Old harbor with wooden fishing boat in Cefalu, Sicily

(Sicily photo via Master2/iStockPhoto)

When trying to calm a child, there are few things in the world as effective as just handing over a cell phone. When veteran police officer and Italian hero Maria Volpe tried that this week, she set off a bizarre chain of coincidences that led to a lost 4-year-old refugee girl in a strange country being reunited with the mother who thought she’d never see her again. It’s an odd, convoluted story, with an ending so happy everyone involved was reduced to tears.

According to The Local, Maria Volpe is a police officer in Italy, and for the past 20 years she has been working with child migrants and refugees. She’s so good at her job that people call her “Mamma Maria,” so earlier this month when a four-year-old girl was rescued from a boat at sea with no known friends, family, or relatives, local police called Volpe to the scene.

The girl’s name was Oumoh, and she was just four years old. She was traveling with about 15 other people from Tunisia to Italy, but none of the other migrants seemed to know who she was. With no other options, Volpe arranged for the little girl to be taken to a children’s center in Sicily, but at that point there did not seem like much chance of finding the girl’s family.

But last week a refugee mother traveling with her eight-year-old and a baby was rescued in the same area. In an attempt to entertain the little girl, Volpe–who has a lot of experience with children–just handed over her cell phone to let her look through pictures. Suddenly, the little girl started shouting, “It’s Oumoh!” because she recognized the missing four-year-old, whose mother was frantically looking for her in Tunisia and had no idea that her child was in Italy.

Over the phone, the four-year-old’s mother in Tunisia told Volpe that she had taken her daughter out of their home on Ivory Coast because the girl’s father and his family were insisting that the child be circumcized. To spare her daughter from female genital mutilation, the mother says she packed up her four-year-old and escaped to Tunisia. There, she left her little girl with a friend so she could go back to Ivory Coast to get some things.

When she returned, however, she says the friend and her daughter were gone. Police think that the friend suddenly found herself with a chance to get herself and her family out of Tunisia and to escape to Italy, and when that opportunity presented itself, she took it. She brought the four-year-old with her, but seems to have pretended not to know who she was when they were rescued from the boat and taken to Italy.

Now the little girl and her mother will be reunited. The mother is still in Tunisia, but Volpe says the authorities are working on the paperwork for their reunion. The mother will likely be given a family reunification visa that will allow her to join the daughter who is already in Italy. For them, this sounds like it’s one of the best possible outcomes to a bizarre and terrifying situation.

Even before this improbable and heart-warming story occurred, it was announced that Volpe would be getting Italy’s Order of Merit in recognition of her decades of service caring for and assisting unaccompanied children and minors who arrive in Italy as refugees. If anyone deserves it, she does.