“To keep living for the sake of my children and their future”
How a young Kazakh mother with two children made her way back from Syria and started a new life
Names have been altered for protection purposes
In 2019, as part of operations “Zhusan” and “Rusafa,” Kazakhstan’s intelligence services successfully repatriated 420 children from Syria and Iraq. The majority of these children were under the age of six, including Jamil and his younger brother Amir, who was born in the conflict zone and first caught the glimpse of the sea in Kazakhstan. Their mother Saule thinks that the sea has left a lasting impression and inspired the brothers’ dreams of future travel. “We will pursue these dreams as soon as we have a chance,” adds Saule confidently.
Saule, along with her husband and one-year-old son, traveled to Syria in 2014. She was pregnant with her second child at the time. The couple had told their relatives that they were going to Germany for work. They actually discussed such an option but in reality, they were driven by emotions. Saule explains: “We had watched videos that depicted the torture of Muslims, including elderly people, women, and children. We thought that since everyone was going there, we also had to go and help. For some reason, we decided it was our mission.”
Upon their arrival, the family was provided with an apartment of their own. However, Saule’s husband was quickly separated from them. “He wasn’t sent to war, he worked, because he was a decent mechanic, and so they kept him. They value the skilled professionals. We would not see him for days. He would leave at dawn and return late at night,” says the woman. In 2018, Saule’s husband passed away. For the next two years, she deeply grieved his loss. Today, her grown sons are also beginning to miss their father: “They often recall their dad showing up and giving them chocolates. That’s the only thing they had seen.”
Curiously enough, Saule also recalls only the good moments from that time. When she speaks about her five years in the conflict zone, she says, “I was so patient, just waiting there, staying at home, and watching all of this...” Saule and her children spent most of their time confined within the walls of their home, completely oblivious to the events occurring outside. A trench had been dug in the yard of their house as a precaution against bombing, and groceries were the only items brought in. The children entertained themselves with books and toys that their parents had brought with them from Kazakhstan.
Saule and her children were able to seize the opportunity to return to Kazakhstan during their stay with the Kurds. “In the camp, after we arrived, they provided us with new tents, food, basic groceries, mattresses, and pillows. We stood in line every day for them,” the woman recounts of her daily life in captivity. Despite rumors about possible repatriation to Kazakhstan, Saule initially did not believe them. However, she recalls, when a list was being compiled of those “who wanted to return home to their countries, everyone immediately rushed to sign up.”
Saule fondly remembers the support she received from theologians and psychologists upon her return. “When we came back, we were beginning to see clearly, and the people were very kind. There was no conflict or aggression towards us. Instead, everything was for our benefit,” she states. Saule and her sons moved in with her relatives, where her mother and brother were waiting for them in the village. The transition took another month: “They worked with us every day to prepare us for reintegration into society. We were still scared,” the woman confesses.
In the summer, a few months after her return, Saule felt that the painful period of getting used to the new reality was over for her, and she felt comfortable and at ease surrounded by her relatives. The children, she says, were fine, too: “They don’t remember the bombings, for example. They don’t remember the fires, the planes, because they were little.” The boys were much more impressed with the amusement rides, parks, and trampolines here in Kazakhstan, she said. “They loved it all, there was nothing of the kind over there, and they literally rushed at everything. Just to see something, to play,” she notes.
The only preschool options available to the family in Syria were those run by women, the so called “learning circles,” which helped prevent the boys from facing language difficulties upon their return home. Today, they attend school, are successful students, have friends among their classmates, play soccer and study English after school hours. “My kids are very active and curious. The older son wants to become a dentist, and the younger one wants to be a businessman. He already has grand boyish plans, like buying his own car,” Saule shares with a smile.
Saule has found her mission in volunteering. She works in programs that support the reintegration of families and children who have returned from conflict zones, and uses her own life experience to help prevent others from undergoing similar experiences. In addition, Saule provides psychological support to mothers who have not been reunited with their daughters from conflict zones. She understands the anxiety and stress experienced by those who are left waiting for their adult children at home. “My mother suffered because of me and still fears losing me again. She lives in the village now, while I live in the city, and she calls me every day,” Saule explains.
While in Syria, the woman did her best to keep her grandmother and her grandchildren connected. “During times when the internet was accessible, I would send pictures of my children to show my parents that everything was okay. I would also include photos of myself against beautiful backgrounds,” she shares. Her husband’s family resides in another city and her mother-in-law is still mourning the loss of her son. As a result, the relationship between the women has been strained. “We aren’t speaking to each other currently,” the woman responded when asked about communication between her children and their father’s relatives.
Despite her circumstances, Saule’s tone is upbeat. “I’ve come to realize there are so many beautiful things in life that I never even noticed before. Now I just want to live and create with my children,” she says with a smile. Although she often reflects on her life situation, she sometimes finds it hard to believe that she spent five years in Syria. When asked about what helped her adjust so quickly and effectively, she explains, “I had a single focus: to keep living for the sake of my children and their future. No mother wants her child to endure the same fate. I wouldn’t want them to witness or experience what I have. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”