With as many as 100 supporters looking on, tears flowed as Enez Jallo and his family welcomed Jallo’s brother, Khuder Naso, and his family to Winnipeg on July 11. The Yazidi brothers hadn’t seen each other in 26 years.
Naso and his family are the first of seven Yazidi refugee families expected to be coming to Winnipeg thanks to the efforts of the Jewish community’s Operation Ezra, the only comprehensive Yazidi refugee relief project in Canada.
The Yazidi people are a Kurdish religious minority who were based in northwestern Iraq. Stories of their plight hit the headlines in August 2014 when Islamic State (ISIS) swept into their communities. Those who were unable to flee were taken into slavery – the younger women and children – or massacred. Many of the survivors are now living in refugee camps in Turkey.
“Their arrival means that all the time and work we’ve put into Operation Ezra was 100 per cent worth it,” says Nafiya Naso, Enez Jallo’s daughter and a driving force behind Operation Ezra. “It’s really frustrating dealing with all the red tape and bureaucracy when it comes to private sponsorships but seeing the smiles and relief on their faces when they came down the escalator at the airport yesterday was all worth it and gave our whole group a whole new push to keep doing the work we do.”
Nafiya Naso’s introduction to the Jewish community came about two years ago when she was invited to speak to a meeting of Winnipeg Friends of Israel, a Jewish grassroots Israel advocacy group founded by Yolanda Papini Pollock and her husband, Bradley, a few months earlier. Other invitations for Naso to speak to Jewish groups about the plight of her people quickly followed.
“I feel truly blessed to have had so much support, love and kindness shown to me and the Yazidi community by all our partners and supporters, and in particular the Jewish community. The Jewish community was the first to lend a hand in our time of darkness when ISIS began their genocidal campaign against the Yazidis in August 2014. Our histories have many similarities and that gives us an even greater push to act,” she said.
Papini Pollock and Naso launched Operation Ezra and enlisted a number of members of the Jewish community and Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and institutions in the cause including the Jewish Child and Family Service, Congregation Shaarey Zedek, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, the Rose and Max Rady Jewish Community Centre, the Gray Academy of Jewish Education, BBYO, Bridges for Peace, the Mennonite Central Committee, Calvary Temple, the Salvation Army and the Manitoba Multifaith Council.
“It was wonderful to welcome our first privately-sponsored Yazidi family and witness the reunion with Nafiya’s family,” says Lorne Weiss, vice-president of the Shaarey Zedek’s board of directors and co-chair of the congregation’s Yazidi sponsorship campaign.
“It was bittersweet though because we should be welcoming so many more. There are so many Yazidi people at risk that we should be at the airport every couple of days welcoming more. The United Nations has declared what is happening to the Yazidis to be genocide.”
Operation Ezra, Weiss reports, has raised close to $250,000. But it’s not enough saving just seven families, he says.
“We have the template in place,” he says. “If we can get some quota, hopefully we can save many more. Perhaps other Jewish communities will follow our lead.”
Khuder Naso, his wife Munifa Hussein, and their six children were originally supposed to arrive a couple of weeks earlier but were delayed by the terrorist attack at the Istanbul airport. A 19-year-old nephew, Salih Naso, was delayed by paperwork issues but arrived on the 15th.
Operation Ezra board members include community leaders Michel Aziza, Anita Neville, Elaine Goldstein, Al Bennarroch, Emily Shane, Belle Jarniewski, Shelly Faintuch, Lorne Weiss and Bob Freedman.