Eight-year-old Ayham Azad loves America, insists on speaking only in English and says he wants to be “an American man” when he grows up.
But this Iraqi child’s love for the United States comes from one of the darkest places on earth: Raqqa, the former capital of the so-called Islamic State, where he was raised in captivity by an ISIS fighter and his American wife.
“I like America. I want to go next, this family, I want to go next to her,” Ayham says of the woman who helped raise him. “I was next to her, when I am in Raqqa. Her name was Um Yousuf.”
Um Yousuf is Sam, an American woman and member of ISIS. Ayham says he loves her.
But she was also his captor.
In August 2014, ISIS overran Ayham’s town in Iraq’s Sinjar province and targeted its Yazidi population, members of a religious minority the terror group considers “devil worshippers.”
Families were separated, women and girls taken as sex slaves, men of fighting age shot and killed, and boys abducted to be turned into child soldiers. Nearly 10,000 Yazidis were killed or kidnapped.
As the horrors unfolded, Ayham was by his mother’s side while she was delivering a baby. By the time his brother was born, the three of them were trapped behind enemy lines, separated from the rest of their family.
Ayham was 4 years old when ISIS captured him. He was sold three times, passed from one household to another until he was taken by Sam and her husband, a jihadi of Moroccan descent. They lived in Raqqa, ISIS’ former seat of power in Syria.
In their custody, he went from a little boy to a radical in training. Everything he knew was taken from him: his identity, his family, even his name, as the couple renamed him Abdullah.
ISIS told him that he was to kill members of his own community. After that, Ayham began to conceal his background from people he met. “They said you have to kill. If you be back you have to kill every Yazidi,” Ayham said, “I am not telling everybody I am Yazidi so nobody would kill me.”
When we asked him if he wants to kill Yazidis, a look of horror formed on his face. “No, no, no,” the child said.
A stolen childhood
Ayham quickly learned English and became friends with Sam’s biological children, particularly 10-year-old Yousef, whom he described as his best friend.
One day, Ayham says, ISIS demanded that the pair appear in a foreign-language propaganda video. Sam tried to stop the group of militants from taking the boys away, but the fighters threatened her and said she had little choice.
“They put the gun in her head (and) they said you have to do it. And then she said OK and then they did it,” Ayham said.
In the video, Ayham appears calm and content. Yousef is confident and outspoken.
“My message to Trump, the puppet of the Jews: Allah promised us victory, promised you defeat,” Yousef says to the camera. “This battle is not going end in Raqqa or Mosul. It’s gonna end in your lands.”
The two boys are then seen loading ammunition into the magazine of an AK-47 and crouching behind a pockmarked wall as each trains his gun through a hole.
The footage offered Ayham’s family the first proof of life they had seen in years, but it gave them little hope.
“We saw it on Facebook but this wasn’t filmed by an organization or a news network. This was ISIS,” his uncle Tahsin Elias recalled. “What could we do? We couldn’t ask after him.”
Ayham’s story of the person who cared for him portrays Sam as a woman torn between her extreme indoctrination and her humanity.
The American woman would repeatedly tell Ayham to recite the names of his parents and siblings in hopes that he would one day find them.
“She tell me don’t forget name your family,” he said. “They can take me then I find my family.”
That day came a few months ago, as the so-called caliphate crumbled under a US-backed coalition assault on Raqqa.
“Everybody was scared there,” Ayham says, “Not just our house is bombing. They bombing everybody’s house.”
Sam’s jihadi husband was killed in the bombardment. She tried to escape with four of her children as well as Ayham. But Syrian Kurdish forces captured her family, and returned Ayham to Iraq where he was reunited with his uncle.
“They say you have to go to your family and she has to go to her family,” he says, recalling the moment he was separated from Sam’s family.
Sam and her children are believed to still be detained.
An American woman who matches the physical description Ayham provided and goes by the name Sam was seen in the custody of the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Syrian Kurdish city of Hassakah just three weeks ago, according to a source who cannot be named for security reasons.
The last words Ayham uttered to his best friend Yousef were the mumblings of a child still unable to grasp the gravity of his situation.
“Yousef said to me, don’t forget me,” he giggled.
“And if I saw you and you told me, I forget you, I am going to poop on your head.”
Ayham is struggling to accept his new reality. It is a hard one to come to grips with: ISIS kidnapped his mother and her fate remains unknown. His father has remarried and moved on from the family.
His baby brother, who was born during ISIS’ assault in Sinjar, was also kidnapped and recently rescued by a Kurdish activist. His uncle Tahsin, who already has nine children in his care, is his only guardian.
Twice a week, Ayham sees a counselor in a nearby refugee camp. He struggles to grasp who his true family is – his biological family, or the ISIS family who raised him for half his life.
“He thinks of this family in Syria a lot. He was with them for three years, and he can’t stop thinking of them,” his uncle says, “but he also thinks of his (biological) mother. He remembers her. He is a smart boy.”
Ayham is generally outgoing, enjoys teasing his siblings and constantly speaks in English, although few in the Iraqi Kurdish region understand him. When asked about his time in Syria’s Raqqa, his personality quickly shifts.
His ever-present smile disappears from his face. He becomes soft-spoken and looks down to avoid eye contact.
Ayham holds on to hope that he can be reunited with his ISIS family.
He is obsessed with the idea of going to America, a near magical world in his mind where he can return to the only constant figure in his life, Sam, and the warped world she created for him.
“I want to see if Sam if she went to America or if she don’t went because America is better from here,” Ayham says when asked why he wants to go to the US. “Because here there is no one he know English. Just in America they all speak just English.”