Freed Iraqi boy settles into new life in Canada

After three years in captivity, 13-year-old Emad is reunited with his mother and siblings in Winnipeg.

Emad (second from left) sits for a family portrait with his mother and four siblings in Winnipeg, Canada.
© UNHCR/Annie Sakkab

Thirteen-year-old Emad Tammo sits in his new home surrounded by his mother and siblings, his smiling face unrecognizable from the dusty and emaciated figure found beneath the wreckage of Mosul’s Old City at the beginning of July.

Emad spent three years in captivity after he and his family, who are Yazidi, were abducted by extremists in August 2014. Initially taken with his family, he was forcibly separated from them after a few months. His mother and siblings managed to escape sometime last year, but knew nothing of Emad’s fate.

Following Emad’s discovery during the final days of the battle to retake the city of Mosul, officials from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, identified him and helped to reunite him with his mother in Canada, where she and his siblings had been resettled earlier this year.

“It’s really nice here,” Emad says, sitting on a sofa next to his smiling mother, Nofa. “The weather is great here, everything is great here. I really, really like it.”

UNHCR worked with Winnipeg's Accueil Francophone and the International Organization for Migration to reunite the family in Canada, as part of the country’s family reunification policy.

Following an emotional reunion with his family at Winnipeg International Airport, Emad has spent his first two weeks in Canada adjusting to his new life. He's learning to speak to his family in Kurdish again, after being forced to speak only Arabic while he was held captive.

Emad plays with his little brother Rebar at their home in Winnipeg, Canada.  © UNHCR/Zachary Prong

The Yazidi community in Sinjar, in north-western Iraq, was targeted by extremists in 2014. Militants separated men and boys older than 12 years old from the rest of their families, and killed those who refused to adopt their beliefs.

More than 6,000 women and girls were kidnapped and sold as slaves, among them many of Emad’s relatives.

Thousands of Yazidis were massacred or died of dehydration and exhaustion as they tried to escape the onslaught. The UN has deemed their ordeal an ongoing genocide that amounts to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

“This reunification shows that there is always hope, and that when people are fleeing persecution, we need the international community and countries like Canada to offer them a safe space,” says Jean-Nicolas Beuze, UNHCR’s Representative in Canada.

Nofa embraces Emad for the first time since they were separated in 2014. In the background, UNHCR's Representative in Canada, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, captures the moment of reunification.  © UNHCR/Zachary Prong

Now, for the first time in years, Emad can begin to let go of the past, and focus on the future.

“I want him to be healthy, I want him to be happy,” says his mother. "I want him to be able to go wherever he wants to, freely.”

With the family safe and reunited once more, Emad is enjoying being able to do things other kids his age do, like playing with his siblings. "I like them and I missed them," he says.

Charlie Dunmore contributed reporting to this story.