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I wanted to know: “What Remains of ISIS”

A UNICEF Officer answers our questions

Welcome to I Wanted To Know, The Footnotes column that takes published articles from around the globe and makes them relevant to your world. We are helping you find career inspiration by showing the real world issues that anchor modern day jobs.

After I read “What Remains of Isis” I was left with a few questions.

Some key takeaways from the article:

  • When ISIS briefly did claim a state they aimed to build a “global movement,” so the question now is how many devotees still exist among the 8 million Iraqis and Syrians (and too, of the estimated 40,000 people that travelled to join its caliphate) that it ruled during this period?
  • The terrorist organisation separated children from their parents in front of them and then sometimes killed them. In the soil of that trauma, ISIS planted an idea that the boys were the future of the caliphate. So what will become of the thousands of youngsters that were pushed into ISIS’ forces in northern Iraq?
  • Currently, a group of boys that were indoctrinated into the group now occupy this grey zone between being guilty, and being forgotten.

What I was left wondering after the article was, how do you reintegrate children like this into society, is it possible – and who is responsible for it?”

In the first article from the “I wanted to know” series I interviewed two professionals, a field specialist working for UNICEF and a clinical psychologist with extensive experience in childhood trauma. This post is the transcript of my interview with Jess from UNICEF, next week we will publish the transcript from the clinical psychologist.

Meet, Jess* she works for UNICEF.

The Footnotes: Jess, what do you do at UNICEF?

Jess: I am in logistics, so a lot of my job is about supplies planning and management, project management and donor coordination and resource mobilisation.

Sam: The Times article said that ISIS laced the boys’ food with amphetamine to dull the feat and train them into suicide bombers. They were emotionally and physically abused, and brainwashed… You haven’t worked in the Middle East specifically, but you’ve worked on projects in Liberia – do you think you could talk to me a bit about the rehabilitation process for child soldiers?

Jess: Yeah, definitely! Since the mid eighties UNICEF has been regularly involved in the demobilisation of child soldiers; so I am pretty well versed in the issue, though personally I’ve only worked briefly in Liberia on a demobilisation project.

The Footnotes: What was it like?

Jess: Hard question to answer! I’d seen enough imagery and read enough reports about the conditions so that initial culture shock of – you know, ‘seeing a child smoking a cigarette as he cradles an AK-47 automatic rifle in his arms’ is removed; but still – no amount of education can prepare you for the challenges. I don’t want to talk to the ‘shock factor’ stories that you take away from those places, that’s widely accessible on the internet; and I think that it also perpetrates the stereotype of child soldiers. For example, UN estimates up to 40 percent of child soldiers worldwide are in fact girls, who often have suffered horrendous sexual abuse. And for girls, rejection and discrimination by family and friends is commonplace. For example in the Congo, of 150 girls interviewed for a research piece that the UN ran, their experiences were compounded when they returned home, as many were ostracised by their families.

But from a positive angle, I think a highlight is the joy and appreciation that the parents of these children and the wider community share with you. We engaged with rebel fighters and government officials, and I was blown away by the experiences that people were brave enough to share. It really re-confirmed by passion for working in the area. Being exposed to the issue first hand gives you a foundation for technical expertise.

It’s really widely documented that wounds of past violence create emotional vulnerability and enable cycles of violence in children. So programs like the one we were running in Liberia were about humanitarian assistance and development; and it was about running psychosocial activities aimed at healing the wounds of war through normalising activities; expressive arts, reintegration of former child soldiers, and use of local cultural networks and resources. Witnessing those psychosocial activities in action is really powerful.

Through a programme sponsored by UNICEF Liberia through GTZ, over 4,300 Liberian child soldiers have been demobilised and reintegrated into communities.

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The Footnotes: What does it feel like working at UNICEF?

Jess: It’s the most rewarding job I could imagine; but it can also leave me feeling so helpless. Change is slow and it’s sometimes difficult to accept the process. In some regions that are midst conflict child soldiers can be seen riding around the streets of the capital Monrovia in pick-up trucks proudly toting their automatic rifles – daily. There is so much to be done. Office life is busy. We’ve got UNICEF staff on the ground in communities running programmes and initiatives, but that takes an army in an office to facilities, fund, protect, organise, research –

To be honest, six years into my career and we tend to get caught up in our daily grind and sometimes forget exactly how our work is changing lives, but someone somewhere in the world constantly appreciates what you are doing to them.

The Footnotes: How did you get involved in UNICE?

Jess: Yeah, the process is really confusing for graduates. I am half Belgian, and was lucky enough to get a role in the Junior Professional Officer Programme. That is not offered in Australia. From this point you are able to work with the talent unit for career transitioning which can move you into different faculties.

The Footnotes: What is your formal qualification?

Jess: A studied a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Economics. I also speak French. In my opinion, to get into UNICEF you need to study at university post high school – but there is no ‘one degree’ that will get you in the door. My boss works in budget, for example; but his first degree was in Sociology and English Language – he then went onto study Data Analysis and Swedish. It’s a diverse (but highly educated) team.

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