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For four years, an American father from Florida has been searching for his two children, children who were taken by their mother when she joined ISIS. She took them to Syria. He recently learned their mother was killed in an explosion and that his 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter were burned. With ISIS losing its last Syrian territory, this father has traveled to the region in a search to find his kids. NPR's Ruth Sherlock met him just outside Syria in Iraq.
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RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Bashirul Shikder plays me videos on his phone that show the fun times when his family was in Florida. Two small children splash in a shallow pool on a sunny day.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Marco.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Polo.
SHERLOCK: He recalls their family trips.
BASHIRUL SHIKDER: You can imagine that they used to be going to Disney World, Busch Gardens.
SHERLOCK: Originally from Bangladesh, Shikder traveled to Mecca in late March 2015 when he learned that his wife had disappeared from their Florida home. She'd gone to join ISIS and had taken their 5-year-old son and their daughter, just an infant, with her to Syria. Shikder was frantic with worry. He couldn't reach them. Then, about a month later, a man called him saying that he was from ISIS and carried a threat - join your wife in Syria or else.
SHIKDER: I'm giving one-month deadline time. If you don't make it, you lose your wife. You lose your children.
SHERLOCK: Blackmailed and terrified, he told the man on the phone that he would come but instead, he says, he turned to the FBI for help. When his wife called, he'd make excuses about why he hadn't traveled to Syria yet and tried to get clues as to where the children were that he could pass to the authorities. But these calls were rare. He tried to feel close to his children by checking the temperature in the city of Raqqa where they lived. He breaks down telling me how he used to scan satellite images.
SHIKDER: Even in the satellite - Google satellite - I used to be checking there and I was imagining - what if that my children are in that small building or in that small place in that - behind the...
SHERLOCK: His wife's phone was monitored by ISIS. And he says if he tried to criticize the group or counter their ideology, they'd cut off access to his family for weeks or for months. The last time he spoke to his son, he says, was back in August or September of last year. His little boy referred to those who don't believe in ISIS as infidels. Shikder told him that's not the peaceful Islam he should believe in.
SHIKDER: I was saying that my son remember one thing - never hate anyone, try to love everyone, respect everyone and this is how your daddy learn Islam. And after that, they didn't let me to talk anymore.
SHERLOCK: As the U.S.-led coalition bombed ISIS-held towns and cities in Syria, slowly defeating the group's hold in the country, Shikder watched, terrified that his children might be being hurt.
SHIKDER: I was watching what's happening - so much air strike, bombing. My heartbeat was always - I was always very afraid and stressed also and I was continuously praying to my god.
SHERLOCK: Then in January, he received a short message from his sister-in-law who also traveled to Syria. His wife had been killed and his children were badly injured, their faces burned. He begged her for more information. Could they still walk, still talk?
SHIKDER: She replied to me only this - yes, they can talk. They can eat. They can see. They are improving.
SHERLOCK: And he says that's the last information he has. Now Shikder, along with a human rights attorney, has come to Iraq, bordering Syria, to urge U.S. officials to help with the search. Thousands of civilians have fled the shrinking ISIS territory in Syria, and Shikder hopes his children are among them.
SHIKDER: I'm feeling that I'm more closer to my children than before. I will - really, I don't know they're really alive. this is actually - until I'll be able to touch their faces. And the horror - the fear - that I have.
SHERLOCK: The attorney helping Shikder, Clive Stafford Smith, says the U.S. consulate here have been extremely cooperative and hopes that the U.S. military could rescue the children from Syria. For now, though, the first task is to find the children, still just 8 and 4 years old. And all Shikder can do is wait. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Irbil, Northern Iraq.
(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.