Lydie and Patrice Maninchedda appealed to president Emmanuel Macron in February, begging him to have the "humanity" to bring their three small grandsons to France.
The Manincheddas live in the small town of Libercourt, near Lille. Lydie (59) teaches in a lycée. Patrice (60) is a businessman.
Their only child, Julie, converted to Islam in 2011. “Islamic State didn’t exist yet,” Mrs Maninchedda says. “But the Islamists were already recruiting in the north of France. My daughter was interested in literature and philosophy and spirituality. She had a lot of Muslim friends. We didn’t realise what was happening, though there were signs. She stopped wearing make-up, stopped caring about her appearance.”
Julie majored in French and German literature at the University of Lille. She moved to Leipzig for her studies. There she met a German convert to Islam called Martin Lemke. They married. She became pregnant and dropped out of university.
"They left for Syria, " her mother says. "The day I learned they had gone, I said, 'We have lost our daughter.'"
Lemke joined Isis’s secret police in Raqqa and took multiple wives. Julie kept in touch with her parents, against her husband’s wishes.
“She always said she loved us,” Mrs Maninchedda sighs. She had seen the first baby, Saleh, now five, when he was six months old. The Lemkes had two more sons in Syria, Amar, now three, and Obeida, now one.
About a year ago, Julie left Lemke because he was violent. She married again, to a Moroccan who had also joined Isis. Mrs Maninchedda last heard from her daughter, who was 26, in October 2018. The couple and their newborn child were killed soon after.
Lemke was arrested by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and is in prison in Syria.
A reporter for Libération newspaper found the Manincheddas’ grandchildren in the al-Hawl refugee camp in February. Obeida’s face was scarred by shrapnel. His brother Amar was “covered with bruises and had no more hair. He couldn’t walk,” Libération reported. Saleh barely spoke, other than to say, “Mama is in heaven.”
On March 15th, unknown to Mrs Maninchedda, her three grandsons were in a French military aircraft bound for Villacoublay airbase, outside Paris. French special forces had gone to al-Hawl refugee camp. With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the SDFs, they extracted the boys.
The Manincheddas received a call from the foreign ministry, telling them their grandsons were in Paris under the care of doctors and psychologists until they can be entrusted to their grandparents.
“I didn’t expect it. It was a great joy and a huge relief,” Mrs Maninchedda said.