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For northern Syrians who endured ISIS, U.S. withdrawal means a new struggle to survive

More than 170,000 people have fled their homes in northern Syria since Turkey launched its offensive two weeks ago. Civilians in the area have lived through years of unrest, including revolution against the Assad regime, the battle to defeat ISIS and now the U.S. troop withdrawal. Nick Schifrin talks to journalist and author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon about those civilians forced to adapt yet again.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United Nations says more than 170,000 Syrian people have fled their homes since Turkey launched its cross-border offensive more than two weeks ago.

    Nick Schifrin recently sat down with journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, who has followed the lives of some of those forced to adapt yet again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Long before the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from Northern Syria, the people of that region struggled through an extraordinary few years, revolution against the Assad regime, the brutality and radicalism of the Islamic State, the battle to defeat ISIS, and the subsequent struggle to stabilize and rebuild.

    On the front lines of that fight are so many men and women, now forced to readjust again as the U.S. withdraws.

    For their story, we turn to journalist and author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

    Gayle, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's talk about some of these people who you have followed for years. Many of them fled ISIS. Talk about the woman who you met leaving Raqqa, ISIS' former headquarters, was nine months' pregnant.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    Yes.

    Yes. When we first met this woman named Batoul two years ago, she had just delivered a baby who was around four pounds. And no one knew what would happen.

    She had fled the Islamic State during the siege of Raqqa, had given all her gold, every bit of savings to a smuggler, who got her out as part of a five-car convoy. Her car was the first car. The fifth car blew up as it drove over an ISIS land mine.

    And over the past two years, I have really watched her fight for normalcy. And she, the last time I saw her in May, was so moving about how things were going well. And she said: "Look, thank God our children are all in school. We have this fragile stability."

    And she really was, I think, to me, a mom whose life is on the front lines of this fight against extremism. And she told me: "Look, we don't want the world to save us. We can do the work, but we just need some space and some normalcy."

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The people who needed that space and normalcy also sometimes needed the space within their own families.

    You and I have reported from there. And you found a woman with an extraordinary story whose own family were ISIS supporters. And then she fled in order to give her children a better life.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    Yes.

    A woman named Malika, who I have met a few times over the past year. She's from the town of Deir el-Zour, and was talking to me about how her husband joined the SDF, which were the U.S.-backed forces who fought ISIS.

    Her husband died fighting ISIS alongside other members of the SDF who were backed by the Americans. And she talked to me about how her in-laws had afterward wanted to take control of her children. She has two boys and a girl.

    And she said: "No way. I will not have my children grow up among extremists. I'm actually going to give them a chance of education."

    And she talked to me for a while about her daughter, and how she wanted her daughter to be educated. And even when I pressed her about what she wanted for her daughter, in terms of a husband, she said: "I won't even think about that right now, because I want her to be a teacher or professor or something I never had the chance to be."

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That fight for stability, that fight for a better future isn't only been done by Kurdish people who we have been talking about, of course, in the news, Gayle, and Arab families who you have just talked about, but also other minorities, including Christians, right?

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    Yes.

    Malika is from the Arab community. And here is a young woman, Nitha, who I met, who is from this Bethnahrain Women's Protection Force, which was a group of Christian young women who had formed early in the ISIS fight and joined alongside the Kurds, and then later the other Arabs who were part of the SDF, the U.S.-backed forces.

    And she talked to me about how, when she first joined this all-women's force, her mother and father had been very against it. They thought it was shameful. And then, when they realized that her unit was part of protecting Christian communities from the Islamic State, Christian communities who had been besieged by ISIS fighters, kidnapped and worse, they were really proud.

    And they had come to really accept her decision and be very proud of it when they went to church on the weekends. And so she was talking to me about how she is in law school now, and was recruiting the next generation of young women who are going to be part of protecting their futures.

    And she said to me: "You know, Gayle, our generation is very different. We're educated. The young women are educated. And all we want is for stability and security in our area."

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And how important is it that these people who you have just — whose stories you have just shared and the people you have met throughout your time there find that stability and are able to change their futures, in your opinion?

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    I mean, this is not about sentimentality. This is about American national security.

    We talk about the war on extremism, fighting the Islamic State, fighting people who have these kinds of ideologies, and — as an abstraction, but these are the women whose lives very much live on the front line of this battle.

    And they are the people fighting each day for security, for stability in their own neighborhoods, and really against the extremists who would bring all kinds of insecurity, not just to their area, but certainly well beyond.

    And that's why I think their quest for normalcy, their push for a very fragile stability matters deeply to each of us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, thank you very much. And thank you for all your reporting.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    Thank you.

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