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What I Learned – Australian Fights to Save Her Grandchildren From Syrian Refugee Camp

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Karen Nettleton has spent the past five years in search of her grandchildren, who were taken by their parents in 2014 from Sydney, Australia, to join the Islamic State in Syria. Finally, in late March, she made it to the sprawling al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria’s Kurdish northeast.

There, she found a teenager she believed to be her granddaughter. As she lifted a niqab to reveal the face of the girl she was holding in her arms, Ms. Nettleton wailed.

She clung to her granddaughter, Hoda Sharrouf, 16, who sobbed and told her she was certain she was dreaming. Ms. Nettleton promised her she was not. “You’re not going to wake up,” she said in footage broadcast on Monday by the Australian show “Four Corners,” whose crew had accompanied Ms. Nettleton to the camp.

More than 200 Australian citizens have left the country to join the Islamic State, 70 of them minors, according to a 2018 report from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. While many were killed during the war, dozens are thought to remain in Syria’s refugee camps.

Pressure is growing on the Australian government to act, and members of the public are campaigning for the Sharrouf children in particular.

In the lead-up to Australian elections on May 18, the question of what to do about the Sharrouf children has become something of a political football, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison softening to the idea of bringing them home but refusing to send Australians into Syria to do it.

“People need to know that my children are just normal kids,” Ms. Nettleton said on Saturday by phone from a safehouse in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

Since 2016, she has made three trips to the Middle East, each time with the goal of bringing her three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, ages 2 to 17, home. Her grandchildren, Zaynab, Hoda and Humzeh Sharrouf, are the orphans of Tara Sharrouf, Ms. Nettleton’s daughter, who died in a Syrian hospital in 2015, and Khaled Sharrouf, an Islamic State fighter who was stripped of his Australian citizenship and is believed to have been killed.

On her most recent trip, Ms. Nettleton was finally reunited with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in al-Hawl, but she has since become ensnared in a bureaucratic tangle between the Kurdish authorities and Australian government officials, who, despite saying they intend to help, have not come up with a plan or a timeline for doing so.

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