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This article was published 17/8/2017 (851 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
After three years apart and more than 9,700 kilometres of travel, a Yazidi mother and son locked eyes again for the first time in Winnipeg Thursday morning.
Emad Mishko Tamo was held by his mother early Thursday morning at Winnipeg's James Armstrong Richardson International airport, a month after a photo of the 12-year-old boy circulated on social media following his liberation from Islamic State by Iraqi soldiers.
Until that point, his mother and four siblings — government-sponsored refugees living in Winnipeg — did not know whether he was alive.
Although their reunion happened behind closed doors, Hadji Hesso, a spokesman for the Yazidi Association of Manitoba, said when Nofa Mihlo Rafo first saw her son, they embraced and wept.
"The moment Emad walked through the door she ran to him and hugged him. It was nothing but hugs and tears. To see a mother and son reunited... I was crying too. I couldn't control myself," said Hesso.
After the private reunion — which included Emad's siblings and uncle — they walked to a baggage area, where the local Yazidi community, supporters and the media were waiting.
The boy entered his new life in Canada to the sound of a crowd cheering, clapping and singing, as camera shutters and lights clicked and flashed. Emad walked slowly, at times with a smile spread across his face, before saying: "Thank you Canada."
"I'm happy and very thankful for anyone who had anything to do with me reuniting with my mom," Emad said through a translator.
His mother planted a kiss on the boy's cheek and thanked all those who helped bring her son back to her.
"There's a thousand other kids like me who are still held captive, so I want to share my story so someone can help those others who are still held captive and are still in danger."-Emad Mishko Tamo
"I'm grateful. Thank God he got here safe and sound to be reunited with our family," she said, also through a translator.
It was a happy ending to a terror-filled odyssey that began three years ago when the family fled their home in the Sinjar mountain range of northern Iraq.
IS mounted an offensive into the region on Aug. 3, 2014, displacing tens of thousands of Yazidis — an ethno-religious group persecuted by IS who view them as heretics.
Although Kurdish forces eventually broke the IS siege, it was too late for thousands of men, women and children who were murdered and abducted. Emad, then nine years old, was taken prisoner with his family.
While in captivity, they were moved from place to place until Nofa Rafo and four of her children were separated from her husband and their two eldest boys.
Rafo and the four children were held prisoner for two years during which they suffered horrific abuse. The mother was forced into sex slavery and repeatedly beaten by IS militants.
She had no idea where her husband and two other children were. Even today, he whereabouts and well-being of her husband and remaining son are unknown.
Rafo and her four children were liberated when their prison camp was bombed by Iraqi forces. They were granted refugee status in January and settled in Winnipeg.
It wasn't until July 15 that Rafo got news she'd been praying for. One of her cousins told her a photo of her son was spreading on social media.
In the picture, a frail-looking Emad is sitting in the passenger seat of a vehicle, a water bottle clasped in his hands, his hair dishevelled and blood and cuts visible on his face. He'd suffered a gunshot to the arm and shrapnel wounds to the right side of his stomach, but he was alive.
Following his liberation in Mosul, Emad was taken to a refugee camp in Dohuk (Iraqi Kurdistan) where he received medical treatment. While at the camp, he was watched by an uncle and was able to speak to his mother for the first time in years. A video taken at the time shows the boy saying, "Take me to Canada to my mom."
That began the month-long process to get Emad to Winnipeg. Securing refugee status usually takes at least a year, but Emad's status was expedited on humanitarian grounds.
After settling into his new home at IRCOM House, Emad will undergo medical examination, as well as mental health treatment to address the trauma caused by years spent as an IS prisoner.
The local Yazidi community is hosting a homecoming celebration in his honour later this week.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Thursday, August 17, 2017 at 8:42 AM CDT: Adds photos
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