Finnish teacher who secretly taught IS children in Syrian camps by text

By Joshua Nevett
BBC News

Every day at 09:00, Ilona Taimela greeted her students and explained their assignments.
Her daily routine lasted about a year from May 2020 and in common with many other teachers she was working remotely.
Except Ms Taimela's students were being taught in a detention camp in north-eastern Syria – a world away from her desk in Finland.
In messages sent via WhatsApp, she taught subjects ranging from mathematics to geography in both Finnish and English.
Her pupils were 23 Finnish children living in al-Hol camp, a vast city of tents for people linked to the Islamic State (IS) group. About 60,000 people live there, the vast majority of whom are women and children from dozens of countries, including Europe.
Some of those children were Ms Taimela's students.
"Whoever the children are, they have a right to education," she told the BBC.
Before Ms Taimela's lessons, they could only access informal education at makeshift schools run by charities. Following the territorial defeat of IS in Syria in early 2019, the camp became their prison and US-backed Kurdish-led forces their jailers.
For years children of all nationalities have been held there as their home countries assess the security risks of repatriating their mothers, who they fear may still be in thrall to extremist ideology.
Meanwhile, the children have been growing up in dire conditions, condemned as inhumane by rights groups.
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In late 2019, Finland's centre-left coalition government mooted the idea of bringing home the 30 Finnish children at the camp.
The controversial move touched a nerve politically and exposed the legal quandary of separating children from their mothers. To resolve this dilemma, the government appointed a special envoy, Jussi Tanner, who led negotiations with the Kurdish-led authorities managing the camp.
The process was an arduous one. As weeks turned into months, Mr Tanner started considering interim measures to safeguard the rights of these children under Finnish law.
When the Covid-19 pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020, Mr Tanner had a brainwave. If students could be taught remotely in Finland, could the same be done for the Finnish children of al-Hol?
Finland's government backed the idea and commissioned the Lifelong Learning Foundation to develop a distance teaching programme.
In Ms Taimela, who has experience in multicultural teaching, the foundation had the ideal candidate.
She was contacted by Tuija Tammelander, head of the foundation's school of distance education.
Within weeks, Ms Taimela and another teacher had designed a specialist curriculum. By sending the children daily lessons, she aimed to improve their competence in core subjects and prepare them for life in Finland.
Unusually, WhatsApp was to be her only means of communication with her pupils.
"We had never done anything like this before," said Ms Tammelander, who suggested the programme may have been the first of its kind.
The pupils could only participate with the consent of their mothers, who were approached by Mr Tanner.
With the mothers of 23 children on board, the first messages were sent in May last year.
"Good morning! Today is Thursday the 7th (seventh) of May 2020. The first day of distance school!," the first message read.
She used a picture with sunglasses and a scarf on her head, and a broad smile. She introduced herself as Saara, a pseudonym to protect her identity.
Most of her messages were written in Finnish and for some tasks, emojis were used instead of data-intensive images.
Finnish language and mathematics formed the bedrock of her curriculum, which tailored the assignments according to the age and ability of each child.
Ms Taimela said she witnessed improvements over time. Eventually, one six-year-old could read full stories in Finnish, while older students could grasp more complex elements of the language.
The children's progress was the product of engagement with hundreds of text and voice messages. Because the mothers were banned from owning mobile phones, these messages had to be kept secret from Kurdish authorities and the Finnish public.
Still, Ms Taimela suspected they were being read by the guards. Sometimes, the mothers did not respond for weeks, raising concerns for their safety.
By spring this year, Ms Taimela had lost contact with most of the families. As more of them were repatriated or moved to the nearby al-Roj camp, where supervision is stricter, the lessons were shelved.
Mr Tanner said 23 children and seven adults had been repatriated, while about 15 Finns remained in Syria.
Back in Finland, the repatriations have proved politically contentious. The nationalist Finns Party has been a vociferous critic of the policy, which they say could threaten national security.
When asked about the teaching programme, the opposition party's leader, Riikka Purra, said she wished the government "would be as interested in safeguarding the security of the Finns".
The children of IS fighters "are of course innocent", she told the BBC. But she said she was perplexed by the "length the Finnish state has gone to accommodate the needs" of IS militants' families.
Mr Tanner said opposition to repatriations had "become much more muted" and reaction to the teaching programme had been overwhelmingly positive.
For now, Ms Taimela's school is in recess anyway. Even if they are all repatriated, her students will mostly remain strangers to their secret teacher.
So far, she has only been in contact with one of the mothers, who she met at a reception centre in Finland, along with some of her pupils.
This time, WhatsApp was not necessary.
"They knew me by voice," she said. "At first they were very shy, but at the end, they started coming to my lap. We were reading and looking at the phone together."
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