Following the end of the Islamic State Group’s caliphate in Mosul, Iraq in 2017, hundreds of women and children were detained in facilities throughout Iraq and Syria, and left in a state of limbo, not knowing when or if they would be released and repatriated into third-party countries. In this episode, we meet one family that has at least partly managed to leave detention and the war behind them to find a home in the Kyrgyz Republic with the help of their host community. We then speak to Elena Esanu, the ICRC’s deputy protection coordinator in Kyrgyzstan, to talk about how the ICRC is working in these host communities to build acceptance and help this family and others reintegrate into society, which often stigmatizes those who have returned. We ask Elena whether this family ’s reintegration experience is a blueprint for other countries of origin to follow for families who remain stranded and separated.

Abdullakh, 12, rides his bike outside his grandmother’s cottage. He like physical education, trains in boxing, and helps his grandmother around the house with chores. Photo Credit: Ermek Baisalov

Zuhra’s grandchildren are able to keep in touch with their mother, who is detained in Iraq, via phone calls and–sometimes–video calls. Photo Credit: Ermek Baisalov

Zuhra says her grandchildren had a hard time with school at first, but now they’re doing well, they have friends, they get good grades, and they all want to have good careers to surprise their mom when she gets home. Photo Credit: Ermek Baisalov

Additional Materials:

Listen to “Syria: Children of Al Hol,” another Intercross episode that talks about life in a detention facility in Syria.

Read more about day-to-day life in the Al Hol detention camp

This episode is now available for the hearing impaired.

[Background music]

[BONESSI] In 2017, the Islamic State Group’s capital in Mosul was retaken by Iraqi forces. After the fighting had ended, thousands of women—along with their children– ended up detained in facilities throughout Iraq and Syria. Some of these women and children, coming from a wide array of countries–including Germany, the Kyrygyz Republic, and Russia, now wait in a state of limbo to be repatriated.

Today we meet one family that has at least partly managed to leave detention and the war behind them to find a home in the Kyrgyz Republic with the help of their host community. We hear about how their experiences still affect them today.Then we speak with Elena Esanu, deputy protection coordinator in Kyrgyzstan, to talk about how the ICRC is working in these host communities to build acceptance and help this family and others reintegrate into society.

[ELENA ESANU] “The reunification of the family is really it’s one of the core mandate. If I can say, of the ICRC, the protection, protecting family links and maintaining and reuniting people this is the basic line and the main line, I would say of the ICRC.”

[BONESSI] I’m Dominique Maria Bonessi and this is Intercross, a podcast that offers a window into the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and shares the stories of those affected by conflict and other situations of violence.

[Sound of the outdoors]

[BONESSI] In the quiet countryside of Kyrgyzstan, 12-year-old Abdullakh rides a bike outside of his grandmother’s brown and white cottage surrounded by lush gardens, a chicken coup, and grazing cows.

[Sound of cooking in a kitchen]

[BONESSI] Inside the home, his grandmother Zuhra, is preparing a birthday celebration for him.

[Sound of 12-year-old Abdullakh speaking in Kyrgyz]

[BONESSI] Abdullakh is like any other 12-year-old. He likes school, especially physical education. He trains in boxing after school and helps his grandmother around the house by collecting apples from her trees and eggs from the chicken coup.Zuhra says she’s happy to have her grandchildren around again.

[ZUHRA] “I was so happy when my grandchildren came back. We were waiting for them for so many years. They left us unexpectedly. It was a bit worried to meet them and now I live with pleasure with my grandchildren. It would be nice if my daughter also returned, 10 years have already passed.”

[BONESSI] It’s been 10 years since Zuhra’s daughter, the childrens’ mother, left Kyrgyzstan for Iraq. Zuhra’s four grandchildren, Mokhinoor, 14, Ibrohim 13, Abdullakh 12, and Zakariya 5, were repatriated in 2021 from Iraq, where they spent a few years in detention. Their mother is still detained there.

[ZUHRA] “As a human beings, people can make mistakes. I don’t ask my grandchildren about the past, about what happened there. Maybe they have already forgotten about the past because I don’t hears bad memories from the past.”

[BONESSI] Zuhra says the kids are able to keep in touch with their mom by phone and sometimes video calls.[ZUHRA] “Mostly my daughter asks to hear the kids’ voices, she misses them. She cries there and children cry here. We’ve been living in this way for 3 years.”

[BONESSI] Before the kids were released from detention, Zuhra says she felt like she was missing half of herself. And now the one thing that would make her feel completely content would be the return of her daughter as well.

[ZUHRA] “We wake up, I send my grandchildren to school and kindergarten. One goes to school; second one goes to kindergarten. When they come back, I send the other two. I cook lunch for them, and this is how my day goes. The kids also help me, children also help with household chores, they have already become adults… They are doing good.”

[BONESSI] Zuhra says when the children first arrived to their new home after leaving detention in Iraq, integrating into a new school wasn’t easy.

[ZUHRA] “At the beginning it was difficult indeed, all the kids were frustrated. The kids didn’t attend any school before, and with the support of teachers they reached their peers’ level of education. They have good results in math, reading skills are good, they didn’t know how to read before.”

[BONESSI] Now at school, the kids are doing well. Zuhra says they have friends, they study, and all of them want to have good careers to surprise their mom once she’s back.

[Sound of 14-year-old Mokhinoor speaking in Kyrgyz]

[BONESSI] Mokhinoor the eldest girl says she’d like to be a translator or a doctor.Zakariya the youngest child is excited to start school next year and already knows Kyrgyzstan’s national anthem.

[Sound of 5-year-old Zakariya grandchild singing the Kyrgyzstan national anthem]

[BONESSI] As a retired pensioner, Zuhra is currently the only breadwinner for the family. But she says she feels supported by her family and neighbors in raising the kids.

[ZUHRA] “We have very good relations with neighbors. My neighbors love my grandchildren, they don’t stigmatize them. Their children come to play here, they are friends. They did not make them feel isolate or comment about their past.”

[Soft background music plays underneath]

[BONESSI] While she awaits her daughter’s return, Zuhra says she never loses hope that they will all be reunited soon.

[ZUHRA] “People should think of goodness and goodness will happen.”

[BONESSI] We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back we’ll be speaking with Elena Esanu, the deputy protection coordinator in Kyrgyzstan, about how the ICRC helps build acceptance of families like Zuhra’s. But first, take a quick second to have you listen to our sister podcast Humanity in War, Hosted by Elizabeth Rushing.

[Humanity in War trailer plays]

[BONESSI] We’re back now with Elena Esanu, the deputy protection coordinator at our regional delegation in Kyrgyzstan. Elena has been with the ICRC for about 10 years working to help reunite families and protect those who are detained due to armed conflict and violence in places like Iraq, Syria, and Israel. I want to start off by defining what reintegration is for our audience. And then what does the process look like?

[ELENA] “The reintegration actually is an action or a process of integrating someone back into a society or into a community to make it short. So when it comes to our work in this context and with the people we work with, it entails like a lot of steps. And actually it’s a multifaceted process which includes aspects working with the families, working with the community and community leaders, working with religious leaders, with the authorities at both central and local levels and all that, with the aim to support a smooth reintegration process of the returnees into their society and then to the families, of course. So it’s a lengthy process. We do work, first of all with the families and this we do before actually when the repatriation happens.”

[BONESSI] I understand there can be a lot of stigma against families reintegrating into a community. Can you talk about why? Why is that?

[ELENA] “Unfortunately, yes, there is this possibility. And actually this is what can happen easily. And this is because there are so many videos which are circulating in the Internet about ISIS about caliphates and so on and so forth. And people are impressed, of course, when they see these type of videos and they believe that all of those who would return, they would represent a threat to the society, to the community. And that those persons would be dangerous for the people they would be in contact with.”

[BONESSI] How do you go about reducing or beginning to reduce the stigma in communities where families are returning? And obviously with the goal of having the community come to accept these newcomers?[ELENA] “It’s a very difficult task. However, we do talk with the families. We do talk about the experiences that we had. And we will give the examples of people who returned already. The examples are very positive, actually. Children go to school. There are women who started working. They have many friends. The neighbors do accept them well. For the time being, thank goodness there is no negative experience so far. And also we mentioned that the returning persons, do deserve a second chance, because they do have families here, because they really waned dearly to come back. So if a person really wants to come back to his or her motherland, of course it’s to do the good things and to be with the family and to have a new life. Moreover, many kids, many returning kids were born there. They were born in camps if we talk about Syria. They didn’t even have had the idea or the wish to join ISIS let’s say. So we just talk about this aspect of family reunification, about the good examples we have.”

[BONESSI] So you start work, for example, we know from what we just heard above, you start work maybe a year in advance. Speaking with the grandmother in this case. And then you what sort of steps do you need to ensure that she is going to be prepared to receive her grandchildren? That’s four kids to take under your wing. I’m sure that’s a lot of change for her.

[ELENA] “For sure. But what we need to keep in mind and to remember is that if not the absolute majority, the vast majority of the families waiting for their beloved ones to come back, they really want and they really look forward to host them, no matter the difficulties they are facing, no matter what financial conditions they are in or the resources they have to cover their needs or their family, their families needs. So, yes, indeed, as you said, we did visit this grandma in advance, at least one year in advance, and we visited her regularly. So every time she was seeing us, not only this person, but any other person with whom we are working all the time, they were asking: When do you bring my kids back and when do you bring my grandkids back? I really want to see them. My life is really miserable without them, so I am ready to do whatever is needed and I’m ready to go through whatever difficulties, but just to have them beside. So we are in permanent contact with the families, even before any decision over a repatriation happens or is officially raised.”

[BONESSI] I know that we have to communicate between two different countries because we were bringing them from Iraq to Kyrgyzstan. Are we communicating with authorities? Do we have to work with authorities on negotiating or how does that process work?

[ELENA] “Our colleagues in Iraq they do communicate with the authorities in terms of persons that wish to be repatriated. And in terms of the notification of the persons that want to be repatriated here in Kyrgyzstan. So once we have the names of those who want to be repatriated or notified to the authorities here, we do have this list of names following the green light from the of the authorities in Iraq. And then we inform the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Kyrgyzstan about those persons. We do have a facilitator role, but the agreement or the decision to repatriate people is between the states. So we just inform the states about the wish of the persons whom we are visiting to be repatriated. And this is also in order to avoid the non-refoulment principle, meaning that no one who doesn’t want to be repatriated is repatriated. But the decision of repatriating people lies within the two states without ICRC interference into this.”

[BONESSI] And then so once you’re in that dialog with families and you’re getting that clearance from the states to give you the permission, then what do you have to do next? What is that next step? What about the society that they’re going to be reintegrated into?

[ELENA] “We do work very much on this aspect as well with our colleagues from various departments, including departments called Prevention and Communication. And we do organize various roundtables or seminars and so on with the different target population or target audience, rather. So of course, from the authorities, the representatives of the authorities, or it can be representatives of religious leaders during which we talk about the ICRC work in general and especially when it comes to what we do for the persons who left for the Middle East, for instance. And we explain why we would like them to return and why we advocate for them to return. And the answer is very simple, we do that because of humanitarian ideas and because of humanitarian needs those persons are facing and also because they have the rights to be reunited with their families, because many of those persons, of course, they have families here in Kyrgyzstan, for instance, but many of those persons, they left their homes without maybe knowing where do they go, why do they go. In addition, many of those children who are to be repatriated or were repatriated, were born there. So we do somehow a sensitization during our activities, during our seminars roundtable. And so we offer to the audience to ask questions.”

[BONESSI] Thanks for explaining all that. It was really helpful to break it down. So how does this fulfill our mandate?

[ELENA] “Sure. So actually, the reunification of the family is really it’s one of the core mandate, if I can say, of the ICRC, the protection, protecting family links and maintaining and reuniting people. This is basic line and the main line, I would say of the ICRC. And of course, being integrated into the community, the children, they would have access to education, for instance, They would have the possibility to start also a new life. They would have a possibility to acquire a job, for instance. And this this is also somehow comes out of this very basic initial step of returning from this these countries and actually returning from the countries where they were in very hard conditions.”

[BONESSI] What kind of reactions have you gotten from returned persons and their families in helping them reconnect?

[ELENA] “They repeatedly said that they were so happy to be able to come somewhere where they are hosted, where they are listened to, where they can share their frustrations, what they can talk about, what they would like to happen, and so on and so forth. And they said really, that this is something which doesn’t have any price, meaning that it’s priceless.”

[BONESSI] Whenever you get the returning family here, especially if there are kids involved, the ICRC also provides several wraparound services, as I understand. One of those specifically is getting them help through mental health counseling. Why is that important for these kids sort of to address what has happened to them?

[ELENA] “Yes, indeed, we do have a mental health and social support team. And not only they work with the returning children and adults, but also they do work with the families here in Kyrgyzstan which are hosting those persons. It’s very important for them to have this type of support. And this is something unique the ICRC is providing because they have the chance to work on their fears, to work on their traumas. So it is important to have this type of support in order to help those persons to work with the traumas they had acquired. And this is, of course, not easy, but at least this is very necessary so that they can afterwards go forward and advance.”

[BONESSI] Do you think Kyrgyzstan is a blueprint for how reintegration can be done? And if so, what are some of the best practices the international community can take away?

[ELENA] “Kyrgyzstan did a great job in terms of repatriation so far since 2021 four repatriation took place already and the returned persons were reunited with their families as soon as it was possible, which is great. It was within a couple of months. They integrated well their communities. They had the chance to have medical checkups and medical assistance as soon as they were coming out of the plane, for instance. Also, the state has issued quickly, ID documents for returning persons that didn’t have one or the two that lost their identity documents. Children we’re granted access to school or to kindergartens. Some of those kids are going to obtain the school diploma. So, yeah, there are many of those aspects that need to be or could be taken as an example for sure. And yes, what I would like also to highlight is that we have here a very good dialog with the authorities in Kyrgyzstan. They really listened to us as well as the community. They listened to the recommendations and they are really keen into getting the ICRC expertise and advice, and we’re quite often asked for that. So here you have a very good example.”

[BONESSI] Thank you Elena.

[Bring in background music]

[BONESSI] International law provides a framework in pwhich states should repatriate and reintegrate families. And the ICRC and other international organizations can provide expertise and guidance on this, so states don’t have to tackle this alone.

But, now is the moment for states to act humanely and responsibly toward a long-term solution for those who are still stranded. While Zuhra and her grandkids wait to be reunited with her daughter, hundreds of other families, including children, are still waiting to be repatriated home to be reunited with their loved ones long after the fighting has ended.

Thanks this week goes to our protection delegates in Washington, Kyrgyzstan and Geneva. And our communication colleague in Kyrgyzstan Ermek Baisalov.

If you’d like to learn more about our work in reintegrating families into host communities, you can visit our website and subscribe to the podcast at follow us on, @ICRC_DC.

See you next time on Intercross.