Finland’s secret school for children of Daesh fighters in Iraq

Finland’s secret school for children of Daesh fighters in Iraq
Teacher Ilona Taimela, an educational specialist who gave lessons to Finnish children 3,000 km away using a messaging app. (AFP)
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Updated 30 November 2021

Finland’s secret school for children of Daesh fighters in Iraq

Finland’s secret school for children of Daesh fighters in Iraq

HELSINKI: At home in the Finnish capital, Ilona Taimela scrolls through hundreds of WhatsApp chats with her former pupils — pictures of animals, maths sums and simple sentences in English and Finnish.
The teacher last year gave lessons to Finnish children imprisoned some 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) away in Syria’s Al-Hol displacement camp — using only the messaging app.
Al-Hol is a sprawling tent
city housing around 60,000 people, mainly women and children displaced by the US-backed battle to expel the Daesh group from war-torn Syria.
Among them are thousands of children of foreign mothers who traveled to Syria to be the wives of Daesh fighters.
“Some of the children didn’t know what a building is, what a house is, because they’ve always been in a tent,” Taimela told AFP.
“There was so much that they needed to learn.”
Rights observers warn the camp’s children are under constant threat from violence, poor sanitation and fires.
“It’s a miserable place, it’s out of control,” said Jussi Tanner, Finland’s special envoy charged with ensuring the fundamental rights of the Finnish children in Al-Hol, including access to health care and schooling, and eventual repatriation.
Extremist propaganda “is free to roam with no counter-messaging,” he said.
Tanner had the idea of offering lessons by phone to Al-Hol’s Finnish children when schoolchildren everywhere moved to distance learning at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the help of Finland’s Lifelong Learning Foundation, officials engaged Taimela, a specialist in teaching Finnish kids abroad, and another teacher, to design and teach a curriculum.
With phones banned in the camp, the lessons would have to be in secret, and the politically sensitive project was also to be kept hidden from the Finnish public.
Tanner forwarded details about the voluntary classes to the mothers.
“That same day ... we got maybe eight children,” Taimela said.
Soon 23 of around 35 Finnish children in the camp had signed up.
“Good morning! Today is Thursday May 7, 2020. The first day of distance school!“
Taimela’s first message to the children included a smiling selfie.
“The sun is shining here in Finland. What kind of weather is it there?“
Soon Taimela and her colleague were exchanging hundreds of text and voice messages a day with the children, who were taught one or two subjects a day.
“The little ones would always get Finnish, and the older ones would get geography or history, and some of them also wanted to learn English.”
Sending photos used too much data, so the teachers relied on emojis, but soon realized there were no symbols for mathematical fractions or the ubiquitous Finnish blueberry.
“During the year the blueberry [emoji] arrived, so we were happy,” Taimela says, laughing.
Despite only knowing scant details about the children, Taimela said she and her colleague were “worried all the time about their welfare.”
“Especially when we heard that they were sick, or there was a storm and the tent had collapsed.”
Communication with some families would periodically stop.
“Some of them escaped the camp,” special envoy Jussi Tanner says, “so they were actually taking part in the school while on the run in northwestern Syria in an active conflict zone.”
Others were suddenly repatriated and left the group for good.
After months of lessons, the mother of one six-year-old revealed her daughter could now read.
“Not all six-year-olds in Finland can do that,” Taimela says, smiling. “It was a eureka moment.”
Daesh fighters declared a “caliphate” in large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014, three years into Syria’s civil war.
Taimela says she feels “sadness rather than anger” toward the mothers who led their children into the conflict.
Many were vulnerable and believed the promises of militants that they would live in some “kind of paradise.”
But several military offensives whittled away at the brutal Daesh proto-state, until in 2019 Syrian Kurdish forces declared it defeated.
Reluctant Western nations have since brought home handfuls of their Daesh-linked nationals, mostly children.
Taimela had accepted that she would never know what happened to the repatriated children she had taught, but one day she was called to a reception center in Finland.
“It was an emotional few hours” meeting some of her pupils face to face for the first time, she said.
They “came very close” and Taimela read to them.
“I just wanted to know, ‘How is everything, what can I help with?’,” she said.
Finland’s foreign ministry has now repatriated 23 children and seven adults.
Tanner told AFP that only around 15 “harder-to-reach” individuals, of whom 10 are children, remain in camps in Syria.
The issue originally proved divisive in Finland, but opposition has “become much more muted.”
Taimela’s teaching drew to a natural close in mid-2021 and the ministry later made the project public.
She is now looking at how to use the innovative teaching model in other crisis zones or camps, and has received requests regarding Greece, Myanmar and Colombia.
“The Al-Hol teacher, that’s my label now,” Taimela smiles.
“But I’m proud of what we did.”


France targets groups, websites with expanded powers under anti-terror law

France targets groups, websites with expanded powers under anti-terror law
Updated 7 sec ago

France targets groups, websites with expanded powers under anti-terror law

France targets groups, websites with expanded powers under anti-terror law
PARIS: The French government said this week it was closing down an activist-run media outlet and a Muslim website deemed at odds with “national values“
This is the latest in a series of steps that rights groups and lawyers say infringe on democratic freedoms.
Following a violent protest against the extreme right in Nantes, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said he would shut down “Nantes Révoltée,” a local media platform, which had relayed information about the protest.
Days earlier, he had announced plans to close the website “La Voie Droite,” which publishes Islamic religious content.
The government has been making increasing use of powers to shut down organizations or groups. In the last two years, there have been 12 such shutdowns, an uptick from seven between 2016 and 2019, according to French public records.
Before dissolving an association, the Ministry of Interior informs the concerned party, which has 15 days to reply with its counter-arguments. Then, once the decree is published, the organization can take the case to the Council of State, an administrative court.
To date, Nante Révoltée says it has not received any communication from the Ministry of Interior regarding its closure.
Of the organizations shut by decree since January 2020, seven are Muslim-related, including associations to run mosques, a humanitarian organization and anti-Islamophobia groups, the records show. Three far-right groups have been closed.
Announcing the plan to close “Nantes Révoltée” to MPs in the French parliament on Tuesday, Darmanin described it as an “ultra-left” group that had repeatedly called for violence against the state and the police in the run-up to the weekend protest, at which three people were arrested, shop windows were broken and fights broke out.
Raphael Kempf, a lawyer for Nantes Révoltée, said that a website sharing information on an event could not be held responsible for what happens there.
“We are seeing a government that is using this legal tool to attack voices that criticize them,” says Kempf, adding that the government now has enhanced powers under 2021 legislation that makes inciting violence grounds for dissolution. Previously the groups had to themselves be armed or violent.
CRITICAL VOICES
The 2021 legislation was introduced in response to violent attacks that France has seen in recent years, including the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in 2020 and the 2015 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people.
But some lawyers and campaign groups say the authorities are overreaching to muzzle critical voices and target anyone practicing a form of Islam not approved by the state.
During a TV interview on Sunday, Darmanin announced the Islamic website “La Voie Droite” would be closed using the 2021 legislation for “content inciting for hatred and calling for jihad.”
La Voie Droite denied publishing such content, saying in a statement that “when we encourage Muslims to respect the texts, it is opposed to any type of threat or legitimation of violence.”
The French Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
In another step that has alarmed some rights groups, the French government has ramped up censorship of content on the Internet deemed to be terrorist-related or justifying violence under a 2014 law. Officials say that is necessary to stem violent attacks.
Noémie Levain, a lawyer with digital rights organization La Quadrature du Net, said these powers were open to abuse.
“The decision-making process is opaque,” she said. “[The police] can designate something Muslim as problematic even if it is not violent, they can do the same with something activist that is calling to protest.”

Pakistani family reunion shattered after dad killed in Houthi attack on UAE

Pakistani family reunion shattered after dad killed in Houthi attack on UAE
Updated 38 min 59 sec ago

Pakistani family reunion shattered after dad killed in Houthi attack on UAE

Pakistani family reunion shattered after dad killed in Houthi attack on UAE
  • Mamoor Khan died in Iran-backed Houthi drone, missile strike on Abu Dhabi
  • Family was awaiting his homecoming for January vacation

Mamoor Khan’s family members had been eagerly awaiting his homecoming to the northern Pakistan town of Mir Ali. But days before the planned reunion, his body arrived from the UAE, leaving relatives numbed by shock and grief.

Khan and two Indian nationals were killed when drone and missile strikes launched by the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen hit fuel trucks near storage facilities of state oil giant ADNOC in Abu Dhabi on Jan. 17. Khan had been working as a driver for an ADNOC contractor.

“We were preparing for his homecoming,” Khan’s younger brother, Manzoor Ahmad, told Arab News. “But we received his dead body instead.”

Khan, 49, is survived by his parents, wife, and eight children, who were looking forward to his return for a vacation at the end of this month.

His second brother, Javed Khan, also a driver in the UAE, was the first to learn about his death. An ADNOC employee had called him to say he had suffered injuries in the attack and was in hospital in Abu Dhabi.

“I still didn’t know what had happened, but the site where my brother was working was on fire,” he said. “I asked the caller to tell me clearly if my brother had died. The caller replied in a choked voice, ‘yes,’ and that his dead body was in the hospital.”

Khan was the main support of his family in North Waziristan, an impoverished tribal district on the Pakistan-Afghan border, where years of militancy and security operations have thwarted social and economic development.

A week after Khan’s funeral, his father, who sent him to the UAE more than two decades ago to find a better life, told Arab News he was still struggling to talk about the loss of his son.

“I felt like I was stepping over raging fire when I received the news about my son’s death,” he said.

Khan’s mother has been on tranquilizers since receiving the tragic news.

“At home, we have suffered a lot due to militancy, and when Mamoor left for the UAE, we were sure that he would enjoy a safe life there,” his neighbor and friend Munawar Shah Dawar said. “His death has left us devastated, as he fell prey to a terrorist attack there too.”

Yasir Ahmad, Khan’s eldest son, said he and his father had many plans for the family’s future and would often discuss them over the phone. One of those plans, to set up a small business, was to have been put into action during Khan’s home visit this month. The idea was that the business would have later allowed him to return to Mir Ali for good.

One of Khan’s priorities had been to ensure his younger children received an education, something he had asked Ahmad to oversee.

“My father wanted my younger brother to become a doctor, so that he could come back and spend the rest of his life with us.

“We’ve nothing left now, and even the education of my brothers will suffer because I’m a daily wage laborer, earning 600 rupees ($3.40) a day, which isn’t enough.”

Khan’s body was repatriated to Pakistan and buried on Jan. 20.

Mustafa Haider, director general of the welfare division at the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation, told Arab News that death benefits would be paid to the family and the foundation was also considering financial support from its own funds.


Indonesia capital move to remote Borneo sparks rights concerns

Indonesia capital move to remote Borneo sparks rights concerns
Updated 26 January 2022

Indonesia capital move to remote Borneo sparks rights concerns

Indonesia capital move to remote Borneo sparks rights concerns
  • New city named Nusantara, which means ‘archipelago’ in old Javanese
  • Relocation to ease burden on traffic-clogged, polluted and sinking Jakarta

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government recently signed a law to move ahead with its plan to relocate the capital from Jakarta to a jungle site in East Kalimantan on Borneo island, but the massive $32 million project is raising concerns among the region’s indigenous communities.

The potential change in capital city has been under discussion for decades, since Jakarta, a megacity of 10 million people, faces chronic traffic congestion, regular flooding and heavy pollution. It is also one of the world’s fastest sinking cities, with its northern suburbs falling at an estimated 25 centimeters per year. It is estimated that one-third of Jakarta could be submerged by 2050.

However, rights groups have warned that the new state capital law aimed at easing the burden on Jakarta was rushed without consultation.

Pradarma Rupang of environmental group Mining Advocacy Network, or JATAM, said the government has long ignored a number of critical issues in the new capital region in Borneo, including access to clean water. He added that local residents have until now largely depended on rainwater.

“This capital policy was taken without a scientific study,” he said. “The process has been reckless, lacking in participation, and was not based on dialogue with the people.

“The indigenous population is not at all visible in the new state capital law. While on the ground, the existence of the indigenous population is very clear,” Erasmus Cahyadi, deputy secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, told Arab News.  

According to the alliance’s data, at least 20,000 people from 21 indigenous groups live in the area that has been designated for the new city.

The law permitting the start of construction was passed by the Indonesian parliament last week. It covers how the new city’s development will be funded and governed. Planning Minister Suharso Monoarfa announced at the time that new capital will be called Nusantara, which translates to “archipelago” in old Javanese.  

“The new capital has a central function and is a symbol of the identity of the nation, as well as a new center of economic gravity,” the minister said during a parliamentary session.

In constructing a purpose-built capital, Indonesia will be following a path that two other Southeast Asian nations — Malaysia and Myanmar — have taken over the past two decades.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo formally launched the relocation project in 2019, in what has been widely viewed as an attempt to seal his legacy before the end of his second and final term in office until 2024. The new state capital law was approved last week, paving the way for construction to begin.

The megaproject also aims to redistribute wealth across Indonesia. Java, the island on which Jakarta is located, is home to about 60 percent of the country’s population and more than half of economic activity. While the current capital is set to remain Indonesia’s commercial and financial hub, its administration will move to the new city, about 2,000 kilometers northeast of Jakarta. The relocation process is scheduled for completion by 2045.

The government has said that initial planning had been carried out by clearing 56,180 hectares of land to build roads, the presidential palace, government offices and Parliament.

The region surrounding the Nusantara site is known for its deep jungles and various endangered animal species, including orangutans. Concerns over the future of wildlife on Borneo have grown since the plan to move the capital city was made public. Indigenous communities living nearby have also raised concerns over the impacts of construction.

Riri Al-Kahfi, a 29-year-old who lives in East Kalimantan’s seaport city of Balikpapan, where the new city will be located, told Arab News there are growing fears over the survival of local cultures.

“Our hope is that the massive development for the new capital won’t wipe away the culture and diversity in Kalimantan, especially in the regions close to the new capital city,” she said, but added that the city’s construction could help equitable economic development in Indonesia.

“We hope that the positive impact will be felt by the local communities, maybe through empowering local youth and giving them opportunities in the new capital city.”


Family of murdered Yasmin Chkaifi praise ‘hero’ driver who tried to stop attacker

Yasmin Chkaifi, 43, was found stabbed to death in Maida Vale, London. (Metropolitan Police)
Yasmin Chkaifi, 43, was found stabbed to death in Maida Vale, London. (Metropolitan Police)
Updated 26 January 2022

Family of murdered Yasmin Chkaifi praise ‘hero’ driver who tried to stop attacker

Yasmin Chkaifi, 43, was found stabbed to death in Maida Vale, London. (Metropolitan Police)
  • The mother-of-two was stabbed to death by her ex-partner, who was also killed when a passing car struck him

LONDON: The family of a murdered mother-of-two have hailed the driver who allegedly killed her attacker with his car a “hero” and say he should not face a murder charge for his actions.

Yasmin Chkaifi, 43, was stabbed to death in Maida Vale, west London, on Monday by her former husband, Leon McCaskre, 41.

A 26-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of murder after he allegedly mowed down McCaskre with his car in an attempt to prevent him from harming Chkaifi further.

Her family, who visited the scene on Tuesday to pay their respects, praised the actions of the passer-by and said that his bravery deserves recognition.

“The driver of the car was a hero. We didn’t know him at all but he is an absolute hero,” they told reporters. “He saw what was happening and he tried to stop them.

“We want to say to him, ‘Thank you so much. Thank you for risking your life and thank you for not just standing there filming what was happening. Thank you for trying to do something.’

“He should not have been arrested; he is our hero. Our family are very proud of him, we hope that the Queen can give him a medal or something, and there is no way he should be charged and go through the justice system for what he did.”

Police confirmed that both of the deceased were from Maida Vale and had previously been in a relationship. Relatives of Chkaifi said that McCaskre was abusive during the three years the couple were together.

After they broke up three years ago, Chkaifi secured a restraining order against McCaskre and, according to one of her sons, installed a panic alarm.

McCaskre missed a scheduled court appearance on Jan. 4, where he had been due to face a charge of breaching a stalking order forbidding him from contacting Chkaifi, and an arrest warrant was issued in his name.

“Leon was a monster, a demon. His behavior towards her over the years was harrowing,” a member of Chkaifi’s family said.

Another relative alleged that McCaskre had been violent to Chkaifi but the police “had not done anything about it.”

He added: “The police have let another one slip through the net — how many more women have to die?”

Detective Chief Inspector Neil Rawlinson, of the Metropolitan Police’s Specialist Crime Command, said on Tuesday that members of the public had “bravely tried to intervene to stop the attack and their actions were very courageous.”

He added: “A man, who was the driver of a car, has been arrested and bailed for a very serious offense and we must carry out a full investigation, looking at all the circumstances.”


Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar

Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar
Updated 26 January 2022

Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar

Russia offering jabs to children aged 12-17 as cases soar
  • Earlier this week, free shots of Sputnik M became available to that age group in a number of areas
  • Those under the age of 15 need parental consent for the shot, while those aged 15-17 can make the decision themselves

MOSCOW: Russia on Wednesday expanded a domestically developed coronavirus vaccine for children aged 12-17 to include more regions, amid the country’s biggest infection surge yet due to the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant.
Earlier this week, free shots of Sputnik M — a version of the Sputnik V vaccine that contains a smaller dose — became available to that age group in a number of areas spanning from the Moscow region surrounding the capital to the Urals to Siberia and the far east.
On Wednesday, the jab became available to teenagers in Volgograd, Astrakhan and Kursk. In Moscow, the vaccination campaign will start in the coming days, Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova told reporters on Wednesday.
Those under the age of 15 need parental consent for the shot, while those aged 15-17 can make the decision themselves, authorities said.
Russia in recent weeks has faced an unprecedented surge of coronavirus infections, with the number of daily confirmed cases increasing five-fold between Jan. 10, when about 15,000 new infections were reported, and Wednesday, when officials tallied 74,692 — another all-time high in the pandemic.
Moscow, the outlying region and St. Petersburg are hit the hardest by the surge and account for about half of all daily new infections.
Officials in Moscow and St. Petersburg on Wednesday sounded the alarm about a sharp spike of COVID-19 infections in children.
Moscow city health department said the number of children infected with the virus increased 14 times in the past two weeks, from 2,000 a week to 28,000. The number of hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 grew ten-fold, the department said in a statement, and in half of those cases children contracted the virus while undergoing elective hospital care for other conditions.
In light of those findings, city officials decided to halt elective hospital care for children for three weeks.
In St. Petersburg, the infection rate among those under 17 has grown eight-fold over the past week, local officials said. Starting Friday, minors in Russia’s second largest city will be barred from attending any extra-curricular classes or activities.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday said there were no plans to introduce remote learning nationwide.
Russian authorities have generally avoided imposing any major restrictions to stem the surge, saying the health system has been coping with the influx of patients.
Furthermore, earlier this month parliament indefinitely postponed introducing restrictions for the unvaccinated that would have proven unpopular among vaccine-hesitant Russians. And this week health officials cut the required isolation period for those who came in contact with COVID-19 patients from 14 days to seven without offering any explanation for the move.
In all, Russia’s state coronavirus task force has reported more than 11.3 million confirmed cases and 328,105 deaths, by far the largest death toll in Europe. Russia’s state statistics agency, which uses broader counting criteria, puts the death toll much higher, saying the overall number of virus-linked deaths between April 2020 and October 2021 was over 625,000.
Just about half of Russia’s 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though Russia boasted about being the first country in the world to approve and roll out a domestically developed coronavirus vaccine.