From Despair to Respect and Dignity
Operation Ezra - Turning the Tide on Yazidi Genocide
by Michel Aziza, Al Benarroch, Iael Besendorf, Bob Freedman, Elaine Goldstine, Ray Harris, Belle Jarniewski, Nafiya Naso, Anita Neville, Emily Shane, and Lorne Weiss
TIO has long had an interest in the Yezidi (often spelled ‘Yazidi,’ as in the following report). Five years ago TIO published a story by Don Frew, titled “Finding Light Among ‘Devil Worshipers,’” a tale that tells of returning lost sacred scripture, The Black Book, to Yezidis who had lost it while escaping from oppressors.
This profile of Operation Ezra is largely drawn from its website, where you will find the details and history of how an unlikely group of collaborators in a city of three-quarters of a million created a safe home for Yazidi refugees from the Middle East. It began in the Jewish community and spread to become a fully interreligious operation. This remarkable project in Winnipeg, Canada is an exemplar of what can happen when interfaith activists collaborate to get something tangible done in our wounded world. Operation Ezra is a testament to doing local interfaith work well.
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Fifty-five Yazidi men, women, and children are learning English, going to school, working, playing, feeling safe and secure, and freely celebrating their faith and culture in their new home of Winnipeg. It all has happened because of a grassroots initiative called Operation Ezra.
Operation Ezra was launched in Winnipeg in March 2015 with two objectives – to increase general awareness about the plight of the Yazidi people in the Middle East, and to raise $35,000 for the sponsorship of a Yazidi refugee family to Winnipeg.
By the summer of 2015, Operation Ezra had raised $35,000 and more, and grown into a Jewish community-wide initiative embracing dozens of volunteers and donors, as well as the support of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, Jewish Child and Family Service and Congregation Shaarey Zedek. In the ensuing months, Operation Ezra extended its reach even further, evolving into a coalition of 24 Winnipeg-based multifaith organizations.
By March 2017, just two years after Operation Ezra was launched, the coalition had raised almost $500,000 and arranged for the private sponsorship to Canada of ten Yazidi families, representing 55 children and adults. As of September 2018, 55 have settled in Winnipeg. Most of the families have young children.
Operation Ezra weighs several factors in determining which families to sponsor. First, all of the families considered for potential sponsorship must have official UNHCR registration and ID documentation. Once that is established, the Operation Ezra working committee considers the geographic location of the family, the size of the family, the ages of the various family members, the employment potential of the adult family members, and the likelihood of the family adapting to a new culture and country. With a database that now contains the names of 3,000 Yazidi refugee families hoping to resettle in Canada, selecting which families best meet the criteria for sponsorship has become an difficult, delicate undertaking.
The newcomer Yazidi families have adjusted well to life in Winnipeg. Children are enrolled in schools and adults are studying English in various programs, including a newly launched, weekly program at Temple Shalom. Jewish Child and Family Service has played a key role in mitigating the families’ acculturation and integration, as have more than 50 volunteers who have donated their time, advice, and energy to ensuring that the Yazidis feel comfortable in their new surroundings and have everything they need.
These volunteers have located housing, collected donations of household goods from private and corporate sponsors, furnished and set up homes for each of the families, welcomed them upon their arrival to the city, and assisted them with resettlement tasks like setting up bank accounts and accessing provincial health cards. They have shown them how to use public transportation, accompanied them to grocery stores and doctors’ appointments, helped them enroll their children in school and find employment. In fact, 11 of the adults who arrived in recent months are already working at full or part-time jobs.
Operation Ezra is the only organized Yazidi rescue effort of its size in North America. In addition to its sponsorship activities, it has significantly raised awareness about the plight of the Yazidi people among the general public and in both the provincial and federal legislatures. Operation Ezra’s ongoing advocacy and lobbying were instrumental in the federal government unanimously passing a motion to take decisive action to save the Yazidis from genocide. Its efforts also directly influenced the Trudeau government’s decision to bring 1,200 government-sponsored Yazidi refugees to Canada by the end of the year.
Learning More about the Yazidi
The worldwide Yazidi population is estimated at 700,000 with approximately 500,000 scattered throughout Iraq, 100,000 in UNHCR camps in Syria and Turkey, and 100,000 in Europe (mostly Germany).
One of the oldest religious and ethnic minorities in the world, the Yazidis have faced religious persecution for more than 700 years.
Having suffered more than 70 massacres over the course of their history, their population has been decimated from 23 million to approximately 700,000 today.
Yazidis have suffered one of the longest ongoing waves of hatred perpetrated against a people for religious reasons. The persecution of the Yazidi people precedes the current conflict in the Middle East and will continue long afterwards.
In August of 2014, a large-scale massacre took place in Sinjar, in the Ninveh province. Over 5,000 Yazidi people were killed and 50,000 displaced by extremist ISIS fighters. Sinjar was destroyed. There is no home for the Yazidi people to return to.
Yazidi girls and women as young as nine years of age have been sold into sexual slavery, raped, and tortured. Often, they have been resold to countries as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Mass graves have been discovered containing the bodies of Yazidi women executed because they were considered to be “too old” to be used as sexual slaves.
Young Yazidi boys were kidnapped and brainwashed to become fighters.
Captured Yazidi men were forcibly converted to Islam, and many were subsequently executed.
Today, finally freed from ISIS’ violence, the Yazidi refugees find themselves in segregated camps in Syria and Turkey, where they are not welcomed nor treated with equanimity.
Defining success depends on how you set the context. Does Winnipeg’s work put a dent in the tragic Yazidi crisis, much less the more than 68 million other refugees today? More like a drop in the bucket.
But if you look into the lives of the hundreds and now thousands of Yazidis who have escaped genocide and happily settled into hospitable, generous Canadian towns like Winnipeg, it is a shining light, an example of what people can do in our own neighborhoods around the world.
Header Photo: Jewish Federation of Winnipeg