I met Mustapha for the first time in a refugee camp in the Syrian border town of Atmeh, near Turkey. At the time, I was training young Syrians in the camp on conflict resolution techniques. Mustapha was standing outside the big tent; he was too old to go to the local children's school, and too young to be part of the service groups around the camp.
I asked Mustapha to come and join us, which he excitingly did. This wonderful young man told me that his father, a defected officer, died in the conflict, and his mother brought him with his brothers and sisters to the camp, escaping from jets dropping barrels of TNT from the sky.
I could see the difference in Mustapha's eyes soon after joining my training session, there was a sense of meaning once again. The training allowed youth like Mustapha and women to work together and learn each other's differences as well as reduce tensions and violence occurring within the refugee camp.
At the end of the course, Mustapha was so happy he asked if he could sing a song; he led all the youths in singing, talking about his love for his beloved Syria... Mustapha told me how he always dreamt of going to college and becoming an engineer, and how he still dreams of it today.
When I returned to the camp recently, I asked about Mustapha. He had left the camp, so I went to visit his mother. She explained to me that some foreigners came to the camp and recruited Mustapha along with other bored youth. They claimed that it would be better to fight for God and Jihad than to sit here doing nothing. The young men were offered clothes, money and food, and suddenly they had a meaningful existence again. Mustapha was only seventeen when he joined Ashbal Al Iz, a group affiliated with ISIS, specifically recruiting children under eighteen.
Teenagers joining extremist groups are a growing sign of the desperation facing young Syrian refugees. It should also be a stark warning to the outside world that has been content to stand by while the fighting continues. Youth sparked the events of the Syrian revolution, and thus more attention needs to be placed on how they are affected by this brutal conflict. If teenagers like Mustapha aren't helped through the provision of aid, schooling, and future employment opportunities, they could be recruited by extremist groups.
Research has demonstrated that children growing up in horrible conditions can push them to become radicalized and join terrorist organizations like ISIS. According to a USAID report, evidence suggests that relative deprivation and frustrated expectations for both economic benefits and political/social power can be important drivers of violent extremism. Thus, young Syrians may accept positions with an extremist group that offer them a means to survive by providing money and food as well as an outlet for frustrated expectations.
The United States and its allies find themselves in a position where, despite being reluctant to get involved in Syria, they still have a chance to have a positive impact on the new generation of Syrians growing up in misery. Americans need to do everything in their power to ensure that the basic needs of young Syrians are met by providing aid in the form of food, medicine, and education. It should not just be a moral responsibility but a national security objective. If the American government does not ensure that more aid is delivered, then more youth like Mustapha will be lost to extremism.
Last week, the United States and other UN Security Council members took a positive first step in increasing aid to refugees by unanimously voting to allow humanitarian aid to Syrians in opposition-held areas. However, more needs to be done in order to ensure that the basic needs of Syrian youth are met.
I can still hear Mustapha's voice but this time he is not singing, he is screaming: "I wanted to go to school and become an engineer when I grow up, but here I am now fighting because the world abandoned us."
This piece was co-authored by Scott Lassan, Reasearch Assistant, USIP