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Syrian Boy Reunites With Family In London

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Near the end of this dark year, a scene of joy at international arrivals in London Heathrow Airport this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Crying).

SHAPIRO: Eleven-year-old Fawaz Almahmoud was greeted by 14 of his family members. They are bombarding him with balloons, hugs and tears.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Fawaz, Fawaz.

SHAPIRO: An uncle lifts him on his shoulders there. This is the first time the boy had seen any family for more than a year. He spent that time in Greece in a detention center, a refugee camp and briefly with a foster family. The reunion was a mixture of emotions, says Hanan Ashegh, who helped make this moment happen.

HANAN ASHEGH: An emotional roller coaster of guilt and ecstatic happiness, relief.

SHAPIRO: She is the founder and director of a nonprofit called Goodwill Caravan. They had been working on Fawaz Almahmoud's case for about 14 months.

ASHEGH: He had been separated from his mom and dad on the border of Syria and Turkey because of - they were taking sniper fire. Fawaz's parents told him to run in the other direction because it wasn't safe to run back to his parents.

SHAPIRO: The 11-year-old boy was left by himself to endure a grueling journey across borders. Eventually, he made it to Greece aboard a dinghy overflowing with refugees. Ashegh says Almahmoud endured beatings at the camp. Sometimes, he went without food. She says he hasn't slept a night since he arrived in the U.K. because of ongoing trauma and medical issues. His parents still have not been located. The relatives he's now with include aunts and uncles. The pandemic made arranging this reunion especially difficult, she says.

ASHEGH: We used to send lawyers just to go and visit. And even to get the visitation rights for lawyers' a long process, mainly this time because of the pandemic but also, generally, the asylum laws in Greece are forever changing. And that causes even further delays.

SHAPIRO: Ashegh says a lot of migrant children just disappear. The European Migration Network estimates that more than 30,000 have gone missing. In some ways, Fawaz Almahmoud's case is the exception. For now, Goodwill Caravan and his family are savoring this moment. They're trying to help him lead a normal life now that he's safe.

ASHEGH: We've just finished buying Fawaz a football-themed bedroom because he loves football and wants to be a football player when he gets older.

SHAPIRO: The road to recovery after Fawaz Almahmoud's tumultuous year may take some time. But for now he is surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins who are relieved to welcome him home. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.