In October we organized the first ‘Family Day’, for the children that returned from the camps in Northeast Syria (and had not seen each other since) and their (foster)families. The families appreciated the safe space in which they shared their lived experiences and stories. It was a healing reunion, with laughter, tears and hugs.
Thirty-two Belgian children returned from the Kurdish detention camps in Northeast Syria since the start of 2019. Currently, most of them are raised within the framework of foster care by the families of their parents, who mostly are the parents of their Belgian mothers. For these families, we organized a family day event on Sunday 17 October 2021. All of them were invited to attend the family day and to share their experiences regarding the education of the children by participating in conversation groups focusing on children’s development, parenting issues, childcare services, schooling, legal and safety issues, and social integration. Twenty-five adults and 21 children attended in this event. While the adults were sharing their experiences, the children were entertained and playing in the large garden of the ancient castle in which the family day was organized. Sufficient time was provided between the group conversations to socialize with each other during moments of relaxation in the garden, lunch and tea time.
Feelings of loneliness were one of the main common subject in the experiences of the foster families. Not being heard, understood and acknowledged by legal institutes, social services, childcare workers, and society in general were the most important issues grandparents and families were dealing with. They rather felt controlled instead of supported by social and childcare services. A lack of felt trust and the experienced underestimation of their daily efforts and labor to support and raise the children inhibited the development of a fluent and satisfying cooperation with legal, social and childcare services. This process of increasing mistrust and disappointment was already initiated by the start of the repatriation. Families were extendedly screened and assessed to evaluate their competences and skills to raise their (grand)children but also to check their affinity and attitudes towards muslin extremism, which increased their assumptions of being blamed for the departure of their daughters, sons or family members towards Syria. They also emphasized the absence of information, involvement and support at the moment the children arrived in Belgium and during the first days and weeks after arriving, when family members were confronted with doubts and questions about the children’s behavior and development, and struggling how to deal with it. One of the participants mentioned that instead of receiving parental support, they got the invoices to pay the high costs of the hospitals(about 3000 euros/child), to which the federal government brought the children after repatriating them. Although several childcare workers succeeded in building-up trustful and supportive relationships with the families, most participants experienced the family day event as a unique and exceptional moment. The day offered them a safe and trustful space to feel really being heard, acknowledged and appreciated by people who really understood them, because they were confronted and dealing with the same issues. Several of them evaluated the family day as coming home at a place that allowed them for the first time to talk about what really concerned them.
Also for the children, the family day was an emotional relief. We were surprised to watch their excitement and happiness when meeting each other, with whom they lived together for several years and with whom they survived the detention camps. They enthusiastically shared the past by talking and drawing their memories together throughout the day. The strong emotional bonds among the children, their exceptional friendships, and their lively memories about special moments in the camps highlighted their attachment and belonging to Syria and the camps, as their roots of existence and becoming, which may not be ignored or devaluated. They also pointed to the importance of organizing playful and art-based encounters, that collectively can contribute to the children’s healing and sense-making processes about their past.