Yolanda Papini Pollock, co-founder of Winnipeg Friends of Israel, which initiated Operation Ezra. (photo from Yolanda Papini Pollock)
The Jewish community in Winnipeg has ramped up its efforts to help the Yazidi people, including the sponsorship of families to the city.
“When you look at the plight of the Yazidi people, it kind of mirrors the Jewish reality of 1945,” said Al Benarroch, executive director of Winnipeg’s Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS). “I’m not going to be one to say that it’s like the Holocaust, but the Yazidis have suffered, over the last 500-600 years, a very significant genocide.
“The Yazidi people have been displaced from that region of the world and have been heavily victimized, murdered and devastated in the millions. And they have nowhere to go to. So, our community and other communities across Canada have really taken this to heart saying, you know, it was a mere 70 years ago that we ourselves were in a similar situation.
“When we say ‘Never again,’ are we just talking about the Jewish people? We see that image of ourselves in the Yazidi plight, and we feel compelled to come forward and act on it. That’s been the message we’ve been putting forward in Winnipeg.”
The group that started this effort in the city is Winnipeg Friends of Israel (WFI), awakening the community to the Yazidis’ situation and the possibility of sponsoring Yazidi refugees to Winnipeg.
“When we heard about the Yazidi massacre in August 2014, we reached out to the Yazidi community,” said Yolanda Papini Pollock, WFI co-founder. “We wanted to hear about the Yazidi plight and support their community by raising awareness.”
WFI invited Nafiya Naso, a Yazidi spokesperson, to share her and others’ stories with the Winnipeg community at the Asper Jewish Community Centre in March 2015.
“After learning about the dire strait conditions of the Yazidis in refugee camps, it was clear to us that we could not sit aside and do nothing,” said Papini Pollock. “We decided to do more than just listen.”
The group initiated Operation Ezra with the goal of sponsoring at least one Yazidi family and of raising awareness of the Yazidis’ plight. They began by partnering with Bridges for Peace, Calvary Temple, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and others. By December, $130,000 (enough for five-plus families) had been raised.
“When we heard Nafiya’s story, we recognized so many similarities to the plight of the Jewish people prior to the establishment of Israel and immediately empathized with her people,” said Papini Pollock. “The Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority and, just like the Jews, they are targeted solely because of their religious beliefs. Many genocide scholars perceive the Yazidis as victims of genocide. The Yazidis have been persecuted 74 times. At one point, there were more than 20 million Yazidis. Today, there are less than one million.”
The Jewish Federation of Winnipeg has helped raise the funds to sponsor as many families as possible and JCFS has taken on the responsibility of managing the resettlement and other services, allowing WFI to do what they do best – connecting on a personal level with people.
Since Operation Ezra was announced, the congregation of Shaarey Zedek has taken on sponsorship of two families under the initiative.
“Collectively, we’re talking about 35 individuals to date who have applications that are or will be submitted,” said Benarroch. “At this point, I think we’re talking about bringing in as many as 50 individuals.
“The more we fundraise, the more we can help. We’ve gotten a hold of many people who are donating furnishings, old televisions and bedding. Someone came forward and said they will donate through their manufacturing company quilts and coats. We are looking for warehouse space.”
The sponsorships are being done through MCC, as they are the only organization in the city that holds a sponsorship agreement with the federal immigration department. This is something Benarroch would like to see change, not due to any lack in MCC’s services, but as an added insurance. “Historically, there was Jewish Immigration Aid Services of Canada (JIAS),” he said. “Located in Toronto, they were the national office for Jewish immigration.
“Because it was a national mandate for that sponsorship agreement and the national office no longer exists, my understanding is that the sponsorship agreement had to be given up. So, now we no longer have a national sponsorship agreement for Canadian Jewish communities. God forbid if we should have a worldwide crisis and the Canadian Jewish communities would be challenged at a national level to take on Jewish refugees.”
While he has been exploring the options regarding making an application to have at least a local sponsorship agreement – “If history repeats itself, as it usually does, you should have that safety” – Benarroch stressed, “I think it’s been amazing to be able to work in partnership with those groups, with the Mennonite community. The Manitoba Multifaith Council sits at the table for Ezra. We get ourselves out there. It’s the right thing to do.”
Some of the most-asked questions by people considering joining the effort, Benarroch said, are “Who are the Yazidis? Are they Muslim? Are they Christian?”
His response is, “They are not Jewish, Christian or Muslim, yet they do share many interesting customs that have a foot in all of those religions. They celebrate their new year … I’m not an expert … in the spring, in their month of Nisan. We, as Jews, also have a month of Nisan. They pray several times a day towards the sun, much like Islam. Yet, they have no formal book or liturgy … no formal Koran, Torah, New Testament, whatever you’d like to call it. It’s an oral tradition.”
Papini Pollock, meanwhile, is finding it hard to wait for the first arrivals. “We will be involved in taking care of the families when they arrive to the best of our abilities,” she said. “We will work with the rest of the Winnipeg community to ensure the refugees have the most natural transition to Winnipeg and to Canada.”
For more information on Operation Ezra, visit jewishwinnipeg.org/community-relations/operation-ezra.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.