"We won't go to any infidel school," 11-year-old Mohammed from Tajikistan says. Other boys in the group agree. The group is speaking with VOA reporters in a special area of the Al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria.
But Azerbaijani Qassam has another idea. "If they taught us things like math and reading, then we would go," he says.
Mohammed considers it. "If they taught English and things like that, I would go too," he agrees.
Mohammed only remembers his life under the control of the Islamic State group. He studied some usual school subjects along with weapons and Islamic State ideology. He would like to go to school again, but worries the educators will try to undo his IS training.
During the final months of IS control, he could not go to school. His family and thousands of others moved from town to town with the militant group until they reached the Syrian town of Baghouz. Coalition forces surrounded them there a year ago. They were bombed every day until they surrendered.
"We couldn't go to school in Baghouz because of those dogs," Mohammad says. He directed his words at two young women nearby, soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF guards the camp.
Mohammed says his father died fighting in Afghanistan. But, the boy says he was a baby and does not really remember him. He does remember his mother, who was killed by a bomb in Baghouz.
The camp is in a lonely corner of the Syrian desert. It is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There is not enough food, clean water or medicine. Al-Hol holds about 70,000 displaced women and children. An estimated 7,000 of them are foreigners, linked to IS fighters. Most of the countries from which they came have refused them reentry.
Mohammed knows his future.
"I will be a fighter," he says.
"Do other kids here want to do this, or is this just your idea?" one of the reporters asks.
"Some kids don't want to," he answers. "But 99 percent of us want this."
The school prison
Boys not much older than Mohammed are often taken from this camp and never heard from again, he says.
A veiled woman from Uzbekistan enters the discussion. "Why are they taking our boys to prison?" Asma asks loudly. "What did they do?"
Other women hear her questions and join the crowd.
The women confirm reports that sons of IS fighters are taken from the camp around the age of 14 and placed in special schools designed to reshape their ideologies.
"It is not a school. It is a prison," Asma says. And it is true that the boys are barred from leaving.
But officials say there is no other choice.
Extremist ideas are growing, not decreasing, among many families of IS fighters. Most now live in horrifying conditions at camps all over Syria and Iraq. Many camp parents encourage their children to become IS fighters when they grow up.
School officials hope to provide the boys with different ideas, so they can have a good future, says Amara, a security officer at al-Hol Camp. The schools also aim to separate them from their extremist family members.
Their children’s only hope
But at the market inside the camp, many women say there is only one way their children can have a safe future. They want the many countries they came from to take them back.
An Australian woman at al-Hol says she would happily surrender her two children to Australian officials, even if she were left in the camp. "They were born in Syria, but when they grow up I hope they don't know where Syria is," she says.
Asma, the woman from Uzbekistan, follows the VOA reporters around the market, repeating her questions: "Why did they take my son? What did he do?" she shouts.
Another Uzbek woman tells Mohammed not to talk to the reporters. He says later that the woman believed the reporters might be part of the group that takes boys to school.
"She said not to tell you anything, or you may use it to come back and take me away," he says.
I’m Caty Weaver.
VOA’s Heather Murdoch reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
infidel– n. one who does not belief in the Muslim faith
ideology– n. a belief system
veiled– adj. a cloth worn by women to hide their faces from men
encourage– v. to express belief in one’s success