soutenir la religion dans une société pluraliste et dans la vie publique canadienne

Ezra Means 'Help:' The Story of Operation Ezra

In the late spring of 2015, a young Yazidi woman named Nafiya Naso came to give a talk at the Asper Jewish Community Centre in Winnipeg.  She told of a horrific genocide of Yazidis that was taking place in Iraq.  Some of those who heard her talk were moved to action. 

Operation Ezra was founded by a grassroots group of people from the Winnipeg Jewish community as an initiative to help Yazidis in Iraq. The name Ezra means, “help.”  Ezra is also the name of the Biblical prophet Ezra, who was said to have lived in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) and, according to some beliefs is buried there. 

Operation Ezra began as an initiative in the Winnipeg Jewish community, but it has grown organically to include some twenty multifaith partners, including the Salvation Army, Jewish Child and Family Service, Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, Kings Fellowship Church, the Manitoba Multifaith Council (MMC) and many others. Belle Jarniewski, President of the MMC, is a member of the steering group of Operation Ezra, chaired by Michel Aziza. To date, Operation Ezra has raised $500,000 and has brought 41 Yazidi refugees, belonging to seven families to Winnipeg from UNHCR camps in Turkey where they were languishing in very difficult circumstances after fleeing the genocide. Operation Ezra’s current goal is ten families but has no plans to stop at that number. The seventh family arrived in Winnipeg in late April.

The Salvation Army, one of Operation Ezra’s partners generously provides beds and mattresses to every Yazidi refugee sponsored by Operation Ezra, as well as clothing. A Salvation Army church invited the first two refugee families along with representatives of the steering group to their Christmas concert and dinner held at their church. The families were able to express their thanks, taking turns at the microphone in English, which they are quickly learning. Other generous contributions have been received by Canadian Footwear, which has outfitted every refugee with shoes, boots and sandals and IKEA which has helped with household goods. All homes were furnished with items donated by local families.

Operation Ezra has encouraged Parliament to do its best to bring in government-assisted refugees, because “there’s only so much a tiny grassroots effort (like Operation Ezra) can do,” says Belle Jarniewski.  At the end of February 2017, the government agreed to bring 1200 Yazidi refugees to Canada.  Operation Ezra also lobbied the government to label the persecution of Yazidis a genocide, which Canada did last summer. Yazidi women, young girls and boys are particular targets of Daesh (IS). “There are approximately 3000 young women in Daesh captivity,” says Jarniewski.  “Girls as young as six are repeatedly raped by Daesh captors, bought and sold and resold by Daesh fighters and many are sent to other countries all over the region. Little boys are captured, brainwashed, trained to be Daesh fighters, and given teddy bears and machetes and told to decapitate them; a terrifyingly chilling way to train these children to do the same to human beings caught by Daesh.”

Yazidis are particularly vulnerable to attack by Daesh because, unlike Jews and Christians, they have no protected status.  Christians and Jews in Iraq have dhimmi status, which allows them to pay a jizya tax in Muslim countries and receive some measure of protection.  On the other hand, Jarniewski says, “Yazidis can be killed and raped with complete moral and civil impunity. There are 73 recorded massacres of Yazidis in recorded history, including several under the Ottoman Empire.  The current one began in 2013 at Mount Sinjar.”

The Yazidi faith is an ancient Mesopotamian religion, which predates even Judaism by a thousand years. Its creation story includes a peacock angel, an intermediary between God and humanity. Unfortunately, this creation story has been misinterpreted by some Muslims who understand it to be a Satan-like fallen-angel figure resembling Shaytan in the Qur’an.  For that reason, Yazidis have been historically persecuted as devil worshippers in the region.

The Yazidi religion is a minority faith in the world and certainly a minority in Canada, where there were just two small communities of Yazidis before the 2013 Yazidi genocide: approximately 180 in Winnipeg and 250 in London, Ontario. Those numbers will rise with the influx of the government assisted refugees and the privately sponsored refugees. Winnipeg is expected to double its Yazidi population.

Winnipeg has given the Yazidis a warm welcome, in contrast to the trauma they have experienced in Iraq.  Operation Ezra is running an English as an Additional Language Program (EAL program) in a space donated by Temple Shalom, a Reform synagogue.  The program includes volunteers from many different communities, Jewish and non-Jewish, and different age groups.  The Yazidis who attend range in age from preschool children who come with their parents, to older Yazidis who have been there for several years.  Volunteers, who include retired ESL teachers, work with the Yazidis on their English for an hour. The young children are cared for in a separate room so that their parents can have an hour of full concentration.  Afterwards, everyone socializes together, conversing in English in an informal setting over tea and cookies.

One young lady Belle Jarniewski met shortly after she arrived at the airport “surprised me with her English skills,” Jarniewski says.  “I asked her how she knew so much English and she told me her father had bought her a dictionary and she had taught herself. She used words like ‘discrimination’ and ‘hateful looks’ to explain what she and her family had gone through in the refugee camp.” Today, Jarniewski reports, she is flourishing in the special programme for refugees at the high school she is attending, making inspiring progress.

Aida, a teenage girl, is another one of the Yazidi refugees who recently arrived in Canada. Jarniewski remembers, “She didn’t smile all that much, that first month and was rather shy and withdrawn. Now she smiles all the time.”

A photo of Aida in a refugee camp in Turkey shows her sitting with her family in a UNHCR tent, in a refugee camp in Turkey, looking very serious.  Last month, a photo at the EAL program shows her among a group, beaming broadly and giving a ‘v’ for victory sign to the camera.  In that picture, she is indistinguishable from any other carefree Canadian teenager.

Belle Jarniewski is President of the Manitoba Multifaith Council.  She recently spoke on Operation Ezra at the Our Whole Society conference