Weeping uncontrollably, an overcome father tightly cuddles the little daughter he thought he would never see again. Shaking with emotion as two-year-old Rida’s tearful mum Durrah looks on, 29-year-old Aban sobs:
“I’ve been desperate to hold my little angel in my arms. “I thought I had lost her for ever.” It is a reunion her parents believed would never happen after they were separated from their daughter when their refugee boat was torn apart by waves off the coast of Greece last month.
Covered in seaweed and screaming for her mum, Rida was found alone in the sinking wreckage by the Greek navy and taken to a child rescue centre to recover. Staff believed the youngster had been separated from her family as they fled Islamic State butchers hell bent on wiping out their Turkmen tribe in their Iraq homeland.
At first it was feared Rida would never see her mum and dad again – until Durrah, 25, was finally traced. Now the full dramatic story of how this family was torn apart fleeing a world of jihadi bloodshed can be told.
Aban tells how he and his wife and daughter were within sight of a life free of car bombings, kidnappings and executions at the hands of IS butchers aboard a ramshackle boat after crossing several countries to make their escape.
But as they approached the Greek coast their craft, packed with other refugees, was hit by 12 foot waves flinging almost everyone into the sea. Aban and Durrah, distraught at losing Rida, were rescued – but then thrown in a detention centre accused of being child traffickers.
Snatching children is a plague that has emerged as gangs try to cash in on the mayhem of the Middle East exodus, homing in on little ones split from their parents during the perilous crossings. Weeks earlier, the family had decided to flee northern Iraq’s Tal Afar after IS fighters closed in on their Turkman community.
Their tribe is being persecuted by Sunni extremists from IS who have wiped out thousands. Parking attendant Aban’s home was destroyed in a blast and he was left living in a makeshift tent. He knew that their only hope of survival was to pack what possessions they could and make the 50-mile journey across the desert on foot to the city of Mosul.
They managed to buy a flight to Istanbul from where Aban hoped they could reach Italy. But he was duped into shelling out 10,000 euros to smugglers in the city’s main cargo port who promised the final 1,100-mile leg of his mammoth journey across the Mediterranean would be smooth.
Standing on the top deck of the wooden vessel, clutching Rida in his arms as huge waves began to crash into the stern, he realised the enormous danger his family was in. Surrounded by 48 other migrants who shared the same desperate hope, the tiny wooden boat was soon smashed to pieces.
Aban says: “I had been trying to escape terrorists at home, but we were now facing death. “I could see 12ft high waves and I knew right then I’d made a mistake to put my family into that mess. I was scared for my life and for the life of my family. I thought we may die.
"The boat was thrown about and was completely crushed. “I tried to hang on. I was desperate to cling on but I lost contact with my daughter. I didn’t know if she was alive or dead.” But little Rida was lucky.
She was taken to the Arsis child rescue centre in the port city of Alexandroupolis where social workers desperately tried to trace her parents. Hope emerged when staff found her Iraqi ID card. Meanwhile, after a misunderstanding, her parents had been arrested and accused of trafficking their own daughter into mainland Europe.
From his prison cell, Aban paid more than 3,000 euros on legal costs as a public prosecutor sought to put Rida in care. Aban says: “I could not believe it. “I had the ID cards but the authorities never listened to me. I had the wrong interpreter. I said my daughter was a gift from God – but they thought I was taking her as a gift for someone else.
“My wife was asked questions she didn’t understand and answered incorrectly. And then we were being accused of smuggling our own child.” The misunderstanding was only sorted out after the couple provided the public prosecutor with pictures of their daughter growing up from a mobile phone.
Rida is one of only a handful of children to be reunited with her grateful parents at the Arsis centre in Alexandroupolis. There are around a dozen children from Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan who are living at the shelter. All of them have been torn apart from their families.
Social worker Ermioni Stamati, co-ordinator of the shelter, said the centre’s workload was increasing steadily. She added: “Stories like Aban and his family are becoming increasingly common as people try to reach Europe.”
By Matthew Drake and Dan Warburton