On Aug. 3, Winnipeg was witness to two separate commemorations of the Yazidis who were victims of genocide at the hands of ISIS in Iraq.
First up was a rally on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature – organized by the Yazidi Association of Manitoba – at 5 p.m., which was reportedly attended by about 300, including representatives from all three levels of government.
Two hours later, a second commemorative program – organized by Operation Ezra – was held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg. It was also attended by representatives of the three levels of government (albeit different elected representatives than those at the first rally).
Operation Ezra is an ongoing initiative, largely led by a number of Winnipeg Jewish community organizations, to sponsor Yazidi refugees. To date, Operation Ezra has raised close to $500,000 and brought seven Yazidi families, numbering 41 individuals, to Winnipeg, with three more families en route.
The Yazidis are an ancient people who practice a unique form of monotheism. Yet many Muslims in their homeland consider them to be “devil worshippers.” The worldwide Yazidi population numbers about 700,000.
The most recent pogrom began in August 2014, when their communities in Iraq were overrun by ISIS. Many were murdered, while those who could fled to nearby Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped for up to a week without food, water or shelter, before being rescued by Syrian Kurdish fighters. Many others were captured and enslaved with women and young girls becoming sex slaves and young boys being turned into suicide bombers for ISIS.
The plight of the Yazidis was brought to the attention of Winnipeg’s Jewish community by Nafiya Naso, a member of the Yazidi community in Winnipeg, whose refugee family was brought to Manitoba 20 years ago by a church group. In the fall of 2015, she was invited to speak to Winnipeg Friends of Israel. After that, Naso became the face of the Yazidi people in Winnipeg. She was subsequently invited to speak to other groups about the suffering of the Yazidis at the hands of ISIS.
As a result of Naso’s presentations, a number of members of the Jewish community launched Operation Ezra to raise awareness of the situation and to raise money to bring Yazidi refugees to Winnipeg.
While Hadji Hesso, the president of the Yazidi Association of Manitoba, praises the efforts of Operation Ezra, he expressed disappointment that neither the organizers behind Operation Ezra, nor the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, had reached out to his group.
“We were never contacted by anyone,” says Hesso, who has been in Winnipeg for 17 years. “The Jewish community should be working to bring our two Yazidi factions together.”
Michel Aziza, chair of the Operation Ezra working committee, says that his group’s mandate is to rescue endangered Yazidis, not to get involved in inter-community disputes.
Azizi adds that while the Operation Ezra working committee is deeply saddened by the apparent division within the Winnipeg Yazidi community, it remains hopeful that the community matters can be resolved, so that everyone involved is able to focus on what is of primary importance – the rescue and successful resettlement of Yazidi refugees who continue to be victims of genocide and persecution.
Nafiya Naso adds: “In regards to the split in the community, I think that these types of disputes are common, especially when new communities are formed. I hope that the community disputes will come to be resolved one day, so that we can all put our energy towards working together and save as many of my people as possible.”