Reflecting on a Powerful Evening

Event Recap: The Return of Belgians who went to Syria and Iraq

On May 4, 2023, we organized a pivotal panel discussion as part of the REGUIDE project, convening a diverse group of experts to deliberate on the repatriation of Belgian citizens currently held in prisons and detention camps in Northeast Syria and Iraq. The primary objective was to reignite attention on the return issue, which had faded from public discourse following the repatriations of children and their mothers in 2021 and 2022. What set this debate apart was our inclusive focus on the repatriation of men and childless women, who are often rendered invisible in repatriation discussions.

The imperative to repatriate all Belgian citizens transcends national security concerns; it is an essential stride aligned with the human rights and democratic principles our country upholds. Active repatriation not only aligns with our values but also facilitates the seamless reintegration and recovery of these individuals and their children into society.

We were privileged to host distinguished guests, including Mayor Hans Bonte, lawyer Abderrahim Lahlali and war journalist Rudi Vranckx, and, engaging in enlightening discussions with VUB researchers Hannan Jamaï and Jihane Sliti. A huge shoutout to Rebel film director Adil El Arbi for his exclusive message, and to the fantastic Sanae Jamaï for moderating the evening. Special thanks also go to Prof. Iman Lechkar and Prof. Gerrit Loots, for sharing their expertise. And last but certainly not least, a many thanks to the 96 incredible participants who joined us in Vilvoorde. We look forward to seeing you again at our future events!

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Before delving into the panel discussion, we launched the event with two presentations stemming from two years of dedicated research. Our goal was to inject fresh perspectives, arguments and findings into the prevailing social discourse, currently dominated by notions of retaliation rather than justice and reparation.

Media discourses
Jihane Sliti’s presentation (Doctoral Researcher – Political Science, VUB) offered a comprehensive overview of how the portrayal of Belgian men who went to Syria and Iraq in Flemish media evolved over the years. She highlighted a shift from the existence of a more humane, nuanced and diverse narrative to the dominance of a dehumanizing and abjectifing narrative. The latter narrative particularly prevailed after the 2015 and 2016 attacks in Paris and Brussels. They are reduced to being perceived as ‘war waging monsters’ and ‘barbarians’. This shift has stripped these men of their right to a fair trial and a return to their home-country, hindering their potential for recovery and reintegration. Moreover, due to social prejudices, these men are often denied recognition as fathers, partners -or simply other non-violent roles, which also leads to unfairly perceiving them as unimportant and perilous to the well-being of their children. 
Returned women and children
Building upon these insights, Hannan Jamaï (Doctoral Researcher – Psychology, VUB) presented findings from research involving returned mothers and their children. This research culminated in two animated short films offering a poignant reflection of the children’s perspectives. Through five workshops with two families, we collaboratively reconstructed the children’s life stories in a therapeutic and creative manner. This idea stems from the families’ need to jointly give words and meaning to the events of the past years.

A recurring theme emerged – the profound impact of fathers and the loss experienced by the children. Recognizing the lack of societal support for an alternative narrative about fathers, we emphasized the importance of creating a space wherein families are assisted in navigating this complex subject. This approach aims to foster a more nuanced and balanced understanding of the fathers, detention camps, and life in the caliphate. Granting space and recognition to the children’s stories is imperative for integrating their experiences into their evolving identities without negating their former identities.

Panel discussion

The panel discussion opens with a discussion on the portrayal of ISIS in the animation films that are made. Vranckx expresses concern about the lack of emphasis on the violent aspects of ISIS in the presented materials, particularly the violence committed against the Jezidi’s and the violence that affected the children.  Jamaï counters by stating that children tend to remember their time with ISIS as not always being violent, as parents often shield them from such experiences. Also Sliti finds it regrettable that the violent aspect has to be brought up immediately. She finds it unfortunate that such a conversation always has to occur first.  She seconds Jamaï and explains that they don’t deny the horror but also want to emphasize other roles and other possibilities to deal with the issue. Bonte disagrees with the panel’s perspective, emphasizing that not all individuals who joined ISIS are victims. He points out that some parents are opportunistic in their choices. The discussion also touches on the need for research into the legal status of children in these situations.  

The discussion continues with concerns about repatriating men who joined ISIS, with Vranckx stressing the polarization and mutual enmity on this theme. He states that 1/3 of the people want the death penalty for the men who joined ISIS and argues that the public opinion sees this as a context of war. Bonte raises questions about radicalization and how individuals were motivated to leave their homes and families for ISIS. The panel highlights the need for a nuanced approach to this complex issue, considering the welfare of children, the actions of the parents, and the broader societal impact. They also discuss the challenges of repatriation and the need for individualized assessments. The audience’s questions address the challenges of repatriation,  the status of the children, and the difficulties of diplomatic and political efforts. The discussion concludes with different opinions on repatriation, with Hannan Jamaï advocating for the return of all Belgian citizens associated with ISIS, while Lahlali suggests a more nuanced and case-by-case approach. 

A diverse audience
We are thrilled to share the fantastic turnout for this event! Of the 132 registrees, 96 were present on the day of the event. Notably, the event venue, with a maximum capacity of 100, was nearly at full occupancy. This achievement reflects the interest and engagement of our community to reflect on the potential return of Belgians in Syria and Iraq.
Moreover, the diversity of our audience was an added value to the event. Attendees hailed from various professional backgrounds, from practitioners from the field and local residents or councilors, to researchers and students from various disciplines. We were also honored to host family members of Belgians who went to Syria and Iraq, and of whom some returned.
Feedback from the audience
We thank the broad spectrum of participants for their presence. Regrettably, a lengthy Q&A  session was not feasible this time. However, we eagerly anticipate future opportunities for collaboration and meaningful dialogue.
We also thank our fantastic audience for the feedback we’ve received during and after our event. The overall sentiment has been positive, with attendees expressing their enjoyment of the spirited debate, newfound insights from the presentations, and deep appreciation for our team’s dedication to opening up dialogue on the challenging situation of Belgians who went to Syria and Iraq.
On a constructive note, some voices offered valuable critique. While acknowledging the difficulty of the subject, a few participants found the project’s objectives somewhat elusive. additionally, there were questions raised about the selection of speakers based on their statements. Notably, family members, understandably more emotionally connected to the issue, expressed challenges in understanding certain arguments and, at times, found them to be emotionally intense.
To further capture the diverse perspectives, we sent out a survey the day after the event, and we’re delighted that 13 attendees took the time to share their insights. The survey, featuring five short questions, was entirely optional allowing participants to provide feedback at their discretion.
We are thankful for the constructive and valuable feedback, as it propels us toward continous improvement!

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