Orphan stuck in Syrian refugee camp could be a New Zealander

From Nine To Noon, 9:05 am on 3 October 2019

It's been claimed a three-year-old orphan stuck in a Syrian refugee camp is the child of a deceased New Zealand citizen.

The toddler, whose mother had been living in Australia before travelling to live under Islamic State, is one of more than 60 women and children from Australia being held at Al-Hawl refugee camp, Nine to Noon has been told.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been contacted to ascertain its knowledge of the child's situation, and whether either of the Australian or New Zealand governments has a responsibility for the child's welfare.

Kamalle Dabboussy, whose adult daughter Mariam is being held in the camp, leads a group of Australian families trying to bring their relatives home.

With the support of Save the Children Australia, he's vowing to do everything he can to bring them home, including the abandoned toddler, whom he describes as “an undocumented New Zealand citizen”.

He told Nine to Noon that the orphaned boy, called Abdullah, was born in Syria to a mother with a New Zealand citizenship, but the details around the father are still unclear at this stage.

Al-Hawl refugee camp. Syria

Al-Hawl refugee camp. Syria Photo: Kamalle Dabboussy

After the death of Abdullah’s mother just prior the fall of the township of Baghouz, the boy was passed from family to family, Mr Dabboussy said. He believes that the boy is now with a Syrian family in the Syrian part of the camp.

He’s only recently passed on the information he has on the boy to MFAT, because they’d previously hoped the Australian government would take account for him considering the mother and grandparents, who are also New Zealand citizens, had been residing in Australia for a long time.

“Only recently, the Australian government advised us that in the event they should repatriate the Australians, they would only repatriate the Australians that were citizens or entitled to Australian citizenship, and unfortunately this child falls out of that definition.”

He said MFAT have indicated to him they aware of the child and invited Mr Dabboussy for further conversations.

“We’re waiting to find out even if this boy is found, then what would be his fate?”

Abdullah’s grandmother in Australia is actively campaigning for his return and is concerned for his welfare, Mr Dabboussy said.

“She is prepared that if in fact the only outcome for this child is to go to New Zealand, she is ready to return back home to New Zealand to care for the child.”

There would be several steps involved to verify who the mother was and before he could be granted citizenship or documentation, he said.

“The alternative for this young boy is really an unthinkable or very difficult set of circumstances in that part of the world – not being with your parents, not having documentation or ID paperwork - I can’t imagine how a safeless child in that environment would survive.

“So for us there’s a great imperative and a great moral need to identify this child, as there would be with all children. Since he’s come into our story, he’s come into our situation, we are trying to support the family to find him, identify him, give him his documentation, and ultimately bring him home.”

Australians in Syrian camp regarded as 'security threat'

The Australian citizens at the camp are in a state of limbo because the Australian government regards them as a security threat.

Al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in Syria, on August 08, 2019.

Al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in Syria, on August 08, 2019. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP

In a statement to 7 News earlier this year, the office of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton reiterated the Australian prime minister's stance that Australian lives will not be put at risk when it comes to extracting nationals from the Syrian camps.

“No Australian will be put at risk in terms of going into what is a very dangerous part of the world,” a statement from his office said on Friday. “Australian officials cannot facilitate the safe passage of people out of the conflict zones.”

On the other hand, the government did manage to evacuate eight Australians from a Syrian refugee camp in June.

However, Kamalle Dabboussy told Nine to Noon that the Australian women and children he knows of pose no threat, and many were tricked into going to Syria and northern Iraq in the first place.

There’s been a shift in the hard-line narrative by the government, he said, with some willingness for discussions and considerations underway.

“The rhetoric has changed a little bit in that where there was a position of or an inference of ‘well they chose to go so we’ll leave them there’, the rhetoric has changed to ‘well we need to treat this on a case by case basis’ or there is a need and a want but the situation is dangerous and fluid and complex. But the narrative change has yet to affect an actual action.

“Their current position is that they’re considering. But they have been considering now for months that position, we are concerned that there is an unnecessary delay in the decision-making process.”

Mr Dabboussy said he has difficulty with the argument that they could be deemed a security risk.

“There is no evidence that these women were involved in any combat and I stand very strongly with that, and certainly the operational part of the Australian government, no-one has ever told or given me evidence to contradict that nor have they given me the belief that I am wrong in that assumption.

“[The government] keep saying they need to do assessments, my issue is that the Australian government has said they will not send Australians into Syria, therefore I do not know how you can do can security assessments without sending Australians to meet and talk and understand their situations, so there seems to be a break in logic in how to deal with that situation.”

However, he said that if there was any evidence of wrongdoing the families and individuals involved would allow due process and the rule of law to proceed in that circumstance.

Al-Hawl refugee camp. Syria

Al-Hawl refugee camp. Syria Photo: Kamalle Dabboussy

When it comes to his daughter, he said she was coerced into that space, and that was something the authorities understood too.

“The first I knew my daughter was there was when the authorities knocked on my door and told me your daughter is in Syria and she was coerced into going there, that was the line they used.”

And there are a number who are also in the same situation as his daughter, he said, or were promised something or duped into thinking they had a choice to leave.

“But from the moment they got there, they realised that this was a mistake and they need to get out and despite being assured they’d be able to leave, they could never leave.

“It is not an appropriate exercise, I believe, to have gone and fought and destroyed an oppressive, terrible cult and regime, that in turn we would act in a similar way by punishing them, by keeping them where they are.

“I think there needs to be a fairness and equity in that they are Australians and they need to brought home, and if you have any concerns then the rule of law would apply.”

Of the 19 women in the Australian camp, several were not of age when they were taken into IS territory and became child bearers, he said.

“We have a 19-year-old woman at the camp, who was married at the age of 15, has had four children in four years. We have an 18-year-old who’s had three children in three years.”

He said in the camp the number of children there that are under the age of five is 28 percent, while in the Australian camp the children under the age five is 55 percent.

“The Australian women were basically baby factories, and that’s the reality that they have. Eighty percent of deaths in the camp are children under five.

“And the reason why the under-five figure is so important is because they’re the ones that are undocumented, they’re the ones that are dying at a higher rate, and they’re the ones that were born into that environment, they are purely innocent children in this scenario.”

Australian camp conditions are ‘squalor’

Kamalle Dabboussy, who himself has been to the Australian camp where his 28-year-old daughter is, said the women and children are forced to live in squalid tents.

Refugees who fled the Iraqi city of Mosul due to the fighting between government forces and Islamic State, queue for heating fuel at the UN-run al-Hol refugee camp in Syria in 2017.

Refugees who fled the Iraqi city of Mosul due to the fighting between government forces and Islamic State, queue for heating fuel at the UN-run al-Hol refugee camp in Syria in 2017. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP

“The conditions are absolute squalor, I can’t begin to describe [it]. We hear about it and we see photos of it, but when we saw it … it was a different reality.

“They are in fabric tents, living there in 50 degree heat, the children would sleep on the floor and you’d touch them and they’re dripping in sweat … they use plastic bags to go to the bathroom with, they’re washing themselves with bottles of water, they are cramped in a room maybe three metres by three-and-a-half metres, if I can put it that way, there are four women and eight children living in that one space.

“Interestingly enough, the one thing we got asked to if we could bring with us is shoes … they can’t walk because of the rocks around and everyone’s asking for shoes, and the kids fight over shoes because they’re so important.”

He describes the camp as “a difficult existence”, saying that those living there have to push and shove for food and water, be wary of extremist women, and face taunts by some of the guards.

Mariam’s story

Prior to Mariam Dabboussy's travel to Syria, she had been living in Sydney and working in childcare as well as helping out a migrant and refugee support service.

Kamalle Dabboussy with his daughter and grandchildren in Syria

Kamalle Dabboussy with his daughter and grandchildren in Syria Photo: Kamalle Dabboussy

Mr Dabboussy said his understanding of his daughter’s situation only became clear weeks ago when he had a rare chance to speak to her.

“It turns out that her brother-in-law was already in Syria and had already a role to play with IS, managed somehow to convince his brother [her husband] that this should be that place to be, then his brother organised an elaborate way to get them to the border.”

He said his son-in-law took Mariam, their one-year-old, his parents, and his younger brother to the border.

“At that point there was gunfire, there was shots fired at them, they were hurried across into cars, the women and men were separated and in the space of minutes they found themselves from one side of the border to the other.

“I would say she was basically kidnapped and taken across to the border at gunpoint. She says to me … that she was basically conned by the boys.”

Mariam was 24 at the time and didn’t know she was also pregnant with her second child when that happened, Mr Dabboussy said.

Her husband was killed in an airstrike before the birth of their second child and when Mariam tried to escape she was caught and forced to remarry, he said. She had a third child in that marriage and when her second husband died, she was again forced to remarry, he said.