QARAGHANDY, Kazakhstan -- Aigerim dreams of becoming a nurse, learning a new language, helping her parents financially and -- most importantly -- raising her three children.
But those dreams have been put on hold for six years until the 28-year-old Kazakh widow completes her prison term for being affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
Aigerim, who didn’t want to give her full name, is among some 600 family members of Kazakh IS fighters that the government in Nur-Sultan has repatriated from Syria since 2019.
The majority of them have since been allowed to return to their hometowns -- free to work, study, and rebuild their lives.
But Aigerim was separated from her children soon after their return from the Al-Hawl refugee camp in May 2019, she told RFE/RL at a women’s prison in the Qaraghandy region.
“Unlike the other returnees, we were not placed in the special rehabilitation center for IS families,” Aigerim said. “After a health checkup I was sent for interrogation, but at that point I still didn’t know that I was going to face a trial.”
Aigerim was convicted of membership in a terrorist organization and for recruiting others to the group among other terrorism-related charges. She was then sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.
Aigerim’s parents were given temporary custody of her children, who are between four and 10 years old.
“I accept that I’m guilty,” Aigerim said. “But what I did was out of my ignorance. I trusted things I heard from some people on the Internet. I acknowledge my mistakes.”
Aigerim’s charges stemmed from a decision by her and her former husband to move to IS-controlled territories in Syria in 2015.
Aigerim said she developed an interest in Islam at the age of 14 and began wearing the hijab while attending a local mosque. Aigerim’s mother disapproved of her new lifestyle but her father was supportive.
At 16, Aigerim met a religiously conservative young man and married him in an Islamic ceremony at the mosque. The couple had two children and Aigerim dropped out of school.
Aigerim's husband forced her to wear the all-covering niqab and forced her to cut off her relationship with her parents, calling them infidels, she recalled.
They parted ways in 2014 and just months later, Aigerim met an Uzbek man on social media. The man proposed to her and said he would provide a secure life for Aigerim and her children.
Aigerim’s new husband told her they should live in the so-called caliphate in IS-controlled parts of Syria. Aigerim admits going to Syria on her own free will.
“He said the situation is good there, it’s a Muslim country, everything is halal, and I agreed to go,” Aigerim said. “We crossed the [Turkish-Syrian] border easily, along with many other families, all foreigners. It was in 2015.”
In Syria, Aigerim found out that her husband had long been working for IS recruiting new members from Central Asia for the terrorist group.
Aigerim didn’t say whether it bothered her but she recalls being angry when she found out that her husband had another wife whom he planned to relocate to Syria, too.
Feeling “isolated and lonely,” Aigerim said she asked her sister in Kazakhstan to join her in Syria. Her sister was detained by Kazakh security services before she was able to leave Kazakhstan. Asking her sister to come to Syria would lead to Aigerim being charged with “recruiting” IS members.
Aigerim says she left her husband in Syria and divorced him through an IS court while pregnant with his child. IS moved her to a dormitory for widows and single women where she gave birth to her third child.
Aigerim eventually married another man who was an IS fighter from Turkey. She described him as disillusioned and someone who regretted joining IS and planned to escape. But he was killed in an air strike in 2019 when the IS was on the brink of collapse.
Aigerim and her children spent several more months in Syria, experiencing hunger and illnesses before they were detained by Kurdish forces and placed in the camp at Al-Hawl.
Aigerim now spends most of her time reading in the prison library. She has also enrolled in a school in prison to complete her education.
As part of a deradicalization program for returnees from Syria, Aigerim attends regular meetings with theologists, psychologists, and other specialists assigned by the government.
She writes to her parents and children, and makes plans for a better future for the family. Aigerim is optimistic about her future, which she says will involve working and studying.
Kazakhstan has repatriated 607 women and children from Syria and a further 14 children from Iraq. The Central Asian country says it will try to bring home the remaining Kazakh citizens that are still in Syrian camps. Their exact number is unknown.
The mainly-Muslim nation has been praised for its efforts to rehabilitate the women and children traumatized by there IS experiences and help them reintegrate into society.
There are misgivings among many Kazakhs who see IS family members as a potential security threat and disapprove of the government’s decision to bring them back.
But many returnees -- such as Aigerim -- have described it as being given a second chance in life.