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A viral photo helps bring Syrian refugee family to Italy

The picture of Mustafa and his father, both with loving smiles, which was taken in January 2021 by Turkish photographer Mehmet Aslan and called “Hardship of Life,” was declared photo of the year at the Siena awards last year.

By: New York Times |
January 22, 2022 1:30:38 pm
Munzir al-Nazzal, who lost his leg in the Syrian conflict, holds his son 5-year hold Mustafa, upon their arrival at Fiumicino's Leonardo Da Vinci airport, near Rome, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP)

Written by Gaia Pianigiani

The award-winning photograph — of a man who had lost a leg in a bomb attack in Syria, hoisting into the air his son, born without limbs, another casualty of the country’s civil war — went viral last year in Italy.

On Friday, Munzir El Nezzel, the man in the picture, and his son Mustafa arrived in Italy after a remarkable effort by the organizers of the Siena International Photo Awards, to bring them and their family from Turkey, where they had fled after Syria.

“We are coming, thank you,” 6-year-old Mustafa, smiling broadly, said in a video message recorded before he and his family — El Nezzel, the boy’s mother and two sisters ages 1 and 4 — boarded a plane in Ankara, Turkey, on Thursday to fly to Italy. “We love Italia,” he added.

The picture of Mustafa and his father, both with loving smiles, which was taken in January 2021 by Turkish photographer Mehmet Aslan and called “Hardship of Life,” was declared photo of the year at the Siena awards last year.

The emotional and shocking picture made headlines in Italy and spread internationally on social media, spurring the festival’s organizers to take action and start a fundraising drive to get treatment for father and son.

The festival’s organizers contacted diplomats, hospitals, rehabilitation centers and the Catholic diocese in Siena to host the Syrian family, so that Mustafa and his father could get treatment and prosthetics.

“The picture was beyond all imagination,” said Luca Venturi, an engineer who founded the Siena photography festival, which bestowed the award, about six years ago. “We thought we could also go beyond our fear of not being able to do anything for this family.”

Like all countries, Italy can issue visas for humanitarian reasons, but refugees need to be sponsored by a local organization that handles paperwork and provides financial support.

Motivated by the success of the crowdfunding effort, the nonprofit that organizes the photography festival decided to sponsor the Syrian family.

“It was a big dream for everybody,” Venturi said.

As Venturi worked his connections in Italy, trying to get permission to bring the family from Turkey, he kept regular contact with El Nezzel via WhatsApp, using Google Translate to communicate in Arabic with the 33-year-old father of three.

Venturi also sent aerial shots of Siena’s walled medieval city center to explain to the family, who had lived without a television for a decade, where they were going to move.

El Nezzel responded with exclamation points.

When the family was told this month that their visas had come through, “they were in disbelief,” Venturi said, adding that in a video, Mustafa did somersaults and laughed, shouting “I love you” to him.

Mustafa was born with a congenital disorder that resulted from medications that his mother had to take while pregnant with him, after she was sickened by nerve gas released during the war in Syria. He will need long-term treatment to be able to walk or live more independently. His parents currently carry him around, and one of his two sisters also helps him around the house.

Prosthetics experts in Italy will meet with Mustafa and his father in coming weeks to design new artificial limbs. El Nezzel’s treatment is likely to be easier because he is an adult. Working with a 6-year-old will be more challenging, according to the doctors and engineers of Italy’s leading rehabilitation and prosthetics center.

Gregorio Teti, director of the facility, the Centro Protesi Inail, in Vigorso di Budrio in northern Italy, said that the father could recover most of his mobility in a few weeks.

For Mustafa, the process could be longer, starting with simple prosthetics on his upper limbs that are usually easier to accept and get accustomed to. Later, engineers will design artificial limbs around Mustafa’s hips.

“It’s a technical but also a psychological learning curve,” Teti said. “His world will change, and even accepting that takes time.”

As Mustafa grows, his prosthetics will have to be adjusted to his changing body.

“As a child, he has time on his side,” Teti said. “Research will probably allow him to drive a car and get to work autonomously when he is older.”

But he will also be facing the challenges of migrating to a foreign country, learning a different language and creating a new life.

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“Leaving your home country is always an enormous jump, but we hope to help them find a new home here,” said Anna Ferretti, who is in charge of the city’s branch of Caritas, a Catholic aid association that is offering the El Nezzels an apartment on the outskirts of Siena and will cover their daily financial needs for a year.

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