'Mother Schools' take on militants in kids' radicalisation

VIENNA • There were small signs that her son was changing.

He prayed more and swopped jeans for traditional long tunics.

"But I wasn't worried. Not for one second did Syria enter my mind," Mrs Fatima Ezzarhouni said. And yet, that was where the young man was headed in June 2013 when he left his home in the Belgian city of Antwerp, a day after his 18th birthday, to join Islamist militants.

Almost three years on, Mrs Ezzarhouni gets the occasional phone call from her son confirming he is still alive, but never revealing his exact location.

"I have this feeling that I will never see him again," said the 44-year-old, fighting off tears.


French national Abu Bakr al-Faransi, 13, is the youngest known foreigner to die fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The Mother Schools project teaches Muslim women how to spot early signs of radicalisation in children. PHOTO: DAVID THOMSON/TWITTER

FIGHTING TOXIC INFLUENCE

Women are so well placed to work in the security arena because this is a mission about safeguarding their families... They are in direct competition with recruiters...

WOMEN WITHOUT BORDERS FOUNDER EDIT SCHLAFFER, on the importance of the Mother Schools

"But at least now I know I'm not alone anymore."

Mrs Ezzarhouni is one of the newest members of a global project that fights extremism not with soldiers, but mothers.

The so-called Mother Schools teach Muslim women how to spot early signs of radicalisation in children or develop coping mechanisms if intervention is too late.

After completing the 10-module course, the graduates then go on to train other women.

The Vienna-based Women Without Borders (WWB) started the initiative in close cooperation with anti-terrorism experts of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also headquartered in the Austrian capital.

WWB founder Edit Schlaffer said: "Women are so well placed to work in the security arena because this is a mission about safeguarding their families.

"They are in direct competition with recruiters, those toxic influences from mosques who step in when children reach adolescence and tell them, 'You're wonderful, glory is waiting for you, join us in building the caliphate.'"

The first school opened in 2012 in Tajikistan, an Islamist breeding ground next to Afghanistan.

It branched off to other nations plagued by violence, such as Pakistan and Nigeria.

In February, WWB organised its first training session for the new initiative in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population. The project is now also taking root in Europe.

While schools in Austria and Belgium are already up and running, new ones will open in Britain and Sweden later this year.

Mrs Ezzarhouni said she first heard about the initiative from another Belgian mother, Mrs Saliha Ben Ali, whose 19-year-old son Sabri died in Syria three years ago.

Mrs Ben Ali, a social worker from the city of Vilvoorde near Brussels, recalled: "Sabri's radicalisation was very fast, it happened in three months and we didn't see the signs.

"Four days after he had left, he sent his first message, 'Please mum, don't be angry. I came here to help Syrian people because nobody helps them.'"

Mrs Ezzarhouni added: "These women have given me hope.

"There are many people who see us as mothers of terrorists. But we are mothers of courage."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline ''Mother Schools' take on militants in kids' radicalisation'. Print Edition | Subscribe