Until a month ago, 12-year-old Emad Mishko Tamo's family did not know if he was even alive. But on early Thursday morning, freed after three years of captivity at the hands of the Islamic State, he was reunited with his mother at a Winnipeg airport.
A large crowd of relatives and supporters gathered at Winnipeg International Airport for Emad's arrival, a month after a relative recognized the boy's picture on social media. He was captured in 2014 as the Islamic State attacked northern Iraq, abducting, raping and murdering the Kurdish religious minority Yazidis.
His mother, Nofa Mihlo Zaghla, embraced her son as cheers went up from the crowd on hand. Emad was freed just weeks ago in the city of Mosul, Iraq, which has been the focus of a fierce liberation campaign by the Iraqi army. Ms. Zaghla's brother-in-law saw the boy in a photo from the Iraqi army, which was hoping to find his relatives. With the help of the Canadian government, the boy was reunited with his family in just 32 days.
"Thank you Canada," Emad said while surrounded by relatives and supporters at the airport.
Ms. Zaghla came to Canada six months ago as a refugee with four of her children, settling in Winnipeg, which is home to about 300 Yazidis, many of whom are refugees. "I wasn't sure if I was ever going to see him again but I was still hopeful, I was never doubtful," she told reporters through an interpreter. Her husband and one of her sons are still missing.
Speaking through an interpreter, Emad said there are a thousand other children like him who are still being held captive by IS and he wants to share his story so that they can be helped.
Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees representative in Canada, said the focus now for Emad will be returning to a normal child's life. Despite the trauma Emad has been through, Mr. Beuze said, "In general, we see that at that age … children have a very good coping mechanism and resilience, and through the normal life with the family, going back to school, learning a new language, learning a new way of living with their siblings, most of the children are able to cope with the trauma they suffered."
Emad was brought to Winnipeg through the efforts of the Yazidi Association of Manitoba. Hadji Hesso, the association's director, said Emad was accompanied by UNHCR representatives on his flight to Canada, and that they brought him to a private room at the airport to reconnect with his family before walking out to the waiting crowd in the arrivals area.
Mr. Hesso said Emad's siblings, uncle, cousins and grandmother were also in the room. "As soon as he opened the door, he kind of [said] 'Wow!' and he ran to his mother, with hugging and kissing and his mother started crying.
"It was emotional for everybody, whether you know Emad [and] the mother or not."
He said Emad was still recovering from gunshot wounds suffered in the firefight between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State.
The militant group launched an offensive in northern Iraq in August, 2014, displacing tens of thousands of Yazidis, an ethnic-religious group indigenous to the region. The Yazidis are regarded as infidels by IS and other Islamic extremist groups. Thousands of women have been sold into sex slavery and many families separated. The Canadian government has pledged to relocate 1,200 Yazidi refugees by the end of this year after a House of Commons motion recognized their plight as a genocide at the hands of the Islamic State.
Federal Immigration spokeswoman Nancy Chan said in an e-mail that as of July 3, Canada has welcomed 564 survivors, including 48 privately sponsored refugees. Of these, there were 157 women, 275 children and 132 men. She added the government is on track to meet its target of resettling 1,200 Yazidis.
The Yazidi Association of Manitoba, the Kurdish Initiative for Refugees and Winnipeg Friends of Israel went public with Emad's story last month to try to get Canadian officials to act quickly to bring the boy to Canada.
According to a letter written by the association to members of Parliament, Ms. Zaghla lived with her husband and six children in Iraq until the summer of 2014 when her village was attacked.
They were held captive for two years, during which time the association said Ms. Zaghla was forced to serve as a sex slave to the militants.
As they were moved from place to place, she became separated from her husband and her two oldest sons, and when she managed to escape with four of her children during an attack on their compound, she made her way to Canada with no expectation she would see them again.
Mr. Hesso said Ms. Zaghla expressed how she wished they could have been on the flight to Canada with Emad. "But at the same time she's happy at least she has one of them back. So you can't put it in words how happy she is."
- With files from Canadian Press and CTV Winnipeg.