Poverty can push people to make difficult choices in any normal situation – even more so in times of war, when the basic means of survival no longer exist.
Muhammad, a schoolteacher from the Aleppo countryside, decided to beat poverty by joining ISIS, in exchange for a meager stipend.
Muhammad used to be financially stable, teaching in elementary and high school, building up savings to buy a house and advance his career. He is married with three children, two boys and a girl, aged from one to five years old.
But Muhammed lost what income he had when he protested against Assad’s government. His teaching salary was cut and he had to depend on tutoring to support his family and his ill mother. With prices getting higher and his mother getting sicker, Muhammad felt he had no other choice but to join ISIS to guarantee him a living.
His story isn’t unusual, residents say. “In the beginning, people of the area refused to join and fight with ISIS, but today they’re rushing to sign up,” said Yousef, a friend of Muhammed’s. “Many prefer to die from joining ISIS than to die of hunger and poverty.”
Muhammed spoke to Syria Deeply about his decision to join ISIS and what it means for him personally to enlist in its ranks.
Syria Deeply: Why did you decide to join ISIS at this time?
Muhammad: What other choices did I have left other than ISIS? After I lost my monthly salary, I started depending on what my land gave me and on private tutoring lessons, but none of them was sufficient to put food on my table. There are no economic prospects that could provide job opportunities, and I don’t have the money to start my own business. I’ve also been through many setbacks due to my mother’s health situation, which caused me to borrow a lot of money. I tried to borrow from certain people who I know have the money, but they wouldn’t give me any, saying I didn’t have an income to cover my debts. Later on, I did find someone to lend me the money, but now I’m embarrassed when I see one of them in the street and I change my path if I can to avoid running into them.
Syria Deeply: Why didn’t you travel to Turkey, like many others have, to find a job?
Muhammad: Our dignity is lost in other countries, and my mother’s sickness kept me from doing anything. It basically ruled out all my choices.
Syria Deeply: How did your family deal with your decision to join ISIS?
Muhammad: My kids are too young to understand. My wife objected at the beginning … she was afraid for me because of the unknown risks involved. But our financial situation was getting worse along with everything else, so she had to accept it in the end. To die once is better for me than to die a thousand times every day [out of shame].
Syria Deeply: Why did ISIS accept you into its lines?
Muhammad: ISIS accepts you just by the recommendation of a previous member. Then you undertake two courses, one of which is military training.
Syria Deeply: You said your work would only be as a civilian teacher, so why would you take a military course?
Muhammad: My teaching job doesn’t mean I won’t have to go to the front lines. Enrollment in ISIS means you have to obey whatever is asked of you. At any time I might be ordered to bear arms and fight on the front lines if I am needed. My colleagues assured me that I would have to be there only for a month after the military course, then I could get back to teaching.
Syria Deeply: Is it true what they say about salaries of thousands of dollars to those who join ISIS?
Muhammad: ISIS doesn’t give any salaries. The money they give at the end of the month is called a reward, and it’s not that big, but they give allowances for family members. It covers my wife and children and even my mother, so ISIS offers you a decent, but not a luxurious life.
The reward if one is Syrian and single is almost $100 every month, with a bonus in the case of military victories. A married man gets an extra $50 dollars for his wife and other allowances for his kids; there’s also a fuel allowance and housing allowance if one is renting a house.
In total I get a reward of $200 per month; it reaches $300 with all the allowances.
Syria Deeply: It seems that you don’t believe in the ideology of ISIS. How can you fight for them if you don’t believe in its cause?
Muhammad: I look on the bright side. My teaching job is irrelevant to my beliefs in terms of the ideology, because I’m serving the people of my nation. I taught under Bashar al-Assad although I didn’t believe in his regime, and I served in his army despite its certain corruption, so it’s not a matter of black and white.
Syria Deeply: Don’t you think your death in ISIS lines would be a kind of suicide?
Muhammad: On the contrary, if I died then I would be a martyr who died to raise the word of God. I hope the participation of myself and others like me will contribute in eliminating the bad things [about ISIS], because to light a candle is better than cursing the dark.
Syria Deeply: Do you think that you and other people like you are capable of making changes within ISIS, or that you’re merely pawns?
Muhammad: Everything in life is changeable, and ISIS is flexible as much as it is firm; it follows a decentralization policy that gives wide local authority.
Syria Deeply: When battles started between ISIS and the Free Syrian Army you were against joining ISIS; you considered it to be treason to the revolution. What changed your mind?
Muhammad: I’ve changed after seeing the hypocrisy of the international community. I realized after all those years that they don’t want the so-called revolution to succeed, and they prefer to keep Bashar al-Assad [in power].
When ISIS wasn’t there, they didn’t offer anything to the [Syrian uprising]. Then when ISIS was established, they all stood against it and fought it, while they did nothing about the tragedies against [Syrians].
Syria Deeply: Aren’t you afraid of death?
Muhammad: Death is visiting us every day; everyone has become a potential martyr: men, women and children. We have been attacked for a long time now, and the [Syrian government] shelling is killing a lot more civilians than ISIS members.
Syria Deeply: What would you do if ISIS were defeated in your area?
Muhammad: ISIS was created to stay and expand – the reality of what’s happening now proves it, because in spite of the [U.S.-led] airstrikes, people are still rushing to join ISIS.
Syria Deeply: Are you capable of fighting against the Syrian rebels with whom you used to go out protesting, those you used to encourage and support?
Muhammad: My main job is teaching. I don’t think I will have to make that choice.
Photo Courtesy of AP Images