Abdullah Kurdi’s world shattered in early September when his wife and two young sons drowned after the boat they were using capsized as they made their way from Turkey to Greece.
The next morning, images of the Syrian family’s tragedy shocked the world: Abdullah’s youngest son, Alan, 3, lying face-down on a Turkish beach, washed ashore after the harrowing journey.
The grief-stricken father, who was the only survivor from the family, has channeled his pain into a way to help other refugee children.
The government in the Kurdish region in northeast Iraq invited Abdullah “to stay in that country and help him rebuild his life,” his sister, Tima Kurdi, tells PEOPLE. (Abdullah and his family had hoped to eventually join Tima at her home near Vancouver, Canada.)
Abdullah moved to the Kurdish region and wished for two things: an apartment and aid from the government in his quest to help children in the area s refugee camps.
He’s gotten both, says Tima, who joined Abdullah for three weeks as he visited refugees in camps as well as on the streets.
About 1.7 million Syrians and Iraqi refugees now live in the Kurdish region in Iraq, she says. Abdullah and Tima are also working on the creation of an international non-profit that will be named in honor of Alan to further Abdullah’s reach in helping refugees.
“I saw how happy he is to talk to the kids there,” she says. “He would say, ‘What do you want?’ and most of the kids say they want school supplies.”
Abdullah told his sister: “Every time I ask a refugee, ‘What do you need?’ it will take me back to my family. It’s the feeling of love inside me.”
Abdullah delivered the children’s wishes to the government and one week later, she says, “I don’t know how many thousands of backpacks” were distributed.
Abdullah, says Tima, told her of his newfound purpose, saying, “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Another brother, Mohammed – who was a refugee for over three years – his wife and five children recently found a fresh start with a move to Tima’s home in Canada.
Mohammed, a barber, finds comfort in giving haircuts and trims at Tima’s newly-opened salon, a business the hairstylist waited to open until Mohammed arrived.
“It’s a beautiful feeling,” Tima says of working side-by-side with Mohammed.