One morning in 2015, Hamrin found a newborn girl at the door of her house in Raqqa city. She did not know that the little girl’s mother left the baby there while escaping a fighter of the Islamic State (IS). Hamrin and her husband, who could not have children of their own, decided to secretly adopt the little girl, who today is six years old and sees them as her real parents.
After over 10 years of involuntary childlessness, Hamrin could not refuse “God’s gift to her and her husband”. They do not yet know the child’s biological parents, nor did they dare tell the story at the time, fearing IS’ retaliation. She recounted to Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) the details of the day:
“We woke up to her crying at dawn. Someone had put her in front of our house and left. Only a few days had passed since her birth. So, I brought her home and took care of her. The next day, while buying milk for her, my husband heard that IS fighters were looking for a woman, who ran away from them with her newborn child. We dared not tell the truth, decided to adopt the little girl, and told our acquaintances that she is our daughter. We did not leave the house for months so it would not seem strange.”
Hamrin and her husband registered the child as their daughter in the Syrian Civil Registry, after naming her and claiming that they were her parents because, currently, Syrian law prohibits adoption based on the provisions of Islamic Sharia. Harmin’s is not the only case — several Syrian families have adopted children and claimed legal parentage the same way to overcome the same legal barriers.
Muslim Sharia jurists continue to rule al-Tabani (adoption) as haram (prohibited), citing a number of ancient fatwas (formal rulings) based on the following Quranic verse: “Call them by (the name of) their (real) fathers; It is more equitable in the sight of Allah. And if you do not know their fathers, then they are your brothers in faith and your friends. There is no sin on you in the mistake you make, but in that which you do with intention of your heart; and Allah is Most-Forgiving, Very-Merciful” (Al-Ahzab, 5). Furthermore, jurists-based prohibition on the anecdote that was the subject of another verse, “nor did he make your adopted sons your (real) sons” (Al-Ahzab, 4). This verse addressed Zayd ibn Harithah’s story, who was Khadija’s Mawla (a person who did not have tribal protection) before her marriage to Prophet Muhammad and whom she gave to the Prophet after their marriage. When given to Prophet Muhammad, Zayd was 30 years old, and he had a tight bond with the Prophet that he was called “Zayd ibn Muhammad” (Zayd the son of Muhammad). The relationship between Prophet Muhammad and Zayd is the origin of the word Ad’iaa (those who are called by the names of persons other than their real fathers and who establish their linage accordingly). After linage was thus established between Zayd and the Prophet, Zayd divorced his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh, who later married the Prophet.
In many Muslim countries, the kafala system (guardianship) is enforced instead of prohibited adoption. Under kafala, children live with a new family but are not called by the name of the foster father.
Upon learning to read and write, mostly between 6 and 8, children brought up under the Kafala system begin to inquire why the father’s name on official documents, school records, and the birth certificate is different from the name of the father he/she lives with at home. Ultimately, foster parents find themselves obliged to reveal the truth despite the emotional and mental traumas the revelation might cause to children when they are told that they are of unknown parentage, were born to an “illegal relationship”, or were abandoned by their parents.
Moreover, in the countries where the kafala system is enforced, children are denied inheritance from the foster family, including the parents’ pension. As a result, foster kids remain without a source of income when foster parents die, regardless of how wealthy their parents were.
In Syria, the law adopts the Sharia rulings regarding the issue, thus, prohibiting adoption and the change of a child’s lineage. For instance, majhuli al-Nasab (children of unknown parentage) are registered under a “separate category”. These children exit the category when their parents decide to establish lineage and obtain necessary identification documents, or they remain legally recorded as laqitt or majhul al-Nasab (foundling) and are granted a name and surname different from their biological fathers’. As an exception, the Syrian law entitles only Catholics and Syriac Orthodox to adopt and under a specific set of conditions.
As a substitute for adoption, the Syrian law establishes Care Centers. In these centers, every child is assigned a personal file, containing details such as the location where he/she was found, his/her age, the name and surname the child is granted when their original names remain unknown, and adds them to the civil registry.
However, many people remain unconvinced of the Sharia rulings that prohibit adoption and the laws that make it illegal. To circumvent legal and religious barriers, many families are forced to resort to forgery. To adopt a child, STJ spoke with several families who obtained fake birth certificates with the support of midwives or doctors who testify that the delivery took place at the adopted parents’ home. In these certificates, the names of foster parents are registered as real parents. Falsifying birth certificates is illegal and may lead to imprisonment, consequently parents and doctors do so under a thick veil of secrecy. However, parents take the risk because they believe it will protect their adopted children from stigma, ensure they are permanently protected under their new family name, and save them from years of suffering under laws the families consider unjust.
Currently, Tunisia is the only Arab state that legally allows adoption. Under the law, children are given the opportunity to live with their new families and to have the names of foster parents on their identification documents, while preserving the original birth certificate in case the child decides to search for his/her biological parents in the future. The Tunisian model legalizes both adoption and kafala for those who choose to abide by the Sharia rulings, offering a commendable example that other Islamic States can follow.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, militarization and social shifts in Syria have contributed to the growth of the numbers of orphans, children of unknown parentage, or children abandoned by their families. The numbers of such cases markedly increased across the country, and particularly in the areas outside the control of the Syrian government, mainly because several women in those areas married foreign fighters whose true identities were difficult to establish, or local fighters who were killed in combat. In both cases, numerous children were left unregistered for lack of needed documents because the parents either did not have any documents, failed to register their marriages because they lost their identification documents, or because both parents died and left the children no documents. In addition to complex marriage patterns, the number of unregistered children has also increased due to other conflict-related factors like forced displacement.
According to their latest statistics, released on 28 December 2020, the Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG) revealed that there are approximately 198,000 orphans out of 1450,000 children in northwestern Syria, where the SRCG operates, including the armed opposition-held areas of Idlib province, Aleppo’s western countryside, and Hama’s western countryside.
For their part, the Orphan Care Alliance (OCA)—which held their first meeting in Istanbul on 25 May 2016, with the participation of 23 organizations concerned with Syrian orphan children—said there are 800,000 orphans inside and outside Syria, 90% remain without care outside the kafala system. The OCA highlighted that only 25,000 children are sponsored by concerned organizations, while over 112,000 continue to suffer without sponsorship.
The United Nations (UN) classifies unaccompanied and separated children living with older or disabled caregivers as especially vulnerable and in most need, particularly because “children may face certain risks that are related to “age, gender, disability and social perceptions of childhood.”
Furthermore, in the 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) in Syria, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that “children living in crowded spaces (collective centres, with host families) may be at greater risk of domestic violence”, adding that data collected from all 14 Syrian provinces indicated that 46% of the children inside Syria are unaccompanied, because their caregivers are either dead or missing, while child marriage and child recruitment remain among cited reasons for family separations.
Seeking to shed a light on one of the darkest faces of the decade-long conflict in Syria, STJ composed this report to address the phenomena of increasing numbers of orphans and children of unknown parentage, who remain neglected and financially unsupported because the Syrian law prohibits adoption. STJ interviewed several families who adopted or provided guardianship through the Kafala system to unaccompanied children, particularly those of unknown parentage. Additionally, STJ explores available protection means under the Syrian laws and current social reality, as well as under relevant international laws and norms to arrive at potential solutions that would safeguard these children’s access to care and human rights.
Methodology and Challenges
This report draws on a series of interviews carried out in person with individuals and families who secretly adopted children of unknown parentage or became their guardians because adoption is prohibited under Syrian law. Over the course of the interviews, STJ was cautious to maintain complete confidentiality because the subject matter of the report remains highly sensitive legally and socially. Consequently, STJ was keen on preserving the anonymity of the children and their foster parents and caregivers. Thus, real names were not cited to ensure that the interviewed caregivers would not be subjected to legal accountability or social harassment.
With the collected testimonies, STJ seeks to provide a genuine description of the situation on the ground and to bring under the spotlight a dilemma that many Syrians intentionally ignore and avoid discussing. In addition to describing the struggles the families involved face, our team has provided in-depth legal analysis of the relevant Syrian laws, how they have been enforced, and recommendations of how to ensure children are provided care and, in some cases, official documents.
While our researchers successfully interviewed several families, many others refused to speak to STJ about children they adopted, fearing societal scandal, legal accountability from the Syrian government, or the wrath of extremist military groups who are against adoption due to Sharia law. Consequently, our report provides only a small window into the widespread and sensitive issue of adoption in Syria.
The Syrian conflict, now spanning over ten years, has had extreme consequences on Syrian society. Hostilities have destroyed cities and displaced millions of Syrians, who have either been displaced within Syria or sought asylum in countries around the world. In addition to these highly visible and frequently discussed repercussions, the conflict has had a marked influence on Syrian society, severing social ties and breaking down social norms and values.
However, the greatest tragedy of the Syrian conflict remains the hundreds of thousands killed over the course of the conflict, and the many fathers and mothers who left young children behind. Due to the war, the numbers of orphans, children of unknown parentage, unaccompanied minors, and abandoned children have increased exponentially in Syria, particularly in areas outside the control of the Syrian government where women married foreign fighters whose true identities were difficult to confirm, or local fighters who were killed in combat. In both cases, numerous children were left unregistered because they did not have the necessary legal documents, either because their parents could not register their marriage for a multitude of reasons, lost their children’s document because of the conflict, or died without being able to pass on identifying documents to their children. In addition to the complex marriage patterns, the number of unregistered children also rose because of other conflict-related factors such as forced displacement.
Since the Syrian law does not permit adoption, it is necessary to search for proper legal alternative solutions to remedy this situation, which will have catastrophic effects in the future if it remains unaddressed. Therefore, STJ recommends that concerned parties focus on several practical measures, which we deem crucial for beginning to find a solution to adoption in Syria:
- Civil society organizations (CSOs) should intensify their efforts to educate Syrian society and raise citizens’ awareness that these children are victims of, not culprits in, the war and are therefore worthy of care. Accordingly, willing families must be encouraged to provide guardianship or adopt these victims and raise them in healthy family environments.
- Legislation must be enacted that suits the current Syrian situation and addresses the issue of children of unknown parentage or those who have been abandoned, in conjunction with conducting comprehensive consultations for communities across the Syrian spectrum.
- All dimensions of social stigma must be eliminated, especially the legal ones, by canceling all laws that contribute to rooting the stigma’s negative manifestations, in addition to launching campaigns to raise awareness against shaming and negative labels used against the victims and/or their caregivers.
- Assistance must be provided to caregivers to help them meet the needs of child victims and encourage people to adopt.
- The Syrian Personal Status Law must be amended, or a new law written, that permits and legally recognizes adoption as a first step on the path to creating a framework through which this issue can be addressed, drawing on legal models from across the world, while preserving the Kafala system as an option for families who prefer it over adoption.
- Concerned parties should express full commitment to the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, amend local laws in their light, without exception, and repeal the reservations regarding the articles cited in this report and which the Syrian State has not complied with.
 “The Demographics in Northwestern Syria,” the Syrian Response Coordination Group, 28 December 2020, (last accessed: 28 February 2022) https://www.facebook.com/1967928126585232/posts/4114145781963445/.
 “Orphans and Children Separated from Their Families due to the War in Syria,” Geiroon, 13 November 2017 https://www.geiroon.net/archives/101477#go-to-content (last accessed: 28 February 2022)