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.”


Three decades later, convict in former Indian PM Gandhi assassination freed

Updated 4 sec ago

Three decades later, convict in former Indian PM Gandhi assassination freed

NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the release of A.G. Perarivalan, who was convicted of involvement in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Gandhi was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber while campaigning in an election in the southern Indian town of Sriperumbudur in May 1991. His killing was seen as an act of retaliation after he sent Indian peacekeepers to Sri Lanka in 1987.
Perarivalan was convicted in 1991 of purchasing the batteries used to detonate the bomb that killed Gandhi.
In May 2021, the Tamil Nadu state government allowed Perarivalan to leave on parole, using a provision in the Tamil Nadu Prison manual.
The Supreme Court took a lenient view of Perarivalan, saying he was 19 years old at the time of arrest and had been jailed for over 30 years, including 16 years on death row and 29 years in solitary confinement.
Speaking to the Indian Express newspaper on Wednesday, Perarivalan recalled years spent in a cramped 6 feet (1.8 m) by 9 feet (2.7 m) cell during his time in solitary confinement.
“A room in which I had nothing but empty walls to look at,” he said, describing obsessively counting bricks on the wall, measuring the door and bolts and imagining smells he craved.
Six others people, including a woman, are still in jail and are awaiting a verdict in the case.
The court said Perarivalan was released after considering his “satisfactory conduct in jail and during parole” and “chronic ailments.”
Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, is head of India’s main opposition Congress party while their son, Rahul, has been leading its campaign for elections. A Congress party spokesman said on Wednesday the party was deeply saddened by the court’s decision.
Many in the state of Tamil Nadu celebrated the verdict as a victory for human rights.
“My best wishes and warm welcome to Perarivalan who is set to fully breathe the air of liberation after more than 30 years of imprisonment,” Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin tweeted.

Mozambique declares polio outbreak linked to Pakistan

Updated 18 May 2022

Mozambique declares polio outbreak linked to Pakistan

  • The case in Mozambique is the second imported case of polio in southern Africa this year
  • Sequencing indicates the case is linked to a strain of polio spreading in Pakistan in 2019 

JOHANNESBURG: Health authorities in Mozambique declared a polio outbreak Wednesday after confirming that a child in the country’s northeastern Tete province had been paralyzed by the disease.

The case in Mozambique is the second imported case of polio in southern Africa this year, following a case discovered in Malawi in mid-February. It’s the first case of wild polio in Mozambique since 1992, although cases linked to a mutated virus from the oral vaccine were detected in 2019.

The latest case in Mozambique was found in a child who experienced signs of paralysis in late March, according to a statement issued by the World Health Organization.

Sequencing indicates that the case in Mozambique is linked to a strain of polio spreading in Pakistan in 2019, similar to the case reported in Malawi earlier this year.

WHO declared Africa free of the wild polio virus in August 2020 even though numerous countries across the continent have reported outbreaks linked to the vaccine in recent years. There is no difference between the disease caused by the wild virus or the mutated virus from the vaccine.

“The detection of another case of wild poliovirus in Africa is greatly concerning, even if it’s unsurprising given the recent outbreak in Malawi. However, it shows how dangerous this virus is and how quickly it can spread,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s Africa director.

In response to the case in neighboring Malawi, Mozambique recently carried out two mass vaccination campaigns in which 4.2 million children were vaccinated against the disease, said WHO.

Disease surveillance is being strengthened in five countries: Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Vaccination campaigns in the coming weeks are planned to reach 23 million children aged five years and below.

Polio is highly infectious, spread mostly via water and largely affects children younger than five years. There is no cure for polio, and it can only be prevented by immunization. WHO and its partners began an effort to eradicate polio globally in 1988 and have missed numerous deadlines to wipe out the disease. 


Swiss woman indicted over ‘extremist knife attack’

Updated 18 May 2022

Swiss woman indicted over ‘extremist knife attack’

  • The 29-year-old unnamed woman allegedly attacked two women in a department store in the southern city of Lugano
  • She has been charged with attempted murder and violating laws against association with Al-Qaeda, Daesh and related groups

GENEVA: Swiss prosecutors said Wednesday they had indicted a woman for attempted murder on behalf of Daesh group over a brutal knife attack in November 2020.
The 29-year-old unnamed woman allegedly attacked two women in a department store in the southern city of Lugano.
She has been charged with attempted murder and violating laws against association with Al-Qaeda, Daesh and related groups, according to the indictment. She was also charged with unlawful prostitution.
The attorney general’s office said the indictment related to an ‘extremist knife attack’ and the alleged assailant, a Swiss citizen, “intended to kill her victims and to commit a terrorist act on behalf of Daesh.”
“The suspect acted willfully and with particular ruthlessness. She brutally attacked her randomly-selected victims with a knife, with the aim of killing them and thereby spreading terror throughout the population on behalf of the ‘Daesh’,” it said.
One of the two victims sustained serious neck injuries while the second victim, with help from others at the scene, managed to overpower her attacker and hold her until police arrived.
The attacker was arrested and detained.
Police quickly discovered she had been linked to a 2017 jihadism investigation.
The woman had formed a relationship on social media with an extremist fighter in Syria and attempted to travel to the war-torn country to meet him, police alleged at the time.
She was stopped by Turkish authorities at the Syrian border and sent back to Switzerland, they said, adding that the woman had suffered from mental health problems and been admitted to a psychiatric clinic.


Hindu groups file fresh petitions to stop Muslims from entering historic Indian mosque

Updated 18 May 2022

Hindu groups file fresh petitions to stop Muslims from entering historic Indian mosque

  • Hindus say court should decide on plea to approve looking for Hindu relics in 17th century mosque
  • Muslims vow to fight legal battles against Hindu groups disrupting sanctity of mosques and tombs

LUCKNOW: Members of hard-line Hindu groups filed petitions in a court in northern India to stop Muslims from entering a historic mosque, until the court decides on an earlier plea seeking approval to look for any Hindu relics which may be on the site, lawyers said on Wednesday.

Judges of a local court in Mathura, a Hindu religious town in Uttar Pradesh (UP) state, allowed the new petitions but have yet start hearings in the 2020 case aimed at securing permission to film and survey inside the 17th century Shahi Eidgah mosque.

“We suspect that Hindu symbols could be removed inside Shahi Eidgah mosque so we want the court to suspend entry of Muslims,” said Mahendra Pratap, a lawyer involved in the case.

This month, another local court in the state allowed a team to inspect and film inside one of the most prominent mosques in Varanasi, an ancient town, also the political constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On Tuesday, the country’s top court overturned a ruling imposed by a Varanasi court to limit large Muslim prayer gatherings in the Gyanvapsi mosque, but allowed the local court to continue proceedings. read more

Members of hard-line Hindu groups tied to Modi’s party believe that Islamic invaders destroyed Hindu temples during their 200-year rule.

“We believe that idols of Hindu gods were lying inside the mosque built after a temple was destroyed by Muslim rulers to prove supremacy,” said Ranjana Agnihotri, a lawyer appearing on behalf of Hindu groups questioning the legitimacy of the Shahi Eidgah mosque in Mathura.

Surveyors involved in the Varanasi case said they found a large relic of the Hindu god Shiva inside the Gyanvapsi mosque, but Muslim groups said that a fountainhead was being misrepresented to stir religious tension.

Reports of idols found inside the mosque have further emboldened Hindu groups in western and southern states to demand searches in other mosques.

Police in Aurangabad city said they had intensified security around the grave of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb after members of MNS, a regional political party, threatened to destroy the tomb, which they believe was anti-Hindu.

The same party recently succeeded in forcing the Maharashtra government to ensure the decibel levels of the Muslim prayer calls were lowered after its leaders threatened to chant Hindu prayers outside mosques. read more

Leaders of Muslim political and religious groups said they will fight legal battles against Hindu groups disrupting the sanctity of mosques and tombs.

“We (Muslims) will not let Hindus insult our faith and our mosques,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, a federal lawmaker and leader of a regional Islamic political party.


Wall collapse at salt factory kills 12 in west India

Updated 18 May 2022

Wall collapse at salt factory kills 12 in west India

  • The workers stocking salt in bags were found buried in the wall debris in the factory
  • The injuries of 13 workers, mostly fractured bones, were not life-threatening

NEW DELHI: A wall collapsed in a salt packaging factory in western India on Wednesday, killing at least 12 workers and injuring another 13, a government administrator said.
The workers stocking salt in bags were found buried in the wall debris in the factory in Morbi district, 215 kilometers (135 miles) west of Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat state, said J.B. Patel, the district officer.
The injuries of 13 workers, mostly fractured bones, were not life-threatening, Patel said.
He also said that the rescue work was almost over. Other details were not immediately available.
Authorities are investigating the cause of the wall collapse.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the deaths as heart-rending. “In this hour of grief, my thoughts are with the bereaved families. May the injured recover soon,” he said.
Building collapses are common in India as many of them are poorly constructed using sub-standard material. A building collapse in 2013 killed at least 72 people in Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital.