A Montreal man is getting much of the credit for reuniting a Yazidi mother and her 12-year-old son in Winnipeg, but there are also concerns about some of his tactics.
Nofa Zaghla and her son, Emad Tamo, publicly and repeatedly thanked Steve Maman after their reunion early Thursday morning.
"Thank you Canada. Thank you Steve Maman," Emad said at the Winnipeg airport, holding a sign that expressed gratitude to "Uncle Steve."
"There's 1,000 other kids like me that are still held captive, so I want to share my story so others can help those that are still captive and in danger," he said through an interpreter.
"I'm thankful for Canadian government and Steve Maman," Zaghla said, also through an interpreter.
Maman is the head of a Montreal-based non-profit group called the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq, and he's behind an aggressive advocacy campaign that pushed the Canadian government to expedite Emad's case.
He first heard about Emad last month, when an Iraqi journalist tagged him in a Facebook photo.
"The picture when I first saw it, it tore my heart. It's the picture where he's next to the Iraqi troops in the blue T-shirt. I said to myself, 'Poor child, he looks lost and he looked confused,'" Maman said.
Mother and son were separated after the family was captured by ISIS in northern Iraq in 2014.
Zaghla and four of her younger children escaped and spent nearly one year in a refugee camp.
She moved to Winnipeg six months ago as a government-sponsored refugee, not knowing whether her husband and two eldest sons were still alive.
Shortly after Maman posted Emad's story on social media, Emad's mother and and uncle were found living in Winnipeg.
"We gotta save the world, in my opinion, one life at a time," Maman said. "There's an opportunity in front of us and it's Emad. Emad is alive and we need to bring Emad today.… We spoke to the family and we told them, 'We can go this way or we can go this way.' They said, 'Emad is alive right now. We want to bring Emad now. He's the priority now.'"
Maman said Zaghla and the Yazidi Association of Manitoba supported the campaign that encouraged supporters to email their members of Parliament.
"Everybody had seen the photos. Everbody's hearts were touched. We needed their help to raise awareness and to put pressure on the government of Canada to act," Maman said, adding he helped facilitate a meeting between Zaghla and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen in Winnipeg on Aug. 3.
"He promised her that the file would be expedited.… A son, who was supposed to be dead, who comes out of hell alive, looking half dead, looking like he's suffered and he's got two bullet wounds. I think one was shrapnel and one was a bullet fragment. We don't want to make them wait an extra day."
Maman's group started a GoFundMe account for Zaghla, even though, as a government-sponsored refugee, her expenses are covered by the Canadian government for the first year here.
He said all the money has gone directly to Zaghla's bank account to be used as she sees fit.
"All expenses incurred around the campaign of Emad were covered and paid by CYCI or by CYCI supporters," Maman said.
However, critics say splashing Emad's face on billboards was exploitative, and posting details on social media put extended family members and ISIS captives in further danger.
"There are over 3,000 of them, and the girls who escape often tell us, 'Please don't post any videos because we get beaten or worse if you do so,'" said Anne Norona, team leader with the group Yezidi Emergency Support, based in England.
"It's really easy to assume that it's for their benefit, but often it is not. It's a really fine line between doing them harm and doing them good. It's very easy to exploit these situations."
The family's resettlement case worker in Winnipeg said the government was already acting before Maman and the Yazidi Association of Manitoba started their campaign.
"I know they had sent emails and spoke with IRCC [Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada], but that has nothing to do with the process in place," said Boris Ntambwe of Accueil Francophone. The Kurdish Initiative for Refugees and Winnipeg Friends of Israel were also involved.
"I met with the mother, we did the process, we asked the federal government to speed it up, and they did and we're grateful."
Maman's supporters say his work has helped many Yazidi people, most recently Emad.
"Steve Maman has done so much and I know his hard work is what brought Emad home today. We can't thank him enough for his efforts," Halil Hesso, president of the Yazidi Association of Manitoba, said Thursday morning at the airport.
Maman defends his approach, saying if he had not raised public awareness, Emad's case would never have been dealt with so quickly.
"We have acted and we have succeeded. The formula we use has shown to be productive. In the case of Emad … everybody involved, the presidents of communities there, some of the Conservative Party MPs I'm in touch with, they all agreed and they were all in accordance with what I've done. And they all said, had you not acted in this way, you would never have received such an expedited response for Emad," Maman said, taking aim at his critics.
"It's easy to criticize when you're not doing anything, when you're not involved the way we're involved with Yazidis, when you haven't achieved what we've achieved in helping them, when you're not as successful as we've been into helping them."
Jim Carr, the minister of natural resources and a Winnipeg Liberal MP, wouldn't comment directly on Maman's activities, but said there are many groups doing good work with the Yazidi community.
"Winnipeg has been very aggressive and compassionate on the Yazidi file with sponsoring these refugees and in particular, the Jewish community of Winnipeg has taken a leadership role. The Jewish experience has created within that community empathy and understanding for what the Yazidis are going through, and I think that Winnipeg and the Jewish community of Winnipeg have really been a model of how to respond to a horrible crisis like this," he said.
The federal government has committed to resettling 1,200 Yazidi refugees and survivors of ISIS by the end of the year. A government spokesman said more than half of them have already arrived.