Close to eight years after Ismael Roberts returned to T&T with his mother, Marsha Roberts, from ISIS-controlled territories in Syria, he is still unable to attend school, without documents and is, for all intents and purposes, stateless.
Ismael, eight, and 38-year-old Marsha were repatriated to T&T from Turkey in October 2015 after three years in the Middle East.
Marsha said government officials helped their family to return home but she now feels like her son has been abandoned and discarded by the state.
“Without a child having an identity, without a child having a chance to be in school and get an education, what will you leave him to come out to be? And then you’ll blame it on ISIS but he’s back home and we are trying to live a different life,” Marsha said.
“I just want my child to have a fair chance in life. When I returned, he was one-year-old, and now he’s 8, and he hasn’t been in school. I have to be unemployed and homeschool him and teach him to read and write. I want a better life for him.
“I feel the pain mostly in the evenings because I will see children coming from school and my son will say, ‘Mommy, I want to go to school’. He says, ‘My friends ask me if I go to school and I have to lie and say I go to school’. This has been happening over and over for years without any help. I reach out for help in private schools, government schools, the Ministry of Education on my own, going in on my own and everybody shutting me down,” Marsha said, as her eyes turned red and filled with tears.
A room at the front of their one-story home in Maloney is Ismael’s makeshift classroom. His entire education has been developed by his mother in this six-by-seven-foot room. On one of the walls rests a whiteboard. Mathematics was Saturday’s subject of the day when the Sunday Guardian visited.
“I feel my son has been abandoned. Every day I feel deep pain because I want the best for my son, and it’s like we’re going deeper down a hole because it’s like he doesn’t exist. He has no identity here.
“I would like my son to have a normal life as any child, any citizen of Trinidad and Tobago. I would like to see him in a school, playing with children his age. Be able to get dental, free dental, and healthcare. Everything as a normal average child,” Marsha said.
Since their return, Marsha said they’ve not been offered any form of support from the state, or any professional counselling or rehabilitation.
She said: “Nothing was put in place. I have to rehabilitate myself. At the same time, teach my son and fight up and make it happen where I think that they can do better. I think nothing was put in place here.
“I don’t know if the problem is the Attorney General because if you all grant us repatriation back home, then what is the issue? Why do we have to be victimized like that? Every day my son asks me to be around children his age, and it’s a big hold-up. I don’t know what’s the problem, and I would like to see my son smile again.”
During the interview, Ismael, who was born in Syria, walked about and spoke with the Sunday Guardian. He was respectful and friendly and, like his father who died in Syria, he loves football.
He longs for a chance to talk football with classmates.
His older sister has had an easier time witth reintegration as she was born in T&T. She is currently attending a secondary school in east Trinidad.
The long road home
To the average person, what Marsha and her son survived is unfathomable. She lived for two years in ISIS-controlled territory where Ismael was born
“Yeah, it’s a whole different culture. The languages being spoken, the food, bombs falling, and people dying. It’s a life that you can’t really adjust to. You just get up every day and just try to make it, try to survive, try to seek the best interest of your children. It was really a survival for life,” she recalled.
It was just shy of 11 years ago that Marsha and Ismael’s older sister were carried to Turkey by her husband who told them he had finally managed to get a long-awaited breakthrough - a professional football contract with a Turkish club.
“We spent some days in Turkey but my husband would always hold on to the passports. I didn’t see anything strange because he cared. He was always a caring fella. Everything is borders. So it was like the Savannah there, and we crossed the road into ISIS . . . as you cross, they tell you ‘Welcome to ISIS.’
“You can’t even talk. You, as a woman, are not supposed to talk around men. I got locked up plenty of times over there because I was always against (the policies). I am a person that always speaks their mind. It had somewhere they would put the women in rooms and you can’t see outside at all,” Marsha said.
After two years in the city of Raqqa in ISIS-controlled territory, Marsha worked up the courage to risk her life to save her children. They escaped across the border to Turkey and after being held by Turkish authorities for seven months, they were repatriated to T&T.
But life in Trinidad has been difficult for the family.
“I never really get a fair life again because to get through with anything is always a problem. They always bring up the past with ISIS all within my community. Yeah, it’s always, it’s always ISIS and they watch you as dangerous. So, when you think that you trying to do better for yourself and go forward, it’s like you always have a stain on your name,” she said.
“It was very painful, but I think the environment that I came from back in Trinidad, I had the mind and the will to escape, but I don’t know if the other people there had the mind and the will. They don’t know if they were going to escape into death.”
Efforts to contact Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly for comment on the situation were unsuccessful yesterday as calls to her phone went unanswered.
T&T is one of 66 countries with citizens, mostly women and children , detained in camps in north-eastern Syria. Between 2013 and 2016, at least 130 T&T nationals travelled to ISIS-controlled territories - the most people per capita in the western hemisphere, according to Human Rights Watch.
In late February, Human Rights Watch called on the T&T government to repatriate its citizens from camps in Syria, saying there are more than 90 nationals, including at least 56 children, in refugee camps and detention centres there.