By BERNIE BELLAN
The Jewish Federation put on quite the event commemorating the massacre of Yazidi refugees by ISIS two years ago, but one might welll ask: Did that event go a little overboard?
I’ve been wrestling with the dilemma how to report the Jewish Federation’s decision to hold a commemorative evening for the Yazidi community, marking the second anniversary of the massacre of Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar in Iraq by the barbarians in ISIS. I’ve heard from more than a few readers wondering why the Jewish Federation has dedicated so many resources, not just to helping Yazidi refugees come to Canada – which is an admirable and worthwhile goal, but organizing an event such as the one that was held on Wednesday, August 10, in the Berney Theatre.
Following upon another similar event that was held July 18 to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, one couldn’t help but note the similarity in the two events. There were a fair number of dignitaries invited to both events; remarkably the Yazidi event saw even more politicians attend than the AMIA event. Included among those politicians was Michelle Rempel, a Conservative MP from Calgary, who is also the Conservative immigration critic.
What was she doing here, I wondered? Okay, Jim Carr, who is the Member for Winnipeg South Centre, also Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, and who makes a point of attending many events in his constituency, which includes the Asper Campus, was there, although to be honest, Carr’s Liberal government hasn’t done very much to hasten the immigration process for most of the Yazidi families that Operation Ezra would like to bring here. But Michelle Rempel? I could only conclude that there’s some political capital to be gained by showing up at an event organized by the Jewish Federation, even if that event is intended to focus on a non-Jewish community.
Let’s be clear: Winnipeg’s Jewish community is extremely well organized and has great political clout. Showcasing events is something that this community is very good at doing, as is holding photo ops, and issuing press releases – all part and parcel of the tools that any lobbying group would bring to bear in attempting to raise its profile.
At the same time though, in looking back at how the drive to help Yazidi refugees first began in the Jewish community, I was struck by how low key the initial process was. It started with a meeting held by Winnipeg Friends of Israel in early 2015, at which Nafia Naso, who has become the spokesperson for the Yazidi community, not only here in Manitoba, but across Canada as well, outlined the plight of Yazidi refugees. From there, various individuals, some of whom were at that meeting, took it upon themselves to begin fundraising, with the goal of helping to sponsor a number of Yazidi refugees to Canada. In the spring of 2015 that effort became officially known as Operation Ezra.
A key turning point came in the fall of 2015 when both Jewish Child and Family Services and the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg decided to lend their considerable resources to the cause of Operation Ezra. Other groups joined the effort and, to this point, over $250,000 has been raised with the goal of bringing at least seven, perhaps nine Yazidi families to Canada.
But, despite those high hopes, only nine refugees have come here so far (in July). As anyone who has delved into the byzantine world of refugee sponsorship in Canada has discovered, it is laden with bureaucratic roadblocks and results are painstakingly slow to be achieved, despite the best intentions of so many private sponsorship groups.
With that in mind, I asked Michel Aziza, who has done yeoman service as a leading figure in Operation Ezra, the following question: “I’ve been thinking about all the work that’s been going into Operation Ezra and wondering whether some of the energy - and money, might not be better spent in helping Yazidis who are still in refugee camps.
“With all due respect, I know it looks great to have photos of refugees arriving in Winnipeg - and then to have continuous coverage of their being helped as they settle in, but the results so far have been less than what one might have expected in terms of how many people have been brought here.
“I did some research into another effort to help beleaguered refugees, which was back in 1983 and 1984, when a group of Winnipeggers banded together privately to help rescue Ethiopian Jews. Obviously, there were some differences. First, the effort was to resettle the refugees in Israel, not Canada, although 26 refugees did come to Canada (40 went to Israel). Secondly, there was no involvement from what was then the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council.
“I wonder then whether any thought has been given to refocusing on trying to help more Yazidis than just the ones who have been targeted to be brought over here.”
Michel responded: “The objectives for Operation Ezra have always been to first raise awareness and second, bring families to safety. That is truly what we have all worked hard for over the last year and a half. We have also provided some support to families in the camps but our focus has been to get people out and get people to safety here in Canada. We are now trying to find ways to get more families sponsored and looking for ways to engage our government in order to launch a larger scale program. If we succeed, we will be able to facilitate the rescue of many more families. Returning to Kurdistan is simply not a viable or good option for most Yazidi families and Canada is for now the only real hope they have. This was also the premise while we fundraised and donors donated funds specifically for this purpose.
“I think the idea of raising funds to help families at the camps is a good one and we would definitely work with other groups that would focus their efforts toward that goal.
“For the next foreseeable future, the rescue of families will continue to be our focus. Our entire committee is in full agreement with these goals.”
I can’t find fault with anything Michel Aziza writes. What I have trouble with is the amount of money the Jewish Federation had to have spent in putting on that event on August 10. So, the day after the August 10 event, I sent the following email to Elaine Goldstine, CEO of the Jewish Federation, and cc’d it to Al Benarroch, Executive Director of JCFS, and Shelley Faintuch, Community Relations Director of the Jewish Federation:
“Just out of curiosity, how much did it cost the Federation to put on last night’s affair?
“How much has been expended by the Federation so far for Operation Ezra? Of course, you have individuals already working for the Federation or for JCFS who have been involved in Operation Ezra, so it would be easy to say that their salaries haven’t cost anything extra, but that would be disingenuous.
“I have to tell you that I’ve been hearing rumblings from quite a few people wondering just what is going on? Sure, it’s nice to be seen as helping a beleaguered group, but having to showcase events like last night...
“Again, I look at how Winnipeg’s Jewish community organized to help Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s. It was a private initiative, led by Prof. Elliot Levine and Temple Shalom. There was no involvement from the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council (although there should have been. Prof. Levine struggled to raise money and fell short of his goal.)
“To my mind, rather than focusing on helping to bring what is ultimately a very small number of Yaziidi refugees here, it would make far more sense to contribute to improving the conditions of those Yazidis who are still stuck in refugee camps in Turkey and Kurdistan. There are organizations looking for help to that end.
“A lot of questions - but, as usual, when a powerful bureaucracy gets rolling on a program, who’s to question it, right?”
To be fair though, I’ve tried to find out whether there are any organizations that are actively assisting Yazidi refugees in the camps in which they’re now situated, both in Turkey and in Iraqi Kurdistan. I did find one such organization, but my attempts to contact them to see whether they’re looking for funds to help Yazidi refugees in the camps have gone unanswered. So – for the time being, it looks like efforts such as Operation Ezra remain the sole means by which we can contribute financially to a very worthy cause. But, unless someone can show me how holding an event such as the one the Federation held on August 10 did anything to advance the cause of the Yazidis, such as speeding up the immigration process for those Yazidi families who are waiting to clear the immigration review process, I wonder whether the Federation might want to reconsider how much it spends of grand p.r. efforts such as the one I just attended.