Yazidi refugees in Turkey - Operation Ezra provided vital assistance to refugees living in camps there

On Tuesday, Sept. 24, a book launch was held at the Berney Theatre of the Asper Campus, for a publication entitled “OPERATION EZRA: Winnipeg’s Jewish Community-led Interfaith Response to the Survivors of the Yazidi Genocide”. About 100 men, women and children attended the event, which was sponsored by Operation Ezra and the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.




Belle Jarniewski, Executive Director of the Jewish Heritage Centre, gave opening remarks and introduced a panel composed of six individuals, all of whom have some connection to Operation Ezra: Chana Thau, who conducted interviews with key players and Yazidi refugees, and who also authored the book; Nafiya Naso, the young Yazidi woman who brought the matter to the attention of the Jewish community in 2015 and who has since worked tirelessly to help her people (and is now employed at Jewish Child and Family Service); Lorne Weiss, former President of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, who worked with Nafiya to lobby the Canadian government to bring over more Yazidi refugees; Ray Harris, representing the Salvation Army as well as the Manitoba Multifaith Council, and who has been an active participant in Operation Ezra almost from its inception; Jamileh Naso, Nafiya’s sister, who has been involved with Operation Ezra in various ways, most recently, as a representative of the Yazidi community in Canada to a conference on cultural trauma held in Greece; and Dimah Abdulkareem, a young government-sponsored Yazidi woman who came to Canada shortly before the genocide.

Following are the remarks given by Chana Thau at the book launch:;
I first learned of the Yazidi people by chance, when a family moved into my neighbourhood about ten years ago. Then came August 3, 2014 - the beginning of the genocide of the Yazidis in northern Iraq by the fundamentalist, Sunni Moslem ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ISIL attacked the Yazidis in the Sinjar region of Iraq, where 400,000 of Iraq’s 600,000 Yazidis lived! Most who were able fled to nearby Mt. Sinjar, where they remained under siege. Many, especially the very young and very old, died from starvation, dehydration or injuries from the attack. An additional 6800 Yazidis were captured. Young boys were forcibly converted and forced to become ISIL fighters. Young girls and women were sold and resold as sex slaves. The accounts of the atrocities ISIL committed are horrifyingly similar to the Nazi war crimes against Jews.
A young Yazidi woman named Nafiya Naso brought the plight of her people to the attention of the Jewish community, through talking to a small group in the summer of 2015. The initial reaction in the group was one of horror and the feeling that they must do something to help. During and after the Second World War, not much was done to help the Jews. Canada had a foreign minister who, when asked about admitting Jewish refugees, said, “None is too many.” Jews could not stand by and see another group suffer like that. From the small group formed in the summer of 2015, Operation Ezra grew to a larger community group by the fall. Its name is derived from that of the prophet, Ezra, who came from the same region - Mesopotamia; the word “ezrah” also means ‘help’ in Hebrew, First, JCFS and the Jewish Federation came on board, then Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Before long, this became a larger community partnership, including several faith groups and corporate partners. Under the capable and unrelenting guidance and hard work of Michel Aziza, Belle Jarniewski and Nafiya Naso, a working committee was formed and many, many volunteers came forward. (Ed. note: One of the key individuals who was also heavily involved in helping Yazidis here was Yolanda Papini-Pollock.)
In the first two years, Operation Ezra managed to raise enough money to privately sponsor 55 individuals from refugee camps in Turkey. An additional 10 just arrived last week and another eight are awaiting completion of the paperwork. Members of the Winnipeg general and Jewish communities have been amazingly generous in their donations of household furniture, kitchen ware, linens, and clothing. To name but a few, Sobeys on Taylor and Food Fare have donated food; Canadian Footwear provides shoes and boots to the new arrivals. Salvation Army gives mattresses and has brought big bags of clothing to the airport for every new arrival. Volunteers have helped in EAL classes, tutoring, driving people to medical appointments and other places. I initially worked with one family for a year, tutoring the parents and one child in English, as the government EAL classes had large waiting lists due to the influx of Syrian refugees at the time.
In addition, through the efforts of Nafiya, Lorne Weiss and Anita Neville of the working committee, Ottawa was lobbied and eventually agreed to admit 1200 Yazidi refugees in 2018. Of these, 250 came to Winnipeg. Operation Ezra has also extended several kinds of assistance the government-sponsored refugees, mostly women and children who had experienced captivity and whose men were either slaughtered or are still being held captive.
About two years ago, I was approached to write this book documenting the accomplishments of OE to date. As it is a unique project, at least in North America, it was felt that this should be recorded in print. A grant was obtained from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, and I went to work.
Part I of the book gives a history of the Yazidi people, and some of the similarities of their religion with Judaism. In addition, they, like we, have a long history of persecution for being of a faith different from the prevailing one in the countries where they lived. Part Two describes how Operation Ezra came to be, and describes some of the key players who helped it become successful. Part Three describes the activities of OE in the first two years. After Jamileh and I were interviewed on CTV before the book launch, she expressed the view that, since the Yazidis have a primarily oral history and not a written one, this book is especially significant.
I have had the privilege of interviewing several members of the Yazidi people sponsored by Operation Ezra, with the capable assistance of Nafiya and her sister, Jamileh, as interpreters. As most of the adults spoke little if any English, they made the interview appointments and came with me to translate back and forth between English to Kurmanji, the dialect of Kurdish spoken by the Yazidis. I am grateful for the cooperation of these people, who welcomed me into their homes, shared their stories and fed me with naan and their other traditional foods.
To conclude, Operation Ezra is a one-of-a-kind project that does our community proud. I want to extend my congratulations to the group for all of its fine work. May we continue to go from strength to strength!