ROME – Abdullah Kurdi, the father of the young refugee boy who death five years ago woke the world up to the reality of the migration crisis, has described his recent meeting with Pope Francis as the best birthday present that he’s ever received.

Kurdi met Pope Francis March 7 after the pope celebrated Mass in Erbil on the last full day of his historic March 5-8 visit to Iraq.

Speaking to Crux, Kurdi said that when he got a call just two weeks ago from Kurdish security forces saying the pope wanted to meet him while he was in Erbil, “I could not believe it.”

“I still did not believe it until this actually happened,” he said, adding, “It was like a dream come true and it was my best birthday gift ever,” as the meeting happened one day before Kurdi’s birthday on March 8.

Kurdi and his family made global headlines in 2015 when their boat capsized while crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece in an attempt to reach Europe.

Originally from Syria, Kurdi, his wife Rehanna, and his sons Ghalib, 4, and Alan, 2, had fled due to the country’s ongoing civil war and were living as refugees in Turkey.

Alan Kurdi (L) and this older brother Ghalib (R). (Credit: Photo courtesy Tima Kurdi.)

After several attempts to sponsor the family by Abdullah’s sister Tima, who lives in Canada, failed, Abdullah in 2015, when the migration crisis was at its peak, decided to take his family to Europe after Germany pledged to take in one million refugees.

In September of that year, Abdullah with Tima’s help secured four places for himself and his family on a boat traveling from Bodrum, Turkey, to the Greek island of Kos. However, shortly after setting sail, the boat – which only had a capacity for eight people but was carrying 16 – capsized, and while Abdullah was able to reach safety, his family met a different fate.

The next morning, the image of his son Alan’s lifeless body washed up on the shores of Turkey exploded in international media and social platforms after being captured by Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir.

Little Alan Kurdi has since become a global icon symbolizing the risks refugees often face in their pursuit of a better life. In October 2017, two years after the incident, Pope Francis – a vocal advocate on behalf of migrants and refugees – gifted a sculpture of Alan to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters in Rome.

After the incident, Kurdi was offered a house in Erbil, where he has lived ever since.

Kurdi, who had long dreamed of meeting the pope to thank him for his advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees and for honoring his late son, said he could barely speak for the week leading up to the emotional encounter, which he called a “miracle,” the significance of which “I don’t know how to tell you in words.”

“The moment when I saw the pope, I kissed his hand and told him it was an honor to meet him and thank you for your kindness and compassion towards my family’s tragedy and toward all refugees,” Kurdi said, noting that there were other people waiting to greet the pope after his Mass in Erbil, but he was granted the most time with the pontiff.

“When I kissed the pope’s hands, the pope was praying and he held his hands up to the sky and told me that my family is in heaven resting in peace,” Kurdi said, recalling how at that moment, his eyes began to brim with tears.

“I wanted to cry,” Kurdi said, “but I said, ‘hold yourself,’ because I didn’t want (the pope) to feel sad.”

Kurdi then gave the pope a painting of his son Alan on the beach as a gift “so the pope can remind the people of that image in order to help the people who are suffering, so they do not forget,” he said.

This painting of Alan Kurdi done by an Iraqi artist in Erbil was given to Pope Francis by Alan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi, during his meeting with pope on March 7, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Abdullah Kurdi.)

The painting was done by a local artist in Erbil that Kurdi knew. According to Kurdi, as soon as he found out he would meet the pope, he called the artist and asked him to paint the picture “as another reminder to the people so they can help suffering refugees,” especially children.

“Back in 2015, the image of my son was the wakeup call to the world, and it touched millions of people’s hearts and inspired them to help refugees,” Kurdi said, noting that nearly six years later, the crisis is not over, and millions are still living as refugees, often in unimaginable conditions.

“I hope this picture will be a reminder again so people can help (alleviate) human suffering,” he said.

After the death of his family, Kurdi and his sister Tima launched the Alan Kurdi Foundation, an NGO which specifically supporting refugee children, providing them food, clothing, and school supplies. Although the foundation has been inactive during the coronavirus pandemic, they hope to start holding activities again soon.

Kurdi himself is now remarried and has another son, who he also named Alan, who will turn one year old in April.

Kurdi said he made the decision to name his newest son Alan because in Middle Eastern culture, once a man becomes a father, he is no longer called by his name but is referred to as “Abu,” or “the father of” their first child.

This photo shows a marble statue representing the tragedy of migration donated by Pope Francis during his visit to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on the occasion of the World Food Day, Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. The statue commemorates Alan Kurdi, the 2-year old refugee boy drowned on Sept. 2015 while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. (Credit: Andrew Medichini/AP.)

Since the tragic incident in 2015, people started referring to Kurdi as, “Abu Alan,” so when his new son was born, he decided to name the boy after his older brother.

For Kurdi, the opportunity to meet Pope Francis not only held monumental personal significance, but he hopes it can be a reminder to the world that while the migration crisis is no longer making headlines like it used to, “human suffering continues.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen