Some six months ago, along with a few others, I was invited to attend an informal meeting where we were introduced to a young Yazidi couple. I knew little about the Yazidi people, other than some television images from the previous summer of people seeking refuge from ISIS forces on a mountain in northern Iraq. What I heard that night compelled me and several other members of the Winnipeg Jewish community to help people who had been persecuted and slaughtered over the centuries.
First of all, who are the Yazidis? They are neither Muslims nor Christians. In fact, they predate Islam and Christianity. Although they speak the Kurdish language, they are not Kurds. The Yazidi religion is an oral tradition; there are no written texts. They are monotheistic. They have been hated and murdered over the centuries, and their numbers have declined from many millions to just 700,000 or so worldwide. Many of those who managed to escape the ISIS onslaught are in segregated refugee camps in Turkey near the border with Syria. Among them, relatives of people living in Winnipeg.
In reality, the Yazidi people are facing genocide, and the world is ignoring it, just as the world ignored what was happening to the Jews during the Holocaust. For that reason alone, Jews have a particular obligation to step forward and do what we can to save as many people as possible before it is too late. So, what have we been doing in Winnipeg and what should we be doing across the country?
Our commitment was to raise awareness, not only in the Jewish community but also in the city generally, about the plight of the Yazidis. We forged a partnership with the Mennonite Central Committee and, subsequently, Jewish Child and Family Service, to sponsor as many refugee families as we could. We raised about $150,000 – enough to sponsor five families. Since then, Shaarey Zedek synagogue, the largest congregation in our community, has committed to sponsor an additional two families. And we are not stopping there.
Our biggest challenge at this time is to encourage our newly elected government not to forget about the Yazidis, as their initial focus remains on Syrian nationals. Our government promised to increase humanitarian assistance to victims of the civil war in Syria and to people who have been pursued by ISIS in the region. Unlike many Syrians, the Yazidis have no home to return to, when the civil war ends.
CIJA and the organized Jewish community must get this message across to our elected officials before it is too late.