PALERMO, Italy (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A four-year-old migrant girl who arrived in Italy alone from North Africa had an emotional reunion with her mother on Monday, months after a lucky break helped authorities trace the woman.
The pair embraced at Palermo airport, where the woman landed from Tunisia, almost five months after the girl, identified only as Oumoh, was plucked from a rickety boat in the Mediterranean by the Italian coastguard.
“It’s a very touching moment,” said police inspector Maria Volpe, the head of operations involving unaccompanied migrant children in Sicily, who took Oumoh to the airport of the island’s capital.
“They (mother and child) will never forget it.”
Oumoh’s mother, named only as Zanabou, took the girl from their family home in Ivory Coast to save her from female genital mutilation, police said.
Upon arriving in Tunisia, Zanabou entrusted the child to a friend and headed back home to fetch some belongings. Before she returned, the friend left for Italy with the girl, but the two were separated on the voyage, police said.
Oumoh was eventually saved at sea and brought to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa by the coastguard last November. The little girl was one of 25,000 unaccompanied minors who reached Italy in 2016.
Her identity remained a mystery for a few days until another girl recognized a photo of her while playing with the phone of the head of Lampedusa’s reception center, Marilena Cefala.
Authorities were then able to trace the mother who had returned to Tunisia.
“I would have done anything to find Oumoh,” the mother was quoted as saying by La Repubblica newspaper.
“I boarded a raft but it broke down. I can’t swim. I cried ‘God don’t let me die, I have to find my daughter.’ I came back on land then police and aid workers from Lampedusa found me. Now I am here.”
Police initially hoped the mother and daughter could be reunited by Christmas but it took longer than expected to get the 31-year-old woman a new passport, visa and travel documents, according to Volpe.
The long separation was difficult for the child who “froze” when aid workers told her she was finally to meet her mother, psychologist Maria Lea Ziino, who accompanied Oumoh to the reunion, told reporters.
As she waited for her mother’s flight to land, the girl remained glued to Ziino and Cefala, who was also at the airport.
She finally let go and sat on the lap of an emotional Zanabou as the pair sat in a private room of the building.
So far this year more than 21,000 migrants have arrived in Italy, up 50 percent from about 14,000 in the same period last year.
The number includes more than 2,000 unaccompanied minors, but lone children as young as Oumoh are a rare sight, said Volpe.
Reporting by Wladimir Pantaleone, Writing by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org