On Jan. 7, Michel Aziza was the guest of honour at Government House in Winnipeg, where he was presented with the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Advancement of Inter-Religious Understanding.
“It was nice, but unexpected,” says the retired mechanical engineer. “I prefer to work behind the scenes, though.”
Aziza was honoured for his role, as the chair of Operation Ezra, in helping 10 Yazidi families settle in Winnipeg. Yazidis are an ancient people who practice a unique form of monotheism. Yet to many of their Muslim neighbours, they are considered “devil worshippers.” The worldwide Yazidi population numbers about 700,000.
Operation Ezra is the only organized multifaith Yazidi rescue effort in Canada. It began as an initiative of the Winnipeg Jewish community in 2015, after the plight of the Yazidis was brought to the attention of several members of the community by Nafiya Naso, a younger member of the Yazidi community in Winnipeg, whose refugee family was brought to Manitoba 20 years ago by a church group.
Aziza points out that Operation Ezra has since evolved into a wide-ranging interfaith effort. “We have over 40 partners, including churches and synagogues, other organizations, businesses and schools,” he notes. “We are happy to report that all of the Yazidi refugees whom we have sponsored are doing very well by all accounts.”
However, the same can’t be said for the other 200 Yazidis who have been settled in Winnipeg over the past 18 months under government sponsorship, he points out.
It is to these refugees that Operation Ezra (which has raised over $700,000 to date) has been turning its attention in recent months. According to Aziza, the difference is that the families that Operation Ezra sponsored escaped Iraq ahead of ISIS and had been living in refugee camps outside the country before coming to Winnipeg.
Many of the newer arrivals, on the other hand, were taken captive by ISIS and are suffering from trauma. Most of them, Aziza notes, are single-parent families, many of which were forced to leave children or a spouse behind.
“We are working with them on an ongoing basis to provide them with food, furniture, housewares and clothing,” he says. “We have just finished another clothing drive. The Jewish Child and Family Service is involved in providing day-to-day assistance.”
Members of Operation Ezra, he says, are heavily involved in lobbying members of Parliament on behalf of the Yazidi people. “We are urging the government to continue to resettle Yazidi refugees who are in refugee camps, as well as reunite families here with family members still in Iraq,” says Aziza. “After all, you can’t expect a family to heal when the family is not whole.”
Michel Aziza was born in Morocco and grew up in France. Aziza moved to Toronto in 1980 and first came to Winnipeg with his Canadian-born wife, Danita, in 2002. The family lived in Israel from 2008 to 2012, and returned to Winnipeg afterward.