It all began with the hunt for an extremely valuable old Bentley that lay amid the rubble of war-ravaged Iraq.
Montreal businessman Steve Maman was an importer of vintage cars who scoured the globe for collectors. He became aware of the thousands of vehicles that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had owned. Maman located the Bentley, but too late. It had already been bought by an American.
That quest would pale in comparison to a life-and-death mission that he could never have dreamed would consume three years of his life.
In 2015, Maman, an Orthodox Jew and father of six who was born in Morocco in 1973, created a foundation known as the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), in the wake of the genocide perpetrated by ISIS. Thousands of women and girls were being captured, tortured and forced into sex slavery.
Maman had made some influential contacts in Iraq, notably Canon Andrew White, an envoy of the Anglican Church, and his young Kurdish protégé who had first-hand experience in covert humanitarian relief, including trying to get the last five Jews in Baghdad out, an effort with which Maman became involved a little earlier.
Maman raised about $1.5 million to rescue the Yazidi captives, then assembled a multifaith CYCI team to negotiate their release and get them out of the country.
Maman said that 140 Yazidi females were liberated by CYCI from ISIS territory between June and November 2015, and he can back up each one of them, and thousands more Yazidis and other refugees from ISIS terrorism were assisted after that.
Maman courted international media attention, which aroused serious questions about what he was doing. Indeed, some Yazidi leaders signed a petition claiming Maman had not saved as many people as he claimed and taking issue with his tactics.
Today, however, Maman feels vindicated. He takes comfort in the fact that one of the signatories, prominent Yazidi activist Mirza Dinnayi, in 2017 changed his mind about CYCI’s work, after conducting his own investigation, and stated so in writing. Dinnayi was awarded the US$1-million ($1.33-million) Aurora Prize in October for his role in rescuing people from ISIS.
CYCI still exists, but wound up most of its activities in 2018. Maman has kept a low profile since then, but on Nov. 20, he spoke at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal, revealing aspects of his work that he said he had not talked about before.
He accepted to do so, he explained, because the congregation and particularly its president, Edmond Elbaz, were among the few in the Montreal Jewish community to encourage his mission, which he describes as one of kiddush ha-Shem.
Over an hour and a half, Maman related an incredible story, which he stressed is documented, including each of the liberations, from beginning to end.
Maman credited his daughter Alexia, as well as Julia Benlolo Maman (no relation), the niece of the synagogue’s cantor, Daniel Benlolo, with being key to CYCI’s success.
Maman said he had the support of the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who he described as a “hero” who inspired him, and that Morocco also played an integral role.
The most serious question asked was whether CYCI was paying ISIS. “We never paid ransom to terrorists,” he insisted.
Typically, CYCI would try to buy the women from the “civilians” who purchased them from ISIS, using currency and legal threats, or directly at market.
Between November 2015 and November 2016, CYCI distributed food, clothing, medical supplies and other necessities to the 25,000 Yazidis, Christians and Muslims in refugee camps in Kurdistan, he said.
Throughout 2016, CYCI also operated in Greece. “We took 2,311 Yazidi refugees from Lesvos and assisted in transferring them to Germany. We paid everything from train, bus and ferry tickets to food rations,” he said.
“We then proceeded to the Macedonian border, where 20,000 refugees were amassed, as we had heard the Yazidis were being beaten and badly treated. There were 1,500 Yazidis in tents in the middle of 20,000 Syrians and others.”
In partnership with the Greek government, the Yazidis were taken to a camp on Mount Olympus.
Maman believes he has proved the skeptics wrong because CYCI documented – through videos, testimonies and fingerprinted paperwork – everything it did and published it on its website.
“This is our work. Nobody can ever take it away from us or diminish it,” said Maman, who says he at first resisted the sobriquet “the Jewish Schindler,” but now accepts it with pride.
Maman is still haunted by how the rescues ended though. At the beginning of 2016, a group of 20 girls that CYCI brought to the Syrian border were not allowed to pass by the Kurdish government, then led by President Masoud Barzani, said Maman, who to this day does not know their fate.
Maman said he was under RCMP protection for two years, but believes he never had a problem with jihadists because he avoided criticizing radical Islam and stuck to the humanitarian goal.
In fact, he called some in the media a bigger obstacle than ISIS. “A Jewish man helping Christians and Yazidis did not fit their narrative of the Jewish state persecuting the Palestinians,” he said.