In June 2019, six Belgian orphans were repatriated from Syria. Among them, a brother and a sister who came from Brussels and aged 14 and 10 on their return. Their family fought for a long time for them to return to Belgium and to be able to recover them. They succeeded, not without difficulty, and tell it now with modesty.
It all started in 2014. It was then, to the surprise of their relatives, a couple of parents from Brussels left for Syria with their two young children. For Moncef, the grandfather, it is still incomprehensible today. “Mour son was a computer engineer. He earned a good living, his wife too. I don’t know what fly stung him to take this path. We didn’t agree at all but it was too late. They left and we got the news afterwards. They contacted us already there. We had a very difficult time. Fortunately, associations supported us when we were really in distress“And that was just the beginning of the hardship for this battered family.
Mom went to Allah
When they are taken to Syria by their parents, the two Belgian children are 6 and 9 years old. In 2015, the father died. In 2017, the mother also died. The two little Belgians find themselves orphans in a country at war. They then have almost no means of contact with their Brussels family.
The big brother will nevertheless manage to warn his relatives, including his aunt. “Mom went to Allah“remembers Syrine.”This is what we received as a message from my nephew. And from there, you already had to try to mourn but, believe me, you never do it because you didn’t have a body. But above all, we had to get the children out of there. With my parents, my brothers and sisters, it was our fight. For us, they had to come back, we couldn’t leave them there. We could not !“.
It’s an anguish, a lump in your stomach, which never leaves you
For Syrine, knowing her nephew and niece alone in a country at war was unbearable. “We had no contact with the children. That’s what kills. What was happening to them? Did they eat, were they dressed? We didn’t know anything.. We were very, very afraid for them. It’s a little word, I think. It’s an anguish, a lump in your stomach, which never leaves you“.
A long fight for their return
The family of the two orphans then knocked on all doors. If they can count on the support of associations, in particular the tracing service of the Red Cross or the teams of the General Delegate for the Rights of the Child, they do not find the expected help from the political authorities.
Moncef notably remembers a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels. “J’was in the place that represents Belgian diplomacy and I was treated, excuse the expression, like a dog. I was uncomfortable, I did not expect this meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I thought someone could take our request into consideration and try to do the legwork.“, bitterly regrets Moncef.
A distraught family
Time goes by and, in Syria, the children are separated. The older brother, then 13 years old, even found himself imprisoned for a time in an adult prison. Eventually, he will find his sister in a camp. Where they will survive in precarious conditions.
In Belgium, the children’s family is at a loss. “Nothing was moving. Even once the children had been located. That I can’t swallow“, explains the grandfather. “I said to myself, I will never give up. I will fight this fight until they return“.
“We found ourselves in March 2019 to file a complaint against the Belgian state“, remembers Syrine, the aunt.”We didn’t want to but we had to do it because we said to ourselves but who is going to hear us? We did it and we won but fell when my nephews were coming back to Belgium“.
Orphans since December 2017, it is finally in June 2019 that the two children will be repatriated on Belgian soil.
A heavy trauma
On their arrival in Belgium, the two children were transferred directly to Saint-Pierre hospital for complete and necessary medical care given the living conditions they experienced in the camps. “We are so excited to find them that when we are told ‘no, it’s not right away‘, we did not understand. We weren’t prepared“, says Syrine.”We took 4 to 5 days to be able to see them. We thought: we are warned of their arrival and we run, it’s human. But no, it turned out differently “.
Social services, youth judges, etc. It was finally after a month and a half that the children were entrusted to their grandparents. “Initially, the judge who had the case in his hands did not intend to entrust them to me, but after a fight, we were appointed guardians. ” remembers Moncef. “Fortunately, there is a wonderful magistrate who welcomed us for three hours in his office, told us about his thoughts on the case. And we were able to recover them.”
Followed by a shrink
Since their return in June 2019, the two orphans have benefited from psychological follow-up. Even today, they see a professional twice a month. “It is super important“, notes their grandfather.”Especially since they are followed by someone who has lived through the war in Africa, someone who can better understand them. I meet him every three months and he reports back to me. I think they are on the right path“.
Syrine remembers the euphoria of returning but also having to face reality very quickly. “I recovered two children with a trauma: the horror par excellence. Children who have no feelings, who did not cry. Imagine. It took a long time for him to cry, I was very happy when they cried, that means that, somewhere, their shell was starting to fallr”.
Both children lived in extreme conditions. Unsanitary conditions, lack of hygiene, food, extreme heat or extreme cold, violence … A reality that resurfaces in snatches but the family does not want to force anything. “On used them for some household chores. Now they are telling. The little one has it much easier. The big one, a little less. We let them take their time. This is their experience “.
Today the children have realized what they have been through “but at first for them it was normal. We were shocked but we didn’t want to show it. Over time, we were advised to cry in front of them, to show feelings. We took this advice from the professionals and it worked“.
Born on Belgian soil, the two children already had an identity and papers, cunlike other children who were born in Syria to Belgian parents. This facilitated their administrative procedures and their reintegration into society.
It’s crazy what we put in their heads
Today, brother and sister have re-acclimatized to Belgian life, surrounded by a tight-knit family which has enabled them to regain structure and emotional stability.
“In the street, they are lambda children today“explains Syrine.”But on arrival early, my niece was veiled from head to toe. I found myself in a room with her to explain to her that she is small, that at that age here we wear shorts. She said to me “if I take it off the big gentlemen will look at me”. It’s a sentence that struck me, it’s crazy what we were able to put in their minds at that age. It was like a disguise. We had to follow the rules whether we were 40 or 8, we had to wear it“.
The big brother also had his own way of seeing things when he returned to Belgium. “A Nike shoe, it was for the disbelievers according to him. But it stopped there. It was complicated in terms of dress at the start but now it’s going very well“.
We must repatriate the others
Although deprived of school benches for 5 years, the two orphans managed to resume their school career. “Thanks to the school administration, to the wishes of the children, they were able to make up for their 5 years delay. The little one received her CEB this year, whatever she was in 5th grade. These are the things that make you happy“, Moncef is moved.
“They are doing very well” according to their aunt. “Both succeeded, we are very proud of them. They are fulfilled children. Of course, there is a big trauma but you have to dig to find out. In a playground, you would not see not different from other children. Obviously, it was a long fight “.
And after ?
Syrine and Moncef have long called for the return of others children and their mothers, stranded in the hell of the Syrian camps. “On punishes children for a life they did not want. Ours are home but I will continue to fight for all those who are still there“Says the young woman.”The mothers made a mistake but, we can say what we want, it remains Belgian citizens who demand to return to the country. And leaving these children in the camps is to create real time bombs, with what there is still as ideology there“.
A vade-mecum to frame the returns
The General Delegate for the Rights of the Child, Bernard De Vos, has been supporting families trying to bring their daughters and grandchildren back from Syria for several years.. Already on the front line when the first orphans returned, he had to learn on the job. “Ihad to improvise. Social services must have been put in place without knowing what exactly awaited them. It was a very rich human experience and which required a lot of investment, work for a good understanding of each other and of the children themselves.“.
Following these first repatriations, with his team, the General Delegate wrote a vade-mecum for the various players in the sector.
“Most of these children have never been registered anywhere. It will be necessary to give them an identity and then supervise them as best as possible. The tools are there. We have worked to create intersectoral solidarity between the services. We have done a work of vade-mecum so that each actor confronted with the return of a child knows what it is in terms of administrative, psychological and educational help.“.