ROME – On his last day in Iraq, Pope Francis held a surprise meeting with Abdullah Kurdi, the father of a young refugee child who captured the world’s imagination when his lifeless body washed up on the shores of Turkey nearly six years ago.

Paramilitary police officers investigate the scene before carrying the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, after a number of migrants died and a smaller number were reported missing after boats carrying them to the Greek island of Kos capsized, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum early Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015.  (Credit: Associated Press.)

The two met after Pope Francis’s Mass in the Stadium of Erbil, which was the last formal event of his historic March 5-8 visit to Iraq. The pope is scheduled to fly back to Rome Monday morning.

In a brief statement after the March 7 encounter, the Vatican said the pope “spent a long time” with Kurdi, and with the help of an interpreter “was able to listen to the pain of the father for the loss of his family and to express his profound participation and that of the Lord in the suffering of this man.”

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

In September 2015, when ISIS was still at large and the global migration crisis was at its peak, the family with the help of Kurdi’s sister decided to pay for a boat ride across the Aegean Sea along with several other families and individuals in an attempt to reach Europe.

However, the voyage turned deadly when the boat capsized and Kurdi was unable to hold onto his wife and sons, aged four and two, all of whom perished. Kurdi himself was one of just four survivors.

The image of Alan Kurdi, 2, washed up on the Turkish shores the next morning exploded across social media. Since then, Alan Kurdi has since become an international icon symbolizing the dangers refugees often face in their pursuit of a better life.

In October 2017, two years after the incident, Pope Francis gifted a sculpture of Alan Kurdi to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters in Rome.

Abdullah’s sister Tima, who paid for the family’s deadly attempted sea crossing, has become an international author and speaker, advocating on behalf of migrants and refugees. She and Abdullah together have launched the Alan Kurdi Foundation, an NGO offering specific help to refugee children.

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After the death of his family, Kurdi was offered a house in Erbil, where he has lived ever since.

According to the Vatican statement, during his meeting with Pope Francis Kurdi thanked the pope “for his words of closeness to his tragedy and that of all those migrants who seek understanding, peace, and security, leaving their country at the risk of their lives.”