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

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.”


Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

Updated 27 May 2022

Monkeypox can be contained if we act now, WHO says

  • "We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily," said Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness
  • So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries

GENEVA: Countries should take quick steps to contain the spread of monkeypox and share data about their vaccine stockpiles, a senior World Health Organization official said on Friday.
“We think that if we put in place the right measures now we probably can contain this easily,” Sylvie Briand, WHO director for Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness, told the UN agency’s annual assembly.
Monkeypox is a usually mild viral infection that is endemic in parts of west and central Africa.
It spreads chiefly through close contact and until the recent outbreak, was rarely seen in other parts of the world, which is why the recent emergence of cases in Europe, the United States and other areas has raised alarms.
So far, there are about 300 confirmed or suspected cases in around 20 countries where the virus was not previously circulating.
“For us, we think that the key priority currently is trying to contain this transmission in non-endemic countries,” Briand told a technical briefing for member states.
Needed measures included the early detection and isolation of cases and contact tracing, she added.
Member states should also share information about first generation stockpiles of smallpox vaccines which can also be effective against monkeypox, Briand said.
“We don’t know exactly the number of doses available in the world and so that’s why we encourage countries to come to WHO and tell us what are their stockpiles,” she said. A slide of her presentation described global supplies as “very constrained.”
Currently, WHO officials are advising against mass vaccination, instead suggesting targeted vaccination where available for close contacts of people infected.
“Case investigation, contact tracing, isolation at home will be your best bets,” said Rosamund Lewis, WHO head of the smallpox secretariat which is part of the WHO Emergencies Programme.


Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school

Police in Canada’s largest city Toronto on Thursday fatally shot a man armed with a rifle. (Reuters)
Updated 27 May 2022

Canada police shoot man in Toronto seen with rifle near school

  • Bystanders alerted police to the man’s presence in an eastern neighborhood of Toronto

MONTREAL: Police in Canada’s largest city Toronto on Thursday fatally shot a man armed with a rifle, local media reported, in an incident that forced several schools into lockdown just two days after a deadly assault on a US primary school.
Bystanders alerted police to the man’s presence in an eastern neighborhood of Toronto, and the circumstances of what transpired next were not immediately clear.
But city police chief James Ramer told reporters that the suspect, described as a man in his late teens or early 20s, was dead after he had “confronted” responding officers, without elaborating.
The police force’s Twitter account said that after officers located the man, a “police firearm” was “discharged.”
A spokeswoman for the Special Investigations Unit told the CBC that preliminary evidence showed that two police officers had fired their weapons, and the suspect was pronounced dead at the scene.
It was not clear if the man was holding the weapon when police shot him.
Ramer said he was unable to offer more details, as the incident was under investigation.
“There’s no threat to public safety,” he said.
“Due to the proximity to a school, I certainly understand the trauma and how traumatic this must have been for staff, students and parents, given recent events that have happened in the United States,” the chief added.
On Tuesday, a shooting at a Texas elementary school left 21 dead — 19 children and two teachers.


UN rights envoy says Taliban must reverse restrictions on Afghan women

Updated 26 May 2022

UN rights envoy says Taliban must reverse restrictions on Afghan women

  • Bennett expressed concerns over access to education after the Taliban made a U-turn on allowing girls to go to high school in March
  • Taliban deputy spokesman Inamullah Samangani denied human rights concerns

KABUL: The United Nations rights envoy in Afghanistan said on Thursday the country faces “severe” human rights challenges and called on Taliban authorities to reverse growing restrictions on women and investigate attacks against religious minorities.
Richard Bennett, UN special rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan spoke to reporters at the end of an 11-day visit to the country, his first since his position was created.
“I urge the authorities to acknowledge human rights challenges that they are facing and to close the gap between their words and the deeds,” he said.
Bennett expressed concerns over access to education after the Taliban made a U-turn on allowing girls to go to high school in March and this month announced that women must cover their faces, to be enforced by punishing their closest male relatives.
“Directives on maharams (male guardians), enforcing a strict form of hijab and strong advice to stay at home feed the pattern of absolute gender segregation and making women invisible in society,” he said.
Taliban deputy spokesman Inamullah Samangani denied human rights concerns, saying authorities had paid attention to the issues mentioned and were working on the issue of girls’ secondary education.
Bennett also called for investigation of attacks targeting Afghanistan’s Shia and Sufi religious minorities, a trend he said bore “hallmarks of crimes against humanity.” Recent months have seen more attacks on mosques and other civilian targets, some of which have been claimed by Daesh.
The militant group said it was behind three explosions in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday that killed at least 15 in predominantly Shia areas.
Another, unclaimed, blast the same day tore through a Sunni mosque in the capital Kabul, killing at least five people.


Four bombings, some claimed by Daesh, kill at least 16 in Afghanistan

Updated 26 May 2022

Four bombings, some claimed by Daesh, kill at least 16 in Afghanistan

  • Regional branch of Daesh has repeatedly targeted Shiites and other minorities
  • Daesh wants an Islamic caliphate stretching from Turkey to Pakistan and beyond

KABUL: The death toll from four bombs that ripped through minibuses and a mosque in Afghanistan has risen to at least 16, officials said Thursday, with some of the attacks claimed by the Daesh group.

While the number of bombings has dropped across the country since the Taliban seized power last August, several deadly attacks rocked the country last month during Ramadan.

On Wednesday, at least 10 people were killed when three bombs placed on separate minibuses exploded in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, a health official and police said.

"The bombs were placed on three minibuses in different districts of the city," Balkh provincial police spokesman Asif Waziri told AFP, adding that 15 other people were wounded.

Najibullah Tawana, head of the Balkh health department, said three women were among the 10 killed in the blasts.

Hours after the explosions, the Daesh group claimed responsibility for the minibus attacks on social media.

It said on Telegram its "soldiers" were behind the three bombings.

Another bomb exploded inside a mosque in the capital Kabul late Wednesday.

Early on Thursday, Kabul police spokesman Khalid Zadran tweeted that six people had been killed in that blast and another 18 wounded.

In the immediate aftermath of the mosque attack, the interior ministry had said two people were killed and 10 wounded.

The ministry also said the bomb was placed inside a fan in the mosque.

It was still unclear whether Wednesday's bombings targeted any specific community.

Dozens of civilians were killed in Kabul and other cities in primarily sectarian attacks during the holy month of Ramadan, which ended on April 30 in Afghanistan, with some claimed by IS.

On April 29, at least 10 people were killed in a Sunni mosque in Kabul in an attack that appeared to have targeted members of the minority Sufi community who were performing rituals.

On April 21, a bomb at a Shiite mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif killed at least 12 worshippers and wounded scores more.

The deadliest attack during Ramadan came in the northern city of Kunduz, where another bomb targeting Sufi worshippers tore through a mosque on April 22.

At least 33 people were killed in that blast and scores more were wounded.

The regional branch of Daesh in Sunni-majority Afghanistan has repeatedly targeted Shiites and minorities such as Sufis, who follow a mystical branch of Islam.

Daesh and the Taliban are both Sunni groups but bitter rivals.

The biggest ideological difference is that the Taliban pursued an Afghanistan free of foreign forces, whereas Daesh wants an Islamic caliphate stretching from Turkey to Pakistan and beyond.

Taliban officials insist their forces have defeated Daesh, but analysts say the group remains a key security challenge.


Putin won’t be allowed to dictate Ukraine peace terms: German chancellor

Vladimir Putin will not be allowed to dictate peace in Ukraine, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz said. (AP)
Updated 27 May 2022

Putin won’t be allowed to dictate Ukraine peace terms: German chancellor

  • Vladimir Putin will not be allowed to dictate peace in Ukraine, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz said

DAVOS, Switzerland: Russia will not win its war in Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin must not dictate the terms of any peace agreement, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Thursday.
After failing to seize Ukraine’s capital Kyiv or its second city Kharkiv in its three-month-old war, Russian forces are trying to wrest full control of the eastern Donbas region and have also advanced in the south despite stiff Ukrainian resistance and tough Western sanctions on Moscow.
“Putin must not win his war, and I am convinced he will not win,” Scholz said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos. “A capture of the whole of Ukraine seems further away now than at the beginning of the war.”
Although some have suggested that Ukraine should negotiate with Putin and consider ceding territory, Scholz rejected the idea of letting Putin dictate the terms of an agreement.
“There will be no dictated peace,” Scholz added. “Ukraine will not accept this, and neither will we.”
Putin is only likely to seriously negotiate once he accepts that the war cannot be won, making continued Western support for Ukraine essential, he said.
Scholz, however, did not address Ukrainian demands for the delivery of more heavy weapons to Kyiv, despite concrete requests by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Davos on Wednesday.
Kyiv has been seeking to acquire German Marder infantry fighting vehicles and ideally also Leopard main battle tanks but has not made significant headway with the government in Berlin, Kuleba said.
Hoping to weaken Russia’s economy and thus its ability to wage war, Scholz said Germany would end imports of Russian oil by the end of 2022 and also reduce its reliance on Russian gas.