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11. Dezember 2014

Conference Reflections: Working with Mothers for Strategies and Solutions

“I am here, because I won’t keep quiet: If we mothers keep quiet we are siding with the people who spoiled our children.” Elfriede, whose 19 year old son left Germany in 2012 - she does not know if he is alive or dead.

Women without Borders brought an international group of mothers from across Europe and Canada together, who bravely spoke out about their sons and daughters becoming radicalized and departing for Syria. For the first time security experts, government representatives and social workers were given the opportunity to strategize with mothers who unwittingly have observed their children on their journeys of radicalization. The idea of working with mothers as allies in the home is a completely new angle in counter-radicalization policies.

These mothers, who have exclusive access to pivotal moments in their children’s transitions, provided rare and alarming insights into the rapid and diverse mechanisms of radicalization. They shared their moving and powerful stories of how they recognized the early warning signals and how, feeling ill equipped and isolated, they did their best to react. As Farah, a Belgian mother of an underage “Jihadi bride” describes, “Radicalization is like pressing the reset button on the minds of our children.”

Mothers are frequently the only ones in touch with a son or daughter who has departed and as such are the only remaining thread to their former lives. These mothers who have experienced each stage of radicalization ought to be seen as a vital resource and now as new experts in the security arena, they want to spread this information among other families, educational and social professionals and communities. Awareness is particularly crucial, Saleha Jaffer, Head of FAST (Families Against Trauma and Stress), the only organization supporting UK families of Syrian travelers, stressed, “We can reach out to adolescents during their thinking period but after they make a decision to act then it is very hard to change it.”

During the Vienna Meeting, these mothers highlighted the need for support and targeted-training for both families and communities as part of a broader strategy to reframe families not as perpetrators or bystanders but as active partners in a new security architecture: one that includes mothers as key allies in prevention and rehabilitation strategies before, during and after travel to Syria.

These women advocate then for an inclusive security approach which addresses the missing social, economic and emotional support systems. “This is a much broader social issue than one particular to religion. These recruiters are targeting our children at their most vulnerable point. They are looking for answers to questions about who they are, what is their purpose, and where they belong. And then they are promised paradise.” emphasized Elizabeth, a French mother whose son died in Aleppo last year.

For returnees, mothers are a key resource for rehabilitation as they are an emotional life line for their children. A mother’s capacity for love, empathy and dialogue is immensely valuable for the process of therapy and recovery. Indeed Vicky Ibrahim, whose son was convicted for terrorist charges in England, makes a 15 hour round trip every second week to spend one hour with him. Her patience and efforts are rewarded as her son completes his studies and looks to the future: ‘We still support him, we hate the crime for which he is paying the price – and rightly so, but at the same time, the young must have a chance to return to normal society.” Her son now calls home every day, showing that the relationship between the mother and son can be a spectacular force for reintegration.

Creating this first international platform of mothers the event culminated in an evening panel presentation: standing room only. The mothers from Belgium, Canada, France, Germany and Sweden bravely shared their testimonies to raise awareness about their devastating experiences, enabling others to break the silence and act on “push and pull” factors earlier, in a confident and competent way. Together they presented The Vienna Mothers Move Declaration, a pioneering list of six appeals highlighting their own potential in a new security paradigm, one that includes and invests in civil society.

Edit Schlaffer, Founder and Director of Women without Borders summed up: “This is a wake-up call for security policy makers. Mothers are an unrecognized source of knowledge about the mystery of radicalization. Security strategists need to listen to and liaise with them as we move forward in addressing this problem that affects us all.”


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