The Finnish teacher who secretly taught children detained in Islamic State camps in Syria

Every day at nine in the morning, Ilona Taimela meets with her students and explains the tasks that she will assign them during class.

Since March 2020, his routine has been like that of many teachers around the world due to the pandemic: teaching his classes remotely.

But with one exception: her wards are in a displaced persons camp in Syria, quite far from Ilona’s home in Finland.

With messages sent through WhatsApp, he manages to teach classes ranging from mathematics to geography. All in English and Finnish.

His students are 23 children who live in the Al Hol camp, a city made of tents where people who have been linked to the self-styled Islamic State (IS) group are held.

About 60,000 people live there and they are mostly women and children who come from various countries, including some Europeans.

Some of those children are his students.

“No matter where they are, every child has the right to education,” Taimela told the BBC.

arrive at a camp

Before classes started with Taimela, students in the refugee camp could only access informal education that was offered by charities.

After IS’s territorial defeat in early 2019, the camp became its prison and Kurdish army-led forces became its ‘jailers’.

During these years, children of different nationalities have been held there while their countries of origin assess the security risks that the repatriation of their mothers would entail, who it is feared could continue to support the extreme ideology that led them to support IS.

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Some 60,000 people are being held by Kurdish-led forces in Al Hol camp in northern Syria.

Meanwhile, the children have grown up in critical conditions, described as inhumane by various NGOs around the world.

TO end of 2019, the centre-left coalition ruling Finland He said that he would bring to the country the 30 children from his country who were in the camp.

However, the announcement caused a national uproar, but above all it exposed the legal problem of separating children from their mothers. To solve this problem, the government sent a representative, Jussi Tanner, to negotiate with the Kurdish authorities who run the camp.

It was a difficult process. What was thought to be weeks turned into months, so Tanner began to think about interim measures to safeguard children’s rights under Finnish law.

Then the pandemic hit and it occurred to Tanner that if the young people in Finland could be taught remotely, the same could be done for the children who were in Al Hol.

The Finnish government supported the idea and commissioned the Lifelong Learning Foundation to develop a distance education program.

That’s when they contacted Taimela, who had a background in multicultural teaching.

In a few weeks, she and another teacher managed to design a special program. It was about sending them daily lessons to help them improve their skills in fundamental subjects and also to prepare them for life in Finland once they manage to return.

But everything had to be done through WhatsApp, it was the only way to communicate with the students.

“We’ve never done anything like this,” said Tammelander, who notes that this program could be the first of its kind and serve as a model for the development of broader apprenticeship proposals.

Students can only participate with the permission of their mothers, who were contacted directly by Tanner.

With 23 students enrolled, in May of last year they began to send the first lessons.

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“Good morning, today is Thursday, May 7, 2020. First day of school,” reads the first message sent by Taimela.

She introduced herself as Saara, to protect her identity. And her avatar picture was a picture where she had dark glasses and a scarf covering her head.

Ilona Taimela

Ilona Taimela
Ilona Taimela had to change her identity to send the messages on WhatsApp.
Ilona Taimela message

Ilona Taimela
This was the message he sent on the first day of virtual classes.

Most of the messages were written in Finnish, and for some homework emojis were used instead of high-quality photos.

The basis of the program were language and math lessons and tasks were designed according to the age and abilities of each child.

Taimela notes that she began to see results. As a 6-year-old boy who could already read complete stories in Finnish, while others learned more complex structures of this language.

English lessons






The children’s progress was due in large part to the material that was sent through text and voice messages. The problem was that cell phones were prohibited in the camp, so this whole process had to be kept secret, not only from the Kurdish authorities, but also from public opinion in Finland.

Anyway, Taimela always believed that the messages were read by Kurdish soldiers. Sometimes mothers did not respond for weeks, raising concerns for their safety.

By the beginning of this year, Taimela had lost contact with most of the families. As many of them were repatriated or moved to the al Roj camp, where surveillance was tighter, classes were cut.

Tanner explains that 23 children and seven adults had been repatriated, while another 15 remain in Syria.

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Back in Finland, the repatriations ended in controversy. The Finnish Nationalist Party has criticized the return of these families, which they say could pose a threat to national security.

Asked about the teaching program led by Taimela, the leader of the opposition party, Riikka Purra said she wished the government “would be as interested in keeping Finns safe” as it was in teachings to these children.

Although Purra clarified that the children of IS fighters “are, of course, innocent.”

But she added that she was perplexed by “how much the Finnish state has done to accommodate the needs” of the families of IS militants.

For his part, Tanner notes that opposition to the repatriations had “become much quieter” and reaction to the teaching program had been overwhelmingly positive.

Ilona Taimela walking down a street

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The Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation asked Taimela to lead the distance learning program.

For now, the Taimela school is on recess. Even if they are all repatriated and end up living in the same country, her students will mostly remain unknown to their secret teacher.

So far, she has only been in contact with one of the mothers, whom she met at a reception center in Finland, along with some of her students.

This time, the use of WhatsApp was not necessary.

“They knew me by the voice,” he said. “At first they were very shy, but eventually they started coming to me. We read and looked at the phone together.”

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