Khalaf and Gawre’s family is the 10th to come to Winnipeg thanks to Operation Ezra. (photo from Michel Aziza)
What started as a small local initiative has grown to be a leader, by example, and a reminder of what can be achieved when an intention is set and action is taken.
About a year ago, the Jewish Independent ran a story about Operation Ezra in Winnipeg that, at the time, was aiming to sponsor five Yazidi refugee families. Led by Michel Aziza, a local businessman and once a refugee himself (from Morocco), and a small group of individuals connected to the Jewish community, the initiative was a response to the plight of the Yazidi people being viciously persecuted by ISIS in Iraq.
Nafiya Naso, now a young woman, who came to Winnipeg as a child with her family, has been an instrumental figure in Operation Ezra.
“She was reaching out to people outside their community to raise awareness of the genocide that was going on, March of 2015,” said Aziza, recalling Naso’s early involvement. “I was semi-retired and looking for something to occupy myself, and this was a good opportunity for me to get involved with a volunteer-type of project. Essentially, that’s what I have been involved with over the last almost three years.
“At the beginning,” he said, “we knew nothing about the Yazidi people. After talking with Nafiya, we identified a family of eight people and thought we could raise the necessary funds to submit a sponsorship application. We started lining up a few speaking engagements for Nafiya…. We started speaking to people, making calls, and … the original target was $34,000 for this family of eight … [and] within three or four weeks, we raised $34,000. And that number kept on growing as people talked to other people.”
To date, with the generous help of people in Winnipeg and elsewhere, Operation Ezra has raised just over $500,000. This has made it possible for them to sponsor 10 Yazidi families – 55 people – with the last family having arrived in March.
“As soon as we realized this was bigger than a grassroots project, we decided to incorporate Operation Ezra within the organized Jewish community,” said Aziza.
Jewish Child and Family Service (JCFS) saw this as an opportunity to do something in line with what they were already doing – helping with the settlement of immigrants and refugees – so they came on board, gradually reaching out to other organizations and agencies.
Gray Academy of Jewish Education and the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba joined the effort and, currently, Operation Ezra is an umbrella group of some 20 different agencies and organizations. Most of the members are Jewish, but not all. There are two churches involved, the Salvation Army and a number of corporate partners, with IKEA being the biggest name.
Many volunteers help Operation Ezra in various aspects of the settlement process. Naso has been hired by JCFS to manage everything.
One service Operation Ezra offers is an English-as-an-additional-language (EAL) program, which takes place at a synagogue every Thursday, with 70 to 80 refugees attending and about 20 volunteer teachers. Some Yazidi participants are government-sponsored.
Out of the total 250 refugees who are government-sponsored, about 100 have asked for help from Operation Ezra. “So, we are touching the lives of about 200 people,” said Aziza. “We have organized and have helped organize many community events for the Yazidi people. We celebrated Yazidi New Year’s 6768 on April 18, 2018, with a very large number of people coming out for that dinner,” he said by way of example. “We’re trying to help this group of newcomers to get organized, and to organize themselves as a community … to socialize and to help each other and so on.”
According to Aziza, Operation Ezra is the only multifaith group doing this work in North America.
One recipient family of Operation Ezra is Majid and Safya, along with their children. They shared their thoughts on their experience to date, with translating help as needed from Naso.
“My name is Majid. I was born and raised in a small village…. I am married with two kids – one boy who is 4 and one girl who is 6. My wife, Safya, and I are currently enrolled in EAL classes, hoping to learn English and find work in the near future.
“On August 3rd, 2014, at around 9 a.m., my family, community members and I fled to Mount Sinjar. We were lucky to have escaped when we did. If we had stayed any longer, I would be in a mass grave with many other Yazidis. I can still hear the rapid gunfire as ISIS members surrounded everyone who wasn’t able to flee and started shooting.
“We then reached Mount Sinjar, where we stayed for seven days with little to no food or water. As we were coming down the mountain closer to the Kurdistan region, we were able to hop into a truck. But, soon after, we saw ISIS members driving at us, firing round after round. I still don’t know how we escaped that day. Everything was such a blur. All I really remember was covering my kids and wife, hoping they would make it. Fortunately, we all made it to a refugee camp in Dohuk.
“The conditions in the camp were very scary. We were always worried about getting enough to eat, drink … about medical treatment. And we stayed for a few months, but couldn’t make it. So, we left for Turkey hoping for better living conditions.
“After spending almost two years in Turkey,” he said, “we heard about Operation Ezra and reached out. And, by some miracle, we were sponsored. Everything felt like it was going to be OK after we received confirmation we would be coming to Canada.
“I will never forget the welcome we received coming down at the airport. I was in awe of all the people who had come to greet us and welcome us into their community.”
Majid said they arrived in Canada in December 2016. “My experience in Canada has been great and could not be any better!” he said. “I have many friends and family who are in refugee camps in Iraq and Turkey who call me and tell me that the situation in the camp is getting worse by the day. My dreams are that my family and I are able to live in Canada without the fear we faced back home – the constant fear for our lives, hate and discrimination we faced because of our religious beliefs.
“I encourage all Canadians to reach out to Operation Ezra and learn about this amazing program, the only program of its kind in the world today. We have thousands of Yazidi still living in segregated refugee camps, fearing for their lives and waiting for anyone to reach out and lend a helping hand. I also encourage the Canadian government to support groups like Operation Ezra to help out more refugees.”
Khalaf and Gawre’s family are the most recent Operation Ezra arrivals to Winnipeg. (Although they were the last family Operation Ezra had planned to sponsor, the group has unanimously decided to continue their efforts.)
“My name is Khalaf and I arrived in Winnipeg on March 29th with my mother, who is 83 years old, my wife, and five kids – two boys and three girls, ages ranging from 12 to 24. I was ripped away from my four older kids after ISIS attacked our village (Dugere).
“At 8 a.m., we heard gunshots and got calls from other Yazidi villages that ISIS had murdered hundreds of men and was kidnapping all the women and young girls. Ten minutes later, my family and I started walking toward the mountain. My mom and dad were so lucky they were able to get rides to the refugee camp in Dohuk. My wife, Gawre, and five children were stranded on the mountain for seven days.
“We were able to escape the mountain with the help of PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. We lived in a refugee camp on Dohuk for six months. The conditions were horrible and heartbreaking. Many people died in the camps, because there was no humanitarian aid, no water and no medical care. My father passed away, because we could not get him the medical attention he needed.
“Shortly after, we decided to go to Turkey. It was no better there, but we did not have a choice and could not afford to move back to Iraq again.
“My sister and her family were sponsored by Operation Ezra just over a year ago. We got on the list when we heard about this amazing project from the people in the refugee camp.
“Months after contacting Nafiya [Naso] and Asmaeil, we were told we would be sponsored! My family and I definitely won the lottery here. We will always be grateful for everyone who made this possible.
“My dream is to see my family and Yazidis around the world live free of persecution. We hope and encourage all Canadian and other countries around the globe to support groups like Operation Ezra and help them in saving lives.”
Naso added, “Operation Ezra is working to raise more funds and keep sponsoring Yazidi refugees. There are thousands waiting who are in desperate need of help. They have no voice, so we must be a voice for them and speak out for them.”
For more information and to make a donation, email [email protected] or visit jewishwinnipeg.org/community-relations/operation-ezra.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.