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Jewish Canadians raising funds to rescue Yazidi refugee families

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Defend International provide aid to Yazidi refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
Defend International provide aid to Yazidi refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

Last May, a number of members of Winnipeg’s Jewish community launched Operation Ezra, a fundraising campaign to bring an endangered Yazidi family to Winnipeg, and it’s been far more successful than the organizers could have imagined: it’s raised more than $100,000 – enough to save four Yazidi families.

“Considering how successful our fundraising efforts have been, we are now considering further expanding the number of Yazidis we can bring to Winnipeg,” said Operation Ezra committee member Michel Aziza. “This is a rare opportunity to do something really good in the world. These kind of opportunities don’t come along very often in one’s life.”

The Yazidi people are an ethno-religious community based largely in northwestern Iraq. The ancient monotheistic religion they practise combines elements from a variety of traditions, including Gnostic Christianity, Judaism, Sufi Islam and Zoroastrianism. Due to a misinterpretation of the role that a peacock angel represents in their religion, they have often been labelled as devil worshippers and have been persecuted throughout much of their history by various Muslim groups in the region.

In the summer of 2014, the little-known Yazidis – who number about 700,000 – shot to international prominence for a short time when ISIS stormed into their region. Many Yazidis were slaughtered or enslaved. Many more fled to Mount Sinjar, where the United States and other western countries dropped supplies to help them survive until they could escape into the Kurdish area to the north or to refugee camps in Turkey. Many perished from starvation, dehydration and at the hands of ISIS.

There are currently about 180 Yazidis in Winnipeg, including Nafiya Naso whose family was one of the first to come to Winnipeg. She and her family arrived in Manitoba in 1999 thanks to the sponsorship of the Pembina Mennonite Fellowship Church in Morden in southern Manitoba. The family lived in Morden for three years before moving to Winnipeg.

Naso said she and her family were originally scared of associating with Jews.

“We were taught by extremist Muslims in a refugee camp when we were growing up that Jews were monsters who killed innocent children,” she said.

“We have learned since coming here that the Jewish community are among our best friends. Members of the Jewish community have been among the first to step up to help our people.”

The plight of her brother and sister Yazidis in the Middle East came to the attention of the wider Jewish community about a year ago through the efforts of the year-old Winnipeg Friends of Israel, who invited Naso to speak at one of their programs.

“I learned about Nafiya and the plight of the Yazidi people last March from Yolanda [Papini-Pollock, a co-founder of the Winnipeg Friends of Israel] while chairing a Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University program,” said Belle Jarniewski. “I was very moved. Being a child of Holocaust survivors, I can identify with the dire situation that the Yazidis find themselves in. What they are facing is a genocide. I felt a moral responsibility to help.”

Jarniewski, Aziza, Papini-Pollock and a number of others decided to take action. They learned how to sponsor refugees and explored a number of different avenues. “We don’t have a formal campaign,” Aziza said. “We just started approaching people and asking for donations. We also had people approaching us. One individual from Alberta gave us $34,000, which will essentially cover the cost to sponsor one entire family.”

Jarniewski said it costs $12,500 to sponsor one adult refugee, according to federal government regulations. And there are only a limited number of organizations (sponsorship agreement holders) who have signed sponsorship agreements with the government of Canada to help support refugees from abroad when they resettle in Canada, she said.

“They are generally religious, ethnic, community or service organizations. Private sponsor groups partner with them to bring refugees in. Our sponsorship agreement holder is the Mennonite Central Committee,” she said.

“We have also been working through the Mennonite Fellowship Church in Morden, Calvary Temple in Winnipeg and, more recently, with the Jewish Child and Family Service in Winnipeg.”

The families that Operation Ezra hopes to bring to Winnipeg currently live in a refugee camp in Turkey. These refugees range from a single young man, 18 years of age, to a family of eight.

“The refugees are living in appalling conditions at the UNHCR refugee camp where summer temperatures often reach 50 degrees Celsius,” Jarniewski said. “The winter that lies ahead is going to be equally challenging. And there are no school facilities available for the children.”

Despite funds being in place, Aziza said it will take between six and 18 months for the refugees to arrive in Canada. “We are going to be engaging as many people as we can to try to expedite the process,” he said. “We are going to push as hard as we can to get them here as soon as we can. It is not safe for them in the camps.”

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