The Grandmother Who Took On ISIS To Save Her Grandkids

a man with a gun
Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Karen Nettleton was your average grandmother, boasting five grandchildren and a simple life living in Sydney, Australia. However, Karen’s life was forever changed in 2014 when her daughter, Tara Nettleton, said that the family was going on a holiday to Malaysia.

But the destination was not Malaysia. Rather, it was to Syria, where Tara’s husband, Khaled Sharrouf, joined ISIS, the Australian Broadcasting Company reports in a stunning story.

Karen’s grandchildren, Hoda, Zaynab, Abdullah, Zarqawi, and Humzeh, were not yet teenagers when they were brought into the radical Islamist regime.

In response to the news, Karen started planning for a way to get her grandchildren back. It took over five years, “countless” phone calls, three trips to the Middle East, and two attempted rescue missions for the grandmother to finally find success.

Taking advantage of ISIS’s descent into defeat, Hoda, Zaynab, and Humzeh managed to escape Baghouz — ISIS’s final stronghold — and find their way to al-Hawl refugee camp, where they managed to contact their grandmother.

Karen immediately traveled to al-Hawl, even though it meant landing in Erbil, Iraq, and traveling by road into Syria, a dangerous journey. When she finally reached the camp, there was no organization, forcing the grandmother to walk through the uneven and muddy paths for nearly an hour, calling out her grandchildren’s names in the hope that someone in the 72,000 person camp would hear and help.

She finally spotted grandson Humzah. Humzah had been just 4-years-old when his mother had taken him from Australia. Humzah was then able to guide Karen to the family’s tent.

Sixteen-year-old Hoda reportedly could not stop crying upon seeing the familiar face.

“I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe I’m here with you, I’m pretty sure I’m dreaming,” Hoda said.

Karen made sure to comfort her granddaughter in reply.

“You’re not dreaming, you’re not going to wake up,” Karen assured her.

However, the reunion was bittersweet for Nettleton. Her two eldest grandsons had both been killed while with ISIS; her daughter had likewise passed away, reportedly due to complications from intestinal problems.

Moreover, issues arose from the legality of repatriating the orphans of ISIS. Many countries are hesitant to accept the return of these children in the fear that, having grown up in a radical terrorist organization, they would share the same sympathies.

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an ISIS refugee camp
A picture of a refugee camp in Turkey. Gokhan Sahin / Getty Images

Australia’s policy is a total refusal to help any Australian citizen who fled to fight for the Islamic State. However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made a statement, offering Australia’s pledge to work with aid groups to help bring children of ISIS fighters home.

The case is slightly more complicated for Karen, as Zaynab was married at 13-years-old to an ISIS fighter and now has two children of her own.

According to The Washington Post, NGOs have estimated that there are around 2,500 orphans of ISIS.

The Australian Broadcasting Company has released an hour long documentary on Karen’s story.