On June 20, 2014, Felicia Perkins-Ferreira of Trinidad was torn apart when she woke to find her two sons missing.
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The first she heard of their whereabouts was six months later, when she received a WhatsApp message from her husband: He had kidnapped their sons Mahmud and Ayub, now aged 11 and 7, and smuggled them into Syria, where he had become a fighter for Islamic State.
But on Monday, Perkins-Ferreira was reunited with her sons, with help from the unlikely trio of a rock star, an American former Islamic State bride and a human rights lawyer.
For three years, Trinidadian authorities were unable to help Perkins-Ferreira find her sons.
Meanwhile, she had never been on a plane before — let alone left the island — and seemingly had no hope of seeing her sons again.
Abandoned in Syria
In late 2017, circumstances changed. Mahmud and Ayub were in Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, with their father and his new wife, a Belgian national.
As the fighting intensified, the father sent his wife and children away with people smugglers, hoping they would cross the border and end up in Turkey. He died during a battle.
But the smugglers abandoned the boys, then aged 6 and 10. Their step-mother continued across the border without them.
“[Mahmud and Ayub were left] out by the side of the road in the middle of Syria,” Clive Stafford-Smith, the human rights lawyer who tracked the boys down, told ABC News. “Thankfully, the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] picked these boys up and took them to Camp Roj in North Eastern Syria.”
Alone at Camp Roj around December 2017, an SDF internment camp near the Iraqi border, the brothers began living in “incredibly rudimentary” conditions.
“A whole range of people are there,” said Stafford-Smith. “Some of them are women who were married to ISIS sympathizers, there’s a small number of committed, radical lunatics. But the majority are women who got there in all sorts of ways.”
Stafford-Smith, along with his charity, Reprieve, had meanwhile been working on securing the release of another Camp Roj resident, the American national Samantha Sally. She had traveled to Islamic State in 2014 with her abusive husband, Moussa Elhassani, who had given Sally an impossible choice: abandon her children or follow them to Syria.
Elhassani was killed, and after months of torture at the hands of Islamic State, Sally escaped and ended up in Camp Roj. There, she met Mahmud and Ayub and allowed them to stay in her tent.
In August 2018, American authorities secured Sally’s release and she returned to the United States. There, she told Stafford-Smith about the lost Trinidadian boys. She had a picture of their mother, but no name to help him with the search.
Stafford-Smith tracked Felicia Perkins-Ferreira down to Trinidad, but there was still the problem of how to logistically get the boys out of Camp Roj, especially as the Trinidadian government was unable to help due to a lack of resources.
The lawyer visited the boys on Dec. 18 and asked what they wanted for Christmas. “Ayub looks at me, and immediately beams a smile, and says, ‘I want a big hug from my mommy!'” Stafford-Smith said.
The rock star with the private jet
Enter Roger Waters, the bassist and singer from legendary rock band Pink Floyd, who has worked with Stafford-Smith on Reprieve projects before.
Stafford-Smith told him the story of Mahmud and Ayub, and Waters, moved, offered to cover all the finances needed for their return.
He paid for Perkins-Ferreira to fly to Geneva, Switzerland, and then all three flew to Iraq on a private plane chartered by the Pink Floyd singer on Jan. 19, 2019.
After wrangling with the Iraqi bureaucracy, Perkins-Ferreira was reunited with her sons in the Syrian Kurdish administrative capital, Qamishli, two days later.
“[It was an] amazingly emotional reunion,” said Stafford-Smith. “Poor Felicia hadn’t slept for three days — she’d never flown before. She was reunited with her kids in one of the most emotional moments. It was amazing.”
It was the first time Perkins-Ferreira had seen her sons in nearly five years.
“They are really sweet,” Stafford-Smith said. “They had a dreadful time for four years. You’re talking about bombs going off all day and all night around Raqqa. Goodness knows what those children went through.”
The boys, now in London, will receive trauma therapy before heading back to Trinidad. Waters has committed to continue helping them in the long term.
“We’ve got a long way to go because of what they’ve gone through,” said Stafford-Smith about the recovery process.
But Perkins-Ferreira will be sleeping easy tonight, knowing her boys are safe.