Just over the border from Turkey in opposition-held Syria, we met Aisha, a bubbly 13-year-old science whiz, studying for her upcoming chemistry exam. It was recess on a sunny spring day, and she and two girlfriends sat on a stack of cinderblocks, quizzing each other and giggling in the shade of the dusty tents that now serve as their classrooms.
Despite the crude state of their school, the moment conveyed just enough normalcy and hope to leaven the otherwise surreal grind of Syria’s unending nightmare. In fact, had it not been for the light humming of encircling regime fighter jets, it would have been possible to pretend — just for a moment — that the idyllic cherry orchards and famous olive groves of the nearby Syrian countryside had not been transformed into the nameless graveyards and notorious killing fields of Syria’s bloody four-year civil war.
In that moment, however, it wasn’t Bashar al-Assad that Aisha and the civilians of this camp feared most. The Islamic State was on the horizon now: the frontline with ISIS lay just 10 minutes down the road.
“We can survive everything, but not ISIS,” Aisha began nervously, her voice switching from the lyrical chatter of her group’s Alpha to the timid murmur of a traumatized child.
Aisha and her family come from al-Bab, one of the first northern towns taken by Syria’s armed opposition back in 2012. For Aisha, the resistance to the disgraced Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is personal: her school was one of more than six elementary schools bombed by the Syrian regime in her hometown.
“It can’t be a mistake when it happens so many times,” reflected Aisha on the shelling of al-Bab’s elementary schools. “We had playgrounds and basketball courts that they [the regime pilots] could see from the sky. They knew they were hitting my school. It was no mistake.”
Aisha’s parents chose to stay in al-Bab for more than a year under fire, opting for the familiarity of home over the uncertainty (“and indignity and filth,” her mother added) of these border camps.
By the fall of 2013, however, one of the most radical new elements of the armed opposition, a group calling itself ISIS, had emerged and cemented itself as the primary leadership in al-Bab. Aisha’s parents finally surrendered their home, fearing abduction of their teenage sons and forced marriage of their young daughters.
“If we went home now [to ISIS-controlled al-Bab], I wouldn’t be able to go to school,” Aisha explained, shaking her hands in frustration. “My sisters and I, even my little sisters, would have to wear black and stay inside. My brothers would have go to the weekly punishments. They would have to dress like them and witness the blood.”
Aisha and her family are among the seven million Syrians who are currently internally displaced — forced from their homes by the fighting but unable to cross past Syria’s borders to the safety beyond. Syria’s neighbors have already absorbed more than 3.5 million refugees and are wary of further influxes.
It is illegal under international law for any country to refuse entry to refugees, yet all of Syria’s neighbors have sporadically closed their borders.
Aisha’s family of nine has now spent nearly two years — two freezing winters without electricity and two boiling summers without clean water — in a single tent, trying to secure legal entry to Turkey. They sit, waiting in limbo: unsure of their status, debating their next steps, and unable to plan for their future.
In that time, the vast majority of the Syrian opposition turned against ISIS — forcing ISIS out of both Idlib and key areas of Aleppo province. These areas are the only communities to both survive and repel total ISIS occupation — where families have lost loved ones to these battles. Many among the Syrian opposition now see ISIS as an enemy as dangerous as Bashar al-Assad.
“The camp is disgusting. It is a humiliating life here for our family, and we miss our home. But Aisha and her sisters can continue their school without fear of ISIS,” Aisha’s mother explained calmly. But she added that some of their neighbors have returned to al-Bab.
Many civilians benefit financially from the strict order that ISIS provides as well as sporadic relief from the regime’s shelling, as even the United States acknowledges that the Syrian regime appears to be prioritizing the more moderate rebels over ISIS positions.
“Aisha loves science. She is good at it, and it gives her pride. We can’t let ISIS or Bashar take that from our children in such a bad time,” Aisha’s mother continued, noting that Aisha and her two friends are at the top of their class and were assigned advanced material in the few books the school owns. “If she can find success, even at this dirty school, she will find much success in life.”
Aisha and her friends are just three of the nearly 6,000 displaced Syrian children in this particular civilian encampment. Their principal says the school has space for only 1,200 students. He shrugged but acknowledged that most of the camp’s school-aged children are not in class.
“Most are the orphans,” he responded blankly, pointing to a nearby latrine where a group of unattended children were fighting over a stick.
Last month, ISIS advanced on the town just up the road from Aisha’s civilian encampment. In just a few hours, ISIS took five towns and nearly cut off a key opposition-supply route to Aleppo from Turkey.
The battles continue today. Currently, the more moderate Syrian opposition groups have held and even reversed strategic fronts in the ISIS advance. They did so, however, with the help of al-Qaeda and other extremist rivals of ISIS on several fronts.
ISIS remains on the offensive, and, as Aisha’s border encampment further swells to absorb the latest round of ISIS refugees, she and her family fear for their lives and their future once again.
“We had hope that God would bring our children a Free Syria in the Revolution, not like the oppression we have only known,” Aisha’s mother said by phone, exhausted and fearful, still trapped in the camp with ISIS forces nearby. “If ISIS comes, it’s the end because they see us as traitors and not Muslim. We need the world now more than ever because our fighters are nothing for ISIS and Bashar!”
“We need the world to stand with us on the side of justice,” Aisha added over the shaky line, her voice exhibiting a sternness beyond her years. “We don’t know if that justice is with the Free Syrian Army or who yet, but we know it is not ISIS and definitely not Bashar!”
“And if the world says it cares about girls’ school, you must know that first Bashar tried to steal my school and then ISIS,” continued the 13-year-old passionately. “And now, ISIS is trying again. We are tired of waiting. The world must make a judgment and act for Syria.”