There are 44 Australian children who have no fresh water, no education, and no healthcare.

Living within the sea of flimsy white tents in the infamous Al-Hawl refugee camp in Northern Syria are 20 Australian women and 44 Australian children.

They’re currently stranded in the squalid camp, unwanted by their country after years of being trapped in war-torn Syria under Islamic State.

These children, 30 of whom are under five, have no access to education. The healthcare is inadequate. In summer, temperatures can reach over 50 degrees and in winter plummet to freezing. Violence is commonplace. Children use plastic bags as toilets. There are traces of E. coli in the drinking water, according to a report by The Guardian.

Nine-year-old Maysa Assad is one off 44 Australian children stranded in Al-Hawl refugee camp. Post continues below video.

Video via ABC

Speaking as part of a Four Corners investigation, the women say they were duped by their male family members into travelling to Syria and joining the Islamic State.

Some of the children travelled there with family members, but many were born in Syria.

In 2011 aged 22, Mariam Dabboussy married Kaled Zahab. They lived together at the Zahab family home in the Western Sydney suburb of Condell Park, as did Kaled’s brother Muhammad Zahab.

Kaled Zahab and Mariam Dabboussy
Kaled Zahab and Mariam Dabboussy on their wedding day. Image: ABC.

Kaled lived in the shadow of his over-achieving older brother. Educated, charming and deeply religious, Muhammad had strong influence over his family.

In 2015, Mariam, Kaled and their 18-month-old child took their first ever holiday. It was a big one: Malaysia, Dubai and on to Lebanon, where they were later joined by Kaled's parents. Muhammad was already in Syria.

The family travelled from Lebanon to a house near the Turkey-Syrian border.

"My husband then came to me and told me it’s time to go, 'We’re going to go somewhere else, I don’t feel like this is the right place'," Mariam told Four Corners.

They travelled to a dusty patch of land and waited among other people, then the gunshots started.

"I looked around thinking, what am I going to do? I’m in the middle of nowhere. I don’t even know where I am, there’s gunshots. I just started running."

Mariam Dabboussy
Mariam Dabboussy. Image: ABC.

She was bundled into a car and taken to a house. When she saw a black flag, she knew she had been 'conned'.

Her husband Kaled was sent to be trained as an IS fighter and Mariam was left to take care of the house. Three months later, as she was heavily pregnant and about to give birth, he was killed in an air strike.

"I would like to say it was the hardest time of my life. But everything that happened after it was just more epic.


"The first shock of entering and being in Syria, you’d think that would be the biggest thing. But every event that happened after that only got harder and harder," she said.

Mariam tried to escape but was caught and forced to remarry twice after Kaled's death.

four corners isis
Muhammad Zahab. Image: ABC.

She believes it was Muhammad Zahab who was to blame for their introduction to Syria.

"[Muhammad] had convinced Kaled that this was the plan, this was the right thing to do," she said. "And he had facilitated the way, because Kaled wouldn’t have known anything."

Kaled and Muhammad's cousin Nesrine Zahab is another of the Australian women stranded in Al-Hawl camp. She was 21 when she and a cousin snuck away from a family holiday in Lebanon with the intention of helping refugees on the Turkish side of the border.

Nesrine Zahab
Nesrine Zahab. Image: ABC.

She said she did not plan to cross into Syria.

"Of course not," she said. "I had a whole family. I had a whole thing going on. I was doing uni.

"Who walks into a war zone? I was going to see Syrians, yes, because of what they’re going through. It was meant to be a little thing where you do something to make yourself feel better. You help these Syrians, and you come back. You’re not meant to go become the Syrian in Syria."

Like Mariam, her phone and passport were confiscated and it slowly dawned on her where she was after seeing the black ISIS flag.

"I found that I was in Syria, did I have a heart attack? Of course," she said.

"Did I cry and scream and chuck a fit like a little girl? I chucked the biggest tantrum. Did it work? No. I’m still here."

She was married to an Australian man Ahmed Mehri. In 2017 they tried to escape with their newborn baby but Mehri was captured by US forces, taken to prison in Iraq and sentenced to death.

In one of the tents visited by Four Corners, they found 11 of the 16 women were related to Muhammad Zahab by blood or marriage, including Kaled and Muhammad's mother Aminah Zahab and Muhammad's Australian wife Mariam Raad.

australian women in children in al-hawl camp
Image: ABC.

Both insist they knew nothing of his work. Muhammad was killed in a targeted air strike against senior IS leaders.


Nine-year-old Maysa Assad was born in Australia but has been in Syria since she was four.

“I want to go back home to Australia where my brothers and sisters are. I want to go to school," she told Four Corners.

Nesrine told Four Corners she was no threat to Australia and wanted to come home.

"I understand [the Australian Government] have their laws and I’ll abide by them. Come and ask me all the questions you want. I’ll give all the answers you want. I have nothing to hide."

Mariam wanted to return to Australia to to be able "nurture" her children.

"You tell me I’m a threat. Look, I’m trying to get away from the threat. I’ve had enough," she said.

"I’m broken. I’ve been through so much, I can’t anymore. I’m just numb. I’m a wreck."

Nine-year-old Maysa Assad is one of the Australian children held in the camp. Image: ABC.

Kurdish authority Syrian Democratic Forces, which controls the Al-Hawl camp, believe Western governments should repatriate their citizens who lived under IS.

The Australian Government has said there are some women within the group who would pose a "significant security threat to our country".

"These are not innocent women who have taken their children into the theatre of war," Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said.

He recently announced a plan to strip Australian citizenship from dual nationals who have engaged in terrorism.

In July, the government passed a law creating temporary exclusion orders to delay the return of women and children in Syria.