Nofa Zaghla weeps with emotion as she hugs her 12-year-old son in a cramped room at the Winnipeg airport in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Surrounded by tearful family and friends, a smiling Emad Mishko Tamo is being held by his mother for the first time in three years.
That’s because the young Yazidi boy was separated from his family when they were captured by the terror group ISIS in northern Iraq in August 2014. The Yazidi are a Kurdish minority targeted by ISIS for their religious beliefs.
Zaghla and her four youngest sons were split from her husband and two oldest sons, including Emad, during their time in captivity. She eventually managed to escape with her young children after more than two years.
They spent nearly one year in a refugee camp before they resettled in Winnipeg in February under the Canadian federal government’s program to resettle 1,200 Yazidi survivors.
For nearly five months, Zaghla didn’t know what became of her husband and two oldest sons. She told CTV Winnipeg through a Kurdish translator last month, that she didn’t think Emad would “make it out alive” and that she was sure he would die before she had the chance to see him again.
That is, until a piece of good news gave the Yazidi mother new hope.
‘Waking up from a grave’
Emad had been rescued by Iraqi forces during a battle in Mosul earlier this summer. In an effort to find the young boy’s family, the Iraqi army uploaded photos of Emad to social media where one of his relatives spotted it.
The UNHCR says the army discovered Emad, injured from shrapnel, bullets and bombs. He spent a month recovering in a refugee camp while groups including the Yazidi Association of Manitoba and the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), worked to expedite Emad’s resettlement in Canada.
Just 32 days after his photo was shared to social media by Iraqi forces, Emad arrived in Winnipeg.
The young boy could hardly contain his excitement about the prospect of reuniting with his mother as he waited to travel to Canada, the UNHCR said in a statement.
His uncle, Hadi Tammo, who reconnected with him in Iraq after his rescue, described Emad’s first phone conversation with his mother.
“It was like Emad was waking up from a grave. He was almost dead. He had been injured in his belly,” Tammo said.
A new home
As he walked through the airport’s security area on Thursday morning, Emad was greeted by a large crowd of well-wishers and the media. Flanked by his family and friends, the young boy thanked Canada and Steve Maman, the president of CYCI, who played an integral role in the campaign to reunite Emad and his relatives.
“I am happy, I am very thankful for everyone that had anything to do with me being reunited with my mother,” he said through a translator.
Emad also used the opportunity to draw attention to the plight of other children facing similar hardships.
“There is a thousand other kids like me that are still held captive so I want to share my story so that someone can help those others that are still held captive and are still in danger,” he said.
Emad isn’t the only one who hopes his experience will help others. Hadji Hesso, the president of the Yazidi Association of Manitoba, said the group’s work isn’t finished yet.
“There are thousands of Emads that are waiting for help and we want Canada to do more,” Hesso said.
Zaghla expressed her gratitude to everyone who helped to facilitate her son’s arrival.
“I am very happy and very thankful,” she said through a translator. “Thank God that he got here safe and sound and I got to reunite with him.”
As Emad adjusts to his new home, he will have a long road of recovery of him. The young boy will receive medical attention as well as treatment for psychological trauma he suffered in captivity, though he plans to start school as soon as he’s able to. His father and older brother’s whereabouts are still unknown.
With files from CTV Winnipeg