Some migrating to escape militant Islamic State rule

Hamza Hendawi
Associated Press

Mytilene, Greece — Among the tens of thousands fleeing war and despair in the Middle East, one group feels a special relief in reaching Europe: those who have escaped areas ruled by Islamic State extremists and the harsh scrutiny of their religious police.

These refugees tell of how a Western-style haircut, a pair of jeans or a simple interaction with the opposite sex can lead to punishment by the Hisba, the branch of enforcers carrying out a brutal interpretation of Islamic Shariah law.

“They are worse than an occupation army and act like they will never leave,” said Ahmed, who owned a women’s shoe store in the Syrian city of Raqqa, who arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos in a dinghy with 30 other people. “I couldn’t take it anymore. Something had to be done, and I am doing it now.”

More than 175,000 Syrians and nearly 10,000 Iraqis have made the dangerous sea journey to Greece this year, part of a massive influx fueled in part by Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year. Many are fleeing the onslaught from President Bashar Assad’s military against opposition-held cities, particularly the terror and often random destruction inflicted by its barrel bombs.

But some are trying to escape a different type of fear that took hold in the ruined landscape of the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” across parts of Syria and Iraq.

Scrambling to address a growing Syrian refugee crisis, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday that the United States would significantly increase the number of worldwide migrants it takes in over the next two years, though not by nearly the amount many activists and former officials have urged.

The U.S. will accept 85,000 refugees from around the world next year, up from 70,000, and that total would rise to 100,000 in 2017, Kerry said at news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier after they discussed the mass migration of Syrians fleeing their civil war.

Many, though not all, of the additional refugees would be Syrian, American officials have said. The White House had previously announced it intended to take in 10,000 additional Syrian refugees over the next year.

Many of those reaching Greece have lived in Turkey, sometimes for years, before making the journey to Western Europe.

In that time, they grew used to a more liberal society — a far cry from Islamic State rule, where women must cover themselves from head-to-toe in public and cannot leave their homes without being accompanied by a male relative; where smoking is banned and men must rush to mosques at the call to prayer.

The punishment for violating these rules can range from a warning, time in jail, public flogging, or — for the worse offenses — death.

Abdullah, a 36-year-old carpenter from the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour, said he found the version of Islam imposed by extremists too severe — even for someone who prayed five times a day.

“They are so strict with the rules and punishment they leave no room for Islam’s prescribed leniency or repentance,” Abdullah said in an interview in the Serbian town of Bujanovac, where he arrived earlier this month with his wife and two children.

Not long after Syrian rebels took over half of Deir al-Zour in 2013, Abdullah and his family fled the fighting to another part of Syria. But he went back often to check on his house, staying for weeks at a time, even as IS fighters drove out the rebels last year and took sole control of that half of the city, while the rest remained in government hands.

“What really forced me to make this trip is the economic and health situation in Deir al-Zour,” Abdullah said. Most doctors have fled, he added, and while basic goods were available in the IS-held neighborhoods, most people had no money to spend.