It’s a cruel irony that even after fleeing genocide at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) in their ancestral homeland in northern Iraq, Yazidis are still in grave danger while sojourning in refugee camps in Turkey and Greece.
The Yazidis, an ancient minority that counts 74 genocides over their long history, fled murder, rape, beatings, and theft at the hands of radical Muslims, only to find similar conditions in camps in Europe.
Montrealer Steve Maman is painfully aware of their situation. With a nod to Jewish history and the lessons of the Holocaust, he has rescued Yazidi women from those who made them sex slaves, and he’s funded the moves of many to safety in Germany. More recently he and his team have convinced the government of Greece to allow him to administer Camp Petra, which consists almost entirely of Yazidis who in the dead of night were secretly transported from the midst of a hostile general population in another border camp to one in which they are safe from persecution.
Now he’s calling on the Canadian government to do more to bring Yazidis to this country, arguing that unlike those who persecute them, they are free of any supremacist ideology and only wish to live in peace.
“There are no radical, ex-ISIS hidden among the population,” he said.
“It is time for Canada to do for Yazidis what it did for 25,000 Syrians, and we know there are no radicals mixed in with that group,” said Maman, who’s been dubbed the Jewish Schindler.
He’s inviting Canadian government representatives to visit Camp Petra and meet the Yazidis, who claim a 6,700-year-history in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
Referring to the abandonment of Jews during World War II, Maman said, “don’t make the same mistake again. Never again.”
Meanwhile in Ottawa, Parliament’s standing committee on citizenship and immigration held hearings on the government’s initiative to resettle Syrian refugees to Canada.
Canadian public servants are expected to visit northern Iraq in the fall to study what can be done to bring refugees to Canada, and the Opposition Tories are calling on the government to accelerate efforts to bring Yazidis to Canada, including those internally displaced in Iraq who may not fit the UN definition of refugees, Canadian Press reported.
Meanwhile, Maman, a native of Morocco, said he has always identified with the Yazidis, who like Jews faced persecution and genocide. He founded CYCI – the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq – an NGO dedicated to rescuing Yazidis who had been held as slaves by Islamic State personnel. The organization is credited with freeing at least 140 Yazidis.
But today his efforts are focused on Yazidis in refugee camps. Yazidis fleeing ISIS attacks at Mount Sinjar, their ancestral home, and finding no help from Kurdish forces, left the area hoping to reach Germany. Many found themselves stuck in camps en route, sharing places with people who hold them in contempt.
“They found the same problem with the camps – beatings, rapes, stabbing. They couldn’t go to get food. They were being hunted down in the camps,” Maman said.
The maritime voyages from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos and on to the mainland are fraught with danger, he said. The boats are overcrowded and the life jackets many purchase in local markets are stuffed with cotton. When they get wet, they absorb water and ensure the wearer drowns, he said.
In January, CYCI began helping Yazidis make their way to Germany, which has a substantial expatriate community. Since then, they’ve helped more than 2,311 refugees get out of the camps by preparing documentation, securing proper paperwork with the Greek authorities and purchasing tickets.
In March, however, the border crossing from Macedonia was closed, stranding thousands of refugees, including Yazidis.
With conditions in refugee camps intolerable, he convinced the Greek government to allow CYCI to operate Camp Petra. Once that was done, he arranged for a fleet of buses to transport 1,000 Yazidis out of a refugee camp in the dead of night. They left behind all their possessions and were transported out of danger.
Since that initial evacuation in April, another 450 Yazidis have made the camp their temporary home.
On April 16, the Yazidi Post, an online publication, called Maman’s efforts at Camp Petra “a game changer.”
Over the past year or so, CYCI has raised $875,000 for the efforts, including $125,000 from members of the Montreal Jewish community familiar to Maman, as well as from other Jewish donors and many non-Jewish ones as well.
“We became the NGO that spends the most in Greece on Yazidis,” he said.
For Maman, the reason for his involvement is straightforward and reflects his view of Jewish history.
“During the Holocaust, Jews faced closed doors. How many times can humanity make the same mistake?” he said.