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Raqqa Residents Worry About U.S. Decision To Withdraw Troops From Syria

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of President Trump's big decisions in 2018 was his decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria, and the people of Raqqa, Syria, could be among those very effected by this. We're going to hear from them now. It took a months-long attack by U.S. and local fighters to force ISIS out of Raqqa a year ago. Much of the town is still in rubble today. NPR's Ruth Sherlock went there yesterday and found people who are worried that the withdrawal of U.S. forces could endanger what little recovery they've made.

BATUL: (Speaking Arabic).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: From behind a wooden desk, her hair covered by a bright patterned scarf, 19-year-old Batul tells us she fears for the future of Raqqa if U.S. troops leave. She and her classmates already feel that the city is too unsafe to give us their full names. Eighteen-year-old Abeer believes the withdrawal will only make things worse.

ABEER: (Through interpreter) There won't be any semblance of security here. If this change happens, we won't know what to expect.

SHERLOCK: Life is already very hard in Raqqa. Most of the city's schools remain destroyed, and the city's best teachers have fled or been killed.

DIANA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: While some primary schools have reopened, there's almost no higher education. That's why 18-year-old Diana tells us she and her siblings and friends decided to make their own.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: So you guys just decided, Raqqa is a mess, we need education. We're going to make ourselves a school. Is that - let me get that straight. Is that right?

DIANA: (Through interpreter) Yes. First of all, we found some teachers. And then we found the location for this institute, and we started studying.

SHERLOCK: Ali, the school's English teacher, admits he was quite surprised when, back in July, this group of teenagers showed up at his home.

ALI: They came to us last year to our village and invited me to come here.

SHERLOCK: We took in a freezing classroom, where the only source of heat is the coal that burns in a large tin can on the floor. Ali says this is normal in Raqqa now.

ALI: Here in Raqqa, the buildings haven't got any equipment. There aren't any doors, any windows. They aren't baths for students to go.

SHERLOCK: No toilets.

ALI: No water for plants.

SHERLOCK: In this environment, Ali and his students do the best they can.

(CROSSTALK)

SHERLOCK: The teaching is basic. Because of the war, most of the students have missed four or even five years of education. They try to focus on a brighter future.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: She wants to be an engineer.

SHERLOCK: These girls tell me they want to be a doctor, a pharmacist, an engineer. But now, they also worry that their city is about to become violent again. If the U.S. leaves, Diana says, she fears it may create a vacuum of power that may allow ISIS to come back.

DIANA: (Through interpreter) Honestly, if ISIS comes back, we will have destruction again and fear will spread. And they will butcher people. So many souls will be taken.

SHERLOCK: It's a fear that we hear from people we speak to all around the city.

JAMAL SALEH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Jamal Saleh is a rescue worker with Raqqa's emergency services. He says, with this decision now to withdraw troops, they don't know who will try to control the city, whether it will be ISIS or the Syrian regime or some other power.

SALEH: (Through interpreter) We all are, like, shocked by this decision because when they were here, the city started again to rebuild.

SHERLOCK: After ISIS was forced out, in large part by a massive U.S. aerial bombardment, the Trump administration promised to rebuild key infrastructure, schools and hospitals. But for the most part, that hasn't happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

SHERLOCK: These first responders' work is critical for Raqqa. A year since the war on ISIS ended here, they're still recovering bodies from under the rubble.

AHMED MUHAMMED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: The U.S. and Saudi money funds them, but rescue worker Ahmed Muhammed says their pay is being cut to just around $150 per month. He believes soon it might stop altogether.

MUHAMMED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Even if their international backers abandon them, Muhammed says he'll keep working. He can't leave the people of Raqqa without help. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Raqqa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.