Yazidi women and children at the United Nations refugee camp at Arbat, near Sulaimani, in the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region of Northern Iraq.
(photo credit: HAJIR SHARIFI)
A group of Israeli ex-pats and friends of Israel living in the middle of Canada has taken up the cause of the Yazidi people.
The group, Winnipeg Friends of Israel, launched Operation Ezra last spring to raise funds to privately sponsor several Yazidi refugees to Canada.
To date, the group has raised over $180,000 and, with the help of other local agencies, has filed refugee sponsorship applications for four Yazidi families. These families currently live in UN-sponsored refugee camps in Turkey, and all have relatives or friends already living in Winnipeg.
Winnipeg Friends of Israel (WIF) was founded in early 2015 as a grassroots, multi-faith, bridge-building organization dedicated to fighting anti-Israel bias in the media, anti-Semitism and bigotry and intolerance in general.
“Winnipeg Friends of Israel believes that by creating personal relationships and reaching out to other communities, we could assist in combating racism and prejudice,” explains Israeli-born co-founder Yolanda Papini-Pollock.
This focus on bridge building led WFI to Nafiya Naso, a representative of the 200-strong Yazidi community in Winnipeg.
WFI invited Naso to speak to its members about the plight of her people and her community’s efforts to sponsor their family and friends to Canada as refugees.
Naso, a mother of two young sons, arrived in Canada with her parents and sister in 1999, after fleeing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime and spending eight years in a Syrian refugee camp.
The Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority who have lived in Northern Iraq and Kurdistan for generations and have quietly endured persistent persecution.
Their plight came to world attention, although only briefly, in August 2014 when they were targeted by Islamic State (IS) jihadists. Hundreds were killed or abducted in these attacks, and thousands were trapped without provisions on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq.
“Persecutions are nothing new to the Yazidi minority in Iraq,” Naso explains.
“The Yazidis have suffered 74 massacres in their history by Shi’ites, Sunnis, Kurds and governments, due to religious, ethnic, cultural and national intolerance.”
As a result of these massacres, the Yazidi population worldwide has dwindled from about 23 million to only 700,000, most of whom are refugees.
It was upon hearing about the Yazidis’ history of persecution and the seeming lack of international interest in their plight that WFI was inspired to launch Operation Ezra.
“The Yazidis are targeted solely because of their religious beliefs and have no country to protect them nor means to protect themselves,” said Papini-Pollock.
“Their plight reminded us of historical periods prior to the establishment of Israel in which Jewish people were defenseless and were targets of hate and persecution because of their religion,” she adds. “We remembered that most people and countries were indifferent to the Jewish plight and very few stretched their arms to help.”
Canada was among those countries, refusing for many years to open its doors to Jewish refugees from World War II.
In addition to completing all the paperwork and fundraising for the refugee sponsorships, WFI has helped Naso raise general awareness about her people’s suffering.
The organization has arranged several speaking engagements for her at local synagogues and other community events and has helped her attain significant media attention. At the same time, WFI has brought together disparate local Jewish community agencies to work together towards the common goal of sponsoring, supporting and resettling as many as 15 Yazidi families.
“We want to let the Yazidis know that they are not alone,” Papini-Pollock adds.
“We want them to know that we understand their pain and that we will do everything we can to bring awareness to their plight and use our unfortunate experiences to help them.”
“Winnipeg Friends of Israel have been very supportive,” Naso says. “They continue to spread awareness and move forward with us every day, creating a world in which Yazidis, Jews and any other minority are able to live without the constant fear of death, oppression and intolerance.”
It likely will take several months until the sponsored Yazidi refugees arrive in Winnipeg, but when they do, Winnipeg Friends of Israel and Winnipeg Jewish community members will welcome them with open arms.