation seems to be a common thread in the story of radicalised children. Following this life-changing event her eldest son Noureddine got sucked into a militant Salafist group called Sharia4Belgium. Soon after, his sister Bouchra and her husband also joined the group.
Sharia4Belgium was inspired by and connected to the odious Anjem Choudary of the UK, who also radicalised a number of young men and women on the UK’s very soil and would later be connected to the terror attacks that took place in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016. Fouad Belkacem the leader of the Sharia4Belgium group subsequently had his citizenship stripped after being jailed for 12 years in October 2018.
Hanif Qadir, former extremist and Founder of the Active Change Foundation, a charity that have worked extensively on the deradicalisation and rehabilitation of young people spoke at IOHR’s discussion of the 14 March and emphasised the importance of improved deradicalisation and rehabilitation programmes, saying,
“The governments have failed to stop these young people from being radicalised and travelling. We have failed many hundreds of men and women. Let’s not fail a second time.”