This used to be Islamic State’s capital. Residents are still desperate to leave

Large family sitting on the ground drinking tea
Milhem Daher, 35, drinks tea as he sits with his family outside his house in the Syrian village of Kasrat Srour.
(Baderkhan Ahmad / Associated Press)

In a square that a few years ago was a grim stage for Islamic State’s brutal rule in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Mahmoud Dander sat deep in thought.

The 75-year-old wants to leave Syria, but has a problem: He has no money. He recalled the old days before protests and wars led to the collapse of his country and its currency, when Syria wasn’t exactly thriving, but he had work, his children had university degrees and decent futures, and food was always on the table.

That’s all gone now. “We have fallen, just like our currency,” he said.


Raqqa, the former de facto capital of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate and home to about 300,000 people, is now free of the extremist group, but many of its residents are trying to leave. Those with property are trying to sell it to save up for the journey to Turkey. Those without money struggle to get by.

At least 3,000 people left Raqqa for Turkey in 2021, according to the city’s civil council co-chair, Mohammed Nour.

Their reasons span the spectrum of postwar life in Syria, one of the world’s most complex conflict zones. They include economic collapse and widespread unemployment following one of the worst years of drought, as well as fears of an Islamic State comeback and a proliferation of criminal gangs. And there is the looming specter of conflict between rival powers that control various parts of northern Syria, including Turkey, Russia and Syrian government forces.

President Biden announced that Abu Ibrahim Hashimi Qurayshi, the leader of Islamic State, blew himself up during a U.S. raid in Syria.

On the surface, the city’s slow recovery from Islamic State rule is evident. Cafes and restaurants are full of patrons. Kurdish-led forces stand guard at every major intersection.

But poverty is rampant in the majority-Arab city, which is administered by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces. People line up for basics such as bread. Unemployed young men sit around. Water and electricity are limited. Many live among bombed-out ruins. Local officials say at least 30% of the city remains destroyed.

Poverty and unemployment drive young men into the arms of Islamic State. Kurdish investigators say new recruits captured last month had been lured by money. At the same time, the Kurdish-led city administration received applications from 27,000 job seekers last year, but had no jobs.

Milhem Daher, a 35-year-old engineer, is in the process of selling his home, businesses and properties to pay a smuggler to take him and his family of eight to Turkey, a key route for Syrian migrants trying to win asylum in Europe.

More than 100 Islamic State fighters attacked a prison in northeast Syria to try to free thousands of comrades locked inside.

He plans to leave as soon as he has enough money.

Daher survived Raqqa’s recent violent history, including the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011 and the 2014 takeover by Islamic State, which turned the city into the capital of a declared caliphate encompassing parts of Syria and Iraq. A U.S.-led coalition dropped thousands of bombs on the once-vibrant city to drive out the militants, liberating it in 2017. Islamic State lost its last territorial foothold in Syria in 2019.

Daher emerged from the dark chapter ready to invest, but said he faced many obstacles, including a lack of resources and export markets. “If you sell to locals, it won’t generate profit,” he said.

For his first project, Daher bought seeds to cultivate vegetables. When it was time to harvest, traders weren’t interested in paying the asking price.

Abu Ibrahim Hashimi Qurayshi, who died in a raid by American commandos Thursday, had almost no public presence, despite heading the notorious terrorist group.

He purchased trucks to lift rubble amid reconstruction efforts. But the quality of the vehicles quickly degraded as a result of poor fuel in the market and lack of materials for upkeep. A potato chip factory and internet service company also floundered.

Finally, Daher bought livestock, but a devastating drought led to shortages in animal feed. His cattle died.

Now, he is selling off what remains of these failed businesses to start a new life. He needs $10,000.

In Raqqa, having money can also be a problem as kidnappings-for-ransom are on the rise.

A British national has admitted in U.S. court to playing a key role in the kidnap and beheading of a number of American hostages by Islamic State.

Real estate developer Imam Hasan, 37, was taken from his home and held for days by attackers in military fatigues. To secure his release, he paid $400,000, money belonging to him and traders who trusted him with their life savings. He complained to the local authorities, but he said nothing was done. A month after the ordeal, bruises are still visible on his face and legs.

Hasan, too, is selling his home and belongings. “There is nothing left for me here,” he said.

Two of his relatives who left in September and recently arrived in Europe said that, apart from economic uncertainty, it was the threat of more violence that pushed them to leave.

“At any moment the situation could explode. How can I stay there?” said Ibrahim, 27. He and Mohammed, 41, spoke under the condition that only their first names be used, citing security concerns for their wives and children still living in the city.

France’s president says the head of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has been killed.

Like many others, their journey from northeastern Syria to Europe began via tunnels along the town of Ras al-Ain, which straddles the border with Turkey.

The smuggler had charged $2,000 per person. From there, the path to Europe was riddled with risk.

Ibrahim arrived in Germany last week after an arduous journey that began in Belarus. Mohammed walked for treacherous miles before setting off for Greece by boat. He ended up in the Netherlands in October.

Mohammed is waiting for a chance to bring his family from Raqqa to Europe, he said in a phone interview. For now, he is without work.

Back in Raqqa, Reem Ani, 70, prepares tea for two. Her son is the only one of four children who has remained in Syria. The others are spread across the world.

The stairs leading to their apartment are riddled with bullet holes, remnants of battles to dislodge Islamic State. The ceilings are charred from smoke.

She has grown accustomed to a silent house. “I miss them,” she said of her children.

In nearby Naim Square, Dander, the man who recollected the old days before war and destruction, said he barely makes ends meet, surviving on his rapidly diminishing pension from his previous government job.

His three children have university degrees in engineering and literature, and one was a teacher, he said. But none has been able to find work. He wishes he had the money to help them leave.

“I spend every day thinking about how to get out,” he said.