Syrian girl

PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)– Nora Al-Bathy wants to come home.

In January, when she vanished from her home in Avignon, in the south of France, to go to Syria, she made the "mistake of her life" said her brother Fouad.

At the time she was 16. Now 17, Nora is now living under the control of Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, who have her helping them with their child care.

Her brother said she was tricked into going. Her family had no idea she was intending to leave.

Shortly after she left, she told her family in phone calls from Syria that she was going to help Syrian children who had lost their parents in the war.

"She told us that she’d been promised that she would be taking care of Syrian orphans in Aleppo," said Fouad in a phone interview conducted in French on Sept. 9.

When Nora first arrived in Syria she told her family in phone calls that she was starting a new life. "’I am needed over here more than at home,’ she kept telling us," said Fouad.

In March, however, she started telling her family that she wanted to come home.

"Now, she watches children of fighters," said Fouad. "She cries every time we speak with her on the phone, she begs us to come get her back."

A cluster of recent developments supports the claims of Fouad and other families that their daughters were tricked into going to Syria, where the United States and a coalition of allies began an intensive bombing campaign on Sept. 23 targeting the Islamic State, a separate group from Al-Nusra Front. . On Sept. 17 the French Ministry of Interior announced the arrest of five people suspected of recruiting young women to join extremist groups in Syria. The arrests were made in Lyon, a city in central France.

On Sept. 10, Turkey expelled to France a man named Mourad Fares under suspicions that he was recruiting French people to Syria to fight on behalf of Al-Nusra Front. Fares, who left France a year ago, was very active on social media and used it as a tool for recruitment, according to the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. French media have reported that Fares turned himself over to the French consulate in Turkey because "he had had enough" but also to escape the Islamic State, which has been taking over large swaths of territory in Syria.

Last month, two teenage girls, 15 and 17, were also arrested and charged with belonging to a criminal association in relation to a terrorist organization. They are suspected of luring young women, including 14-year-old Ines, whose family was the subject of a story last week on Women’s eNews, to Syria. One of the girls was allegedly in contact with Ines before she left France.

More recently, another 14-year-old girl, from the region of Isere in France, was arrested in Belgium after "manifesting several times her intention to go to Syria," French media reported.

Visiting Nora

Fouad didn’t give Nora’s exact reasons for wanting to return. "She is seeing another reality," he said simply in the interview, declining to say if she may have become a witness or victim of violence.

In late March, Fouad left France and went to Syria to try to help his sister come back. He had contacted the "emir," or the man wielding command over his sister. That man said Fouad could safely visit his sister and would not be interfered with when he wanted to leave. Fouad declined to provide details on the identity of the emir and the conditions set to see his sister.

Despite recommendations not to cross the Turkey-Syria border, Fouad entered Syria on April 9. He was granted two visits on April 10 and 11. The first lasted 30 minutes, the second just two minutes. Fouad and Nora cried together. She inquired about her parents and siblings. She told his brother how much she regrets being there. Her brother thought she looked thin and sick.

"They wouldn’t let her go with me. They told me that she should not be living in a land of infidels," Fouad said. When he suggested taking her to Morocco, his parents’ country, or even Saudi Arabia, it didn’t work. "These countries are even worse than France, they told me," said Fouad.

"It was like hell to return without her," said Fouad, who is now investing his time into bringing his sister back home rather than doing his job as a truck driver. "It is like living hell every day. My mother goes back and forth to the hospital because of her health. My father is also facing heart issues and my little siblings cannot stop asking when their sister will be back."

Before he left, Fouad gave his sister a new phone stocked with plenty of minutes and money to buy more time. But "they took it all from her," he said.

Since returning to France on April 16, Fouad said it’s been difficult contacting Nora. He said she is somehow being punished for wanting to leave them. Now when she manages to get through, she is using a borrowed phone.

Leading a Double Life

Like many other families in France with adolescent girls who have joined jihadis in Syria, Fouad is convinced his sister was indoctrinated online via Facebook.

"Nora had a double life," said Fouad.

A day after Nora disappeared, when he started asking around her high school for information about his sister, he found out she had two Facebook accounts and two phones. He also discovered that, at school, Nora had taken to wearing the jilbeb, a loose-fit garment that fully covers the body and neck, along with the head-covering hijab and gloves up to the elbows.

Nora never dressed that way in front of her family.

Fouad has many questions: Why didn’t the school inform the family when she started wearing religious attire, since the law of secularism in France should stop students from attending school in such clothes? Why didn’t the school inform the family when Nora missed school for a week in December? Why didn’t any of Nora’s friends tell her family about her double life?

Unlike other young women now living with jihadis in Syria, Nora was not married off. "In our misfortune, there was a blessing in disguise," said Fouad, explaining the recent split between the Islamic State and Al-Nusra Front–both under the umbrella of al-Qaida when she arrived in Syria in January–helped his sister.

This spring, Al-Nusra Front disavowed the Islamic State for breaking the guidelines of the terrorist network, which has denounced the killings of Muslims by the Islamic State and the video recordings of beheadings of Western journalists and an aid worker.

Before the split, an emir or commander in charge of Nora intended to marry her off without the permission of her father. This led to an altercation with another commander, the same man who now plays the role of Nora’s emir.

While the two commanders struggled over Nora’s marriage, the two al-Qaida factions separated and the man who wanted to marry her off fled the area to join the Islamic State. The man who now serves as her emir told her brother that he looks at Nora as a daughter.

Fouad said he has received no support from French authorities for his trip to Syria. "They have never done anything for us." Voicing a common theme among families with young people now missing in jihadist Syria, Fouad criticized the government for allowing French minors to travel without their parents’ authorization.

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