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French Couple Wants To Retrieve Their Grandkids From Syria, Needs Government Approval


France is one of the countries debating what to do with captured ISIS fighters and their families. About 70 French children are now in Kurdish-run camps in northern Syria. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met a French couple trying to bring their grandchildren home.



PATRICE MANINCHEDDA: (Speaking French) (laughter).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

P MANINCHEDDA: (Speaking French).


Patrice and Lydie Maninchedda welcome me to their home in a small town not far from the northern French city of Lille. The Manincheddas, both 60, raised their only daughter in this bright and cozy farmhouse. There are pictures of her on the table. In one, Julie wears a Muslim veil and a silly face as she clowns around with her tiny sons. It's a screenshot from one of the last video conversations the couple had with their daughter in Raqqa, Syria.

LYDIE MANINCHEDDA: (Through interpreter) We lost our only child. And these children are the only thing left of her. We are their grandparents. And they are French. We want them to live here in this house where their mother grew up.

BEARDSLEY: While President Emmanuel Macron has remained vague on how France will deal with captured ISIS combatants, he has indicated that France will repatriate the children. Many in the camps are orphans, and three-quarters are under the age of seven. The Maninchedda's three grandchildren - 1, 3 and 5 - have been located. One has a leg wound. And the 5-year-old doesn't speak yet. Patrice says the government should move fast and send an aircraft to get them.

P MANINCHEDDA: It's really easy. The only thing is to find a flight and bring them back. The only thing we are waiting on just one answer of President Macron. He has just to say yes.

BEARDSLEY: In February came the news that their 26-year-old daughter Julie had been killed in Syria. They say Julie had a normal childhood and was a brilliant student. And they weren't particularly worried when she converted to Islam at the age of 20.

L MANINCHEDDA: (Through interpreter) She was always curious about the Quran and Islam because she had a lot of Muslim friends. And there are a lot of Muslims in this area.

BEARDSLEY: But then Julie went to university in the German city of Leipzig. It was there the philosophy and literature student met a welder from East Germany who had also converted to Islam. He became very controlling.

P MANINCHEDDA: When we met him in Germany, he seemed to be somebody not really educated. And he was completely in his Muslim religion. He said also, I'm now her man. She has nothing to say. I'm the man.

BEARDSLEY: After Julie got pregnant, the couple saw their first grandchild a few times. But they were not allowed to discuss religion or the young couple's lifestyle. The Manincheddas finally contacted the French police and discovered Julie's husband was under surveillance by German authorities. Then, in November 2014, just as they were planning another visit, Julie, her husband and their 6-month-old son left Germany for Syria.

L MANINCHEDDA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: The Manincheddas say maybe they should've handled things differently.

L MANINCHEDDA: (Through interpreter) But nobody was talking about ISIS yet and certainly not about women joining. Julie had only talked about helping children being hurt by the Syrian regime. We still trusted her. We thought she would snap out of it.

BEARDSLEY: Julie had two more children in Syria. For four long years, she kept in contact with her parents, who say she never intended to be a jihadist but was obeying an abusive husband. In the last months, Julie was able to obtain a divorce and leave her German jihadist, who was caught in January. The Manincheddas say they hope their daughter had some happiness at the end of her life. They now want to be able to raise her three children and tell them about their mother and give them the future Julie never had. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Libercourt, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.