Think Back, What Were You Like at Fifteen?

Dawn Vickerstaff
6 min readMar 5

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Should a Decision Made at Fifteen Years Old Mean That Shamima Begum Should Remain Stateless Forever?

Shamima Begum

Stripping Shamima Begum of citizenship teaches us, yet again, that even when People of Colour are born and bred in Britain, they are still seen as aliens within the nation, write Azeezat Johnson and Shereen Fernandez in Ceasefire.

When you were fifteen years old you knew everything there was to know. You could see ahead to the consequences of all your decisions and all your actions. You always made the best life choices and never made a mistake, not one. Certainly not a terrible mistake that would end up haunting you for the rest of your life.

When you were fifteen years old you knew who to trust and you understood they had no agenda, that they told the truth and they wouldn’t harm you. You knew they had your best interests at heart and they weren’t there to exploit you.

When you were fifteen years old you knew everything you needed to know about the world and what was going on in it. Your strong sense of justice and purpose drove you and you believed in romance, honor and truth.

When Shamima Begum was fifteen. she and two other friends, schoolgirls like herself sneaked away from home and met the man who’d been grooming all of them online. They were special, he kept telling them. They had a duty to marry and comfort the men who were fighting the inside, outside, public and private wars of righteousness and to aid in that war itself. It was big, very big, the action he was asking of them. Were they fit to do it? Did they have what it takes? He said all the right things to fire their minds and hearts. It was all so romantic. Like the four boys who went to war in All Quiet on the Western Front, the girls felt they were full of honor for themselves and their families, patriotic and loyal to a higher cause. They were naively delighted to be a part of huge things.

When Shamima landed in Turkey she and her friends were secretly taken to Syria, trafficked “recruited, transported, transferred, harbored and received in Syria for the purposes of ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘marriage’ to an adult male”, Mr. Justice Jay.

Shamima spent ten minutes with the 23-year-old man she was to marry before she married him. Shamima has said in a BBC Podcast that “Before I married him I guess he was. I mean I thought he was doing the right thing. I thought he was fighting for his religion and the state.” Ten minutes. That’s a ‘lifetime’ to get to know someone you are meant to marry, isn’t it? But that’s what she was there for after all. That’s what all three of the fifteen-year-old schoolgirls were there for.

Shamima Begum’s family were frantic with fear and worry over their child. They had reason to be. Shamima’s two friends, according to many reports, are very likely dead. No one has heard from them since 2016. Girls like them who tried to leave and return home were killed in brutal ways. If they stayed, there were many, many other ways to die.

Shamima Begum’s husband was imprisoned in 2019 when Isis fell and she was left alone. She was found later that year in a Northern Syria Detention camp. She was heavily pregnant with her third child. The first two of her children, a boy, and a girl, were born very soon after her marriage. Both died while they were still infants. She blamed herself for their deaths and wanted to kill herself. How do you cope with so much loss and grief when you are just nineteen years old? You try to go home, to your family. Shamima’s been trying to do that for the past four years.

Shamima with her newborn son who died at 3 weeks of pneumonia.

In the detention camp her third child, a boy, was born. She begged to be allowed back to the country of her birth. She felt certain that if she were not allowed, she would lose this child also. It was cold in the camp, there was too little food, and her little boy, the third child to do so, died from pneumonia when he was just three weeks old.

Citizenship is a legal status that “means a person has a right to live in a state and that state cannot refuse them entry or deport them”, according to the Migration Observatory of the University of Oxford. Shamima Begum was born in London, in the United Kingdom to Bangladeshi parents. It’s been claimed by the UK Government that because her parents were Bangladeshi she has citizenship in that country. Bangladesh has denied this and stated un-categorically that they will not offer her citizenship. She was born in the United Kingdom, she has British Citizenship, not Bangladeshi. Except she doesn’t.

Britain should let Begum return. Not because she’s a victim but because she’s a British citizen. We do not yet know of her actions in Syria. But, whatever they may have been, she remains someone to whom Britain has legal and moral obligations. Kenan Malik in Pandamonium

When Shamima was first found in 2019 she was happy at the chance to go home. But her citizenship was summarily revoked by then Home Secretary, Sajid Savid on National Security grounds. This revocation was upheld just recently in court. Shamima was and is permanently stateless because she left her country, followed an ideal, said unwise things, and didn’t show enough emotion to satisfy some.

Mr Justice Jay, who wrote the judgment, published on Wednesday, 22 Feb 2023 on behalf of the Siac (Special Immigration Appeals Commission) panel, said that although there was credible suspicion that Begum “was recruited, transferred and then harbored for the purpose of sexual exploitation”, that was “insufficient” for the commission to deem the home secretary’s decision unlawful.

Shamima has suffered greatly, lost the husband she was more or less ‘assigned to’, lost three children before the age of twenty, lost her family, was lucky not to have lost her life like her two friends, and now has lost her appeal to regain her citizenship, making her stateless, unprotected and forever profoundly alone.

Jonathan Hall, KC Independent Review of Terrorism Legislation since 2019 says that Shamima and the 60-odd other British women left to rot in a dissolving Syrian detention camp should be allowed to come home. He points out that the United States and the EU have already allowed their citizens home. It is significant that the US, that country of ‘love it or leave it’ has allowed its citizens home. Why hasn’t Britain? There are ways and means for monitoring the women left in the camp to ensure that they are not involved in any terrorism or other illegal activities. Somehow, to deny 23-year-old Shamima the right to rejoin her family and enjoy the rights of the citizenship she was born to seems petty, punitive, vengeful and perhaps racist.

There is no evidence that Shamima engaged in active terrorism. She was a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl seduced by a romantic ideal, and then trafficked to an adult man she didn’t know by the Canadian spy that recruited her. She then tried to be a good wife like her religion dictates. She was too busy trying to keep herself and her children alive after that to actively engage in terrorism. Even if she did, she isn’t now.

There are still some that fear Shamima Begum, one small bereaved young woman who got caught up in a whirlwind she didn’t fully understand. But when a government succumbs to its fear of a fifteen-year-old trafficking victim and as a result, denies the young twenty-three-year-old woman she now is her rights, that government not only looks weak and unsure of itself, it looks like a government that does not respect basic human rights.

I say, bring Shamima home. Put an ankle monitor on her if you must, though what crime she’s actually committed to warrant that is unknown. Surveil her if you must. Put in place whatever you think needs to be there to ensure the government is no longer scared of her, but do the right thing and bring her home.

Shamima in the Syrian camp the government wants to demolish.

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Dawn Vickerstaff

MSW, Mental Health Therapist, Writer of Truth