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Jane Enkin

Friends for Israel and Jewish Federation put on program about Yazidi refugees-The Invisible victims of ISIL

by Jane Enkin, March 28, 2015



The Winnipeg Friends of Israel ( the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg hosted an evening about Yazidi refugees on March 24, 2015. The event was well-attended – I estimated about 75 people,  from the Jewish , Yazidi  and Christian (Bridges for Peace) communities, who filled the adult lounge at the Asper Jewish Community Centre.




Like many other Canadians, I am sure, I heard about the Yazidi religion for the first time in the summer of 2014. ISIL (also known as ISIS) militants invaded Yazidi villages in Northern Iraq. Many people were killed; many fled to a barren, dry mountain where conditions were crippling. Eventually, some made it to refugee camps.




Again, like most Canadians, when the media moved on to other events I didn't learn more about the Yazidis. But I felt I had to attend this program-it seemed so clear to me that the situation of the Yazidis right now paralleled that of Jews in Europe leading up to the Second World War- especially since Jews have faced hatred and persecution. I had to find out if there is a way for Canadians to make a difference.




I'll briefly address the first part of the title question, “Who are they?” The simple answer is that they are an ethnic, religious and cultural minority group who have lived for centuries in the same areas as the Kurdish people, mostly in Northern Iraq.




The detailed answer is so complex I recommend curious readers consult the many websites with information. From my google search, it seems to me that provides information from a Yazidi perspective, including history, a brief description of religious beliefs and excerpts from scriptures.




Nafiya Naso is a young woman of Yazidi heritage raising a family in Winnipeg. She was born in Iraq, spent her early childhood in a refugee camp, and immigrated to Canada with her parents. Her education has been here in Winnipeg, including the courses she is taking now at Red River College. With long, loose hair and stylish, casual clothes, Naso (like the other Yazidis present at the event) visually fits right into multicultural Canada.





Naso spoke about her people, and she also showed several videos about their culture and their recent terrible experiences. We saw fascinating images of Yazidi temples, learned a few details about their traditions, and heard from Yazidi leaders.





Naso is in communication with her extended family in the Middle East, so she was able to speak about their distress and her own. At an earlier time of persecution, her pregnant mother was faced with a choice – which child could she carry to safety, Naso or her brother? By great good fortune, she was able to find a donkey to ride, so both children made it out safely.





Yazidis have been attacked over the centuries, primarily because they do not conform to the surrounding religions. In 2014, the Kurdish and the Iraqi militaries offered protection, but there was not enough support when ISIL invaded. Now, we learned, Yazidi villages are emptied out; homes have been looted and then destroyed. Many people were killed during the invasion of the villages and many died under siege in their retreat to Mount Sinjar without food, water or shelter. Eventually there was some humanitarian aid, and large numbers were able to walk to refugee camps where they now live. Food and shelter are limited, and waiting lists to leave the camps for new homes are 7 years long.




Several young people were taken by ISIL militants. In a disturbing video, girls who have escaped described sexual violence and sexual captivity. In another video, we saw a group of boys undergo forced conversion to Islam. The English captions read, “Now you are infidels. After this you will be Muslims and have rights.”




From Naso's perspective, her people are confronted with genocide, as defined by the UN:

“Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group; 
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; 
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; 
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Naso sees genocide as a responsibility of the entire world. All are obligated to work to prevent it. She reminded us that each ethnic and religious group is a valuable link to humanity's past. She called for empathy.

I was glad that after Naso's talk, someone raised the question that had brought me there – what can we do? The clear answer from Naso is that Yazidi people in refugee camps want to leave the Middle East. They don't want to go home to Iraq and try to rebuild lives in their villages, they don't want to wait out the current conflict in refugee camps. They want to start new lives with the kind of opportunities that Naso and her young family have in Canada.





David Matas, a lawyer with years of experience in refugee, immigration and human rights law, opened the evening and answered most of the questions about refugees raised after Naso's speech. At the beginning of the evening, he spoke about minorities in the Middle East. Both secular and religious regimes discriminate against minorities, and the mistreatment can be legal, physical or can consist of a lack of state protection in the face of persecution. The emergence of ISIL ups the stakes for minorities in the Middle East.




Matas said that while life is by no means perfect for minorities in Israel and in Canada, a more open society with more freedom of the press makes a difference. In both countries, mistreatment is more likely to be publicized and addressed by the larger community.






Naso called on Matas to answer questions about immigration. The answers were not encouraging. He said that Canada has made a commitment to bring in refugees from the Middle East, but the effort has been “disrupted by turmoil.” Canada used to have an immigration office in Damascus in Syria. Since that is no longer a safe location, the office is in Turkey. But many refugees cannot get visas to enter Turkey, and Canada still insists on in-person interviews to determine refugee status. It makes no sense to Matas that our government has not switched to interviews by Skype or telephone. He would also like to see paperwork handled through electronic means. Meanwhile, immigration offices are “understaffed and overwhelmed.”





“Speeding things up” is not necessarily a good thing, explained Matas. For example, processing goes faster if no reasons are offered for a refusal of a refugee claim, but without reasons, there is no basis for an appeal.




We had come to learn about Yazidi refugees, but Matas pointed out that we are facing a global problem. There are thousands of Yazidis in need; there are millions of refugees and internally displaced people who are waiting for help.




Sponsorship can offer hope to individual families. Groups of five Canadian people, as well as organizations, can apply to the Canadian government to privately sponsor a refugee family. It takes a financial and personal commitment, and a lot of time, but perhaps private sponsorship is a viable way for some of us to make a difference.


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