A little girl with enormous blue eyes watches, mesmerized, as Fajriya Khaled gives a tiny 3-month-old baby a bottle.
The girl is 1 1/2. She wears a white party dress with sequins and pink roses on the bodice, and a pink sash. On her wrist is a string bracelet — perhaps for luck. In her ears are the gold earrings she was wearing when she was brought to the orphanage as a baby — a sign that, although abandoned, she was not unloved.
She is one of 41 children in this orphanage in northeastern Syria born to ISIS fighters and the Iraqi Yazidi women they enslaved when ISIS ruled over large parts of Iraq and Syria, starting in 2014.
Forced by Iraq’s Yazidi community to give up the children, and told that the children have been given to Kurdish Syrian families to adopt, many of these mothers don’t know the orphanage exists.
Yazidis are an ancient religious minority, considered infidels by ISIS. In a campaign of genocide, ISIS fighters in 2014 murdered more than 1,000 Yazidis and captured 6,000 others, using many of the women and girls as sex slaves.
The Yazidi religion and Iraqi law both consider the children Muslim. Faced with the loss of thousands of women in their small community, Yazidi elders decreed that women and girls captured by ISIS could be religiously purified and welcomed back. The same doesn’t apply to their children with ISIS fathers.
Yazidi estimates for the number of children born with ISIS fathers in Iraq and Syria range from several hundred to more than 1,000.
“The mothers are told [by Yazidi authorities] they have to leave them here, because when they grow up, people will tell them, ‘You are the sons and daughters of ISIS,’ ” Rokan Ahmed, the head of a Kurdish Syrian government committee that runs the orphanage, tells NPR. “If a community says, ‘I don’t want this child and don’t want him to come back,’ the child will have no rights.”
A few mothers come personally to the orphanage to hand over their babies. But others are forced to leave their children in halfway houses just before they cross back into Iraq, and they don’t know what happens to them.
“Some of the women just leave them and go, but some are very attached,” says Aria Osman, a member of the committee overseeing the orphanage.
For some women, the children are an unbearable reminder of being raped and brutalized by ISIS fighters. Others, who leave their children behind unwillingly, are desperate for news of their little ones.
“I am in touch with maybe 10 of the mothers — they are very close to the children,” says Osman. She says those mothers secretly ask her for photos and videos of their children, which she sends them.
She and Khaled, the caregiver, take NPR through a series of converted houses in the orphanage compound, in a village not far from the Iraqi border. The toddler in the pink-sashed party dress tags along after Khaled, holding her hand.
There is a house for infants, including a baby boy just brought back from a hospital, where he was being treated for a blood infection. In the same room, three siblings are fast asleep under a leopard-print blanket in a big, pink-and-purple bed.
A rack of colorful little shoes lines the doorway to an adjacent house for older children. A group of toddlers watching cartoons on TV rushes up to visitors to hug them.
The siblings in the group cling to each other. Aysha, 4, sits on the sofa with her arm wrapped around her younger brother’s neck.
“Even when she’s sleeping, she doesn’t let go of him,” says Khaled.
The children include a 2 1/2-year-old boy whom NPR first met in March in another village, the night before his mother left him behind. The boy’s mother and 5-year-old sister were inconsolable. The little girl’s father was Yazidi, taken away by ISIS and believed to have been killed.
Like many of the formerly enslaved women, this mother was told by the Yazidis caring for her in Syria that her boy would be adopted by a local family, that his name would be changed and his birth identity forgotten. Traumatized and penniless, the woman took her daughter back to her parents in Iraq, who told her she could not come home with the boy.
NPR was told the boy would be given to a childless Kurdish Syrian couple who could afford to take care of him. Instead, he was taken to the orphanage, along with the other children of Yazidi mothers — where Kurdish Syrian officials say they will stay, in the hope that some mothers can reclaim them.
“The reason they tell you these children are adopted by families is they want the women to lose hope of getting them back,” says Ahmed.
In Iraq, some of the Yazidi mothers — forbidden by their families from even talking about children with ISIS fathers — say they don’t know if the children they left behind in Syria are alive or dead.
Ahmed says the children will be cared for at the orphanage, funded by the Kurdish-led government and by donations, until the Yazidi religious leadership decides that they can go back to mothers who want their children back. If that doesn’t happen, Osman says, the children will remain at the orphanage and go to school and, later, to university.
The Kurdish-led Rojava region, which broke from Syrian government control seven years ago, is secular and emphasizes women’s rights. But Ahmed says they have to defer to the wishes of Iraq’s Yazidi leadership.
“We just need the Yazidi spiritual council to solve this problem,” she says.
It’s an extremely controversial subject in Iraq. Although a few religious leaders say they have no objection to the children of ISIS fathers staying with their mothers, most oppose it. Since the Yazidi religion does not accept converts or children from only one Yazidi parent, they say the children can never be Yazidi — and because of their fathers, would never be accepted by the community.
In Iraq, the problem is even wider than in Syria. Hundreds of children — possibly more than 1,000, according to some Yazidi activists — were taken away from their mothers after they were freed from ISIS in Iraq. Most are believed to be scattered in orphanages across the country. Some have been adopted by Christian families.
The children at the orphanage in the Syrian region of Rojava are clean, well-dressed and appear well-fed.
Osman says those who came in the last few months from Baghouz — the last piece of ISIS territory to fall in Syria — were in much worse shape than those who arrived earlier. U.S.-led Syrian forces surrounded ISIS fighters in Baghouz, launching airstrikes and mortar attacks on fighters and their families, who had run out of food. The Yazidis held captive by ISIS were also caught in the attacks, and dozens were killed, according to relatives.
“When they first arrived, they were starving — they were just skin and bones. We gave them milk and good food and now they are better,” Osman says of the children.
In one of the cheerfully decorated kitchens, Khaled reaches into a freezer full of frozen chicken. There are eggs and fresh fruit in the fridge, and a pail of homemade yogurt from a nearby village.
She opens up a closet full of new clothes to be given to the children for the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of the holy month of Ramadan — for the girls, frilly dresses with the tags still attached; for the boys, crisp shirts and pants.
The children are encouraged to call Khaled and the other caregivers “Mama.” But some of the older ones still remember their real mothers.
“Sometimes they say nice things about their mothers; sometimes they are angry at them,” says Nazi Allawi, a psychologist who works with the children. “If they are under the age of 4, they will forget. When they see something new, they will forget the old.”