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Operation EzraBy BERNIE BELLAN Efforts by various Jewish organizations to provide aid for Yazidi refugees have continued to take shape within the past couple of months.


As we reported in our November 11 issue, Jewish Child and Family Service had brought together a wide number of organizations and agencies under the Operation Ezra umbrella at a meeting held on October 26 to discuss how different organizations might contribute to the aid effort for Yazidis.

The plight of the Yazidis was first brought to the Jewish community’s attention last winter by Nafia Naso, a Yazidi refugee herself, who has served as the spokesperson for the small Yazidi community that has already established itself in Manitoba.
Naso has been tireless in her efforts to explain to the public how a community that once numbered over 23 million has been reduced to just 700,000 individuals today.
After Naso spoke to members of  the ad hoc group, Winnipeg Friends of Israel (about whom we have reported on in past issues), a number of concerned individuals, including Michel Aziza, Yolanda Pippini-Pollock, Belle Jarniewski, Leslie Wilder, and Bob Freedman began to organize on behalf of the refugee Yazidi community.
Until quite recently, the Yazidi families being sponsored under Operation Ezra were predominantly situated in two refugee camps located in Turkey. As a result, however, of the constant warfare in that area of the world, one of the refugee camps which was in close proximity to the Syrian border was closed and its inhabitants moved to the other refugee camp. While all refugees live under precarious conditions, the plight of the Yazidi refugees is particularly pitiful, as not only do they exist in harrowing circumstances, the Turks themselves are generally hostile to them.

In April 2015 Winnipeg Friends of Israel decided to work toward assisting in the sponsorship of two Yazidi refugee families. Working closely with other organizations that have developed a special expertise in the resettlement of refugees in Manitoba, including the Mennonite Central Committee and Calvary Temple, some $24,000 was raised by July 2015. That amount would have been sufficient to bring in the first Yazidi refugee family, which numbered seven individuals.
As word of the aid effort spread, however, contributors from across Canada began to donate to the cause. One such very generous donor from Calgary alone contributed $34,000.
In August 2015, JCFS decided that it would take a direct role in the operation and donors were told that JCFS would now begin to issue tax receipts to anyone contributing to what was now known as “Operation Ezra”.
By the time the JCFS had organized the October meeting, some $120,000 had been raised in aid of Yazidi refugees and Operation Ezra evolved from being a small grass root effort to becoming a Jewish community response to the refugee crisis that involved a large number of local agencies and organizations.
By the end of November, a further $20,000 had been added to the pool of money, which was to be used to help settle Yazidi refugees in Manitoba.
Then, just this past December, the Jewish Federation also decided to take an active role in the project. In a December 15 e-mail issued by the Federation, in which the plight of the Yazidis was outlined, the Federation declared that it was now accepting donations for Operation Ezra. As stated in that same email “the broader goals of Operation Ezra are to sponsor and successfully integrate 15 families (100 individuals) over the next 12 months.”
The intent now, according to a spokesperson for Operation Ezra, is to sponsor up to ten families with the help and assistance of the many agencies already involved with Operation Ezra and an additional  five families by working with church groups that have expressed interest in the sponsorship of Yazidi families under the guidance of the Operation Ezra team.
Most recently, in late December, the Shaarey Zedek Congregation announced that it was also actively involved in the project and that members of the congregation were being asked to help sponsor two Yazidi families.
In a conversation that I recently had with Michel Aziza, who has been working tirelessly on this project from the very beginning, Aziza explained where Operation Ezra now stands.
As of December 30, some $180,000 had been raised by Operation Ezra, Aziza explained. A total of approximately $220,000 will be required to sponsor the seven families, numbering some 35 individuals altogether.
While the process of private refugee sponsorship is quite complicated, the paperwork necessary to bring the first three Yazidi families to Winnipeg has now been approved by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the federal government department responsible for the refugee file. Applications for the following four families have also been submitted to the government. When those refugees will actually be brought here, however, is undetermined as of the date of writing this.
Of the 25,000 refugees that the government has committed to bringing to Canada, 15,000 are to be government sponsored and 10,000 privately sponsored. What is unclear, however, is the timetable that the government has for bringing those privately sponsored refugees.
Further, the government has committed to bringing “Syrian refugees”. The Yazidis are not Syrian citizens, as their homeland is actually situated within Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus, while applications have been submitted to sponsor the seven Yazidi families previously referred to, the fact that those families are not Syrian refugees per se makes the status of those applications less clear.

With reference to the role Shaarey Zedek congregants are being asked to play in Operation Ezra members of that congregation have been advised that an information meeting will take place January 17, at which time plans to raise $90,000 and sponsor two Yazidi families will be discussed.
All this is quite outstanding considering that it was less than a year ago that a very small newly formed organization,  Winnipeg Friends of Israel – a small group which is open to anyone to join, provided the original impetus for providing aid to Yazidi refugees.
(For more information about this group, go to www.winnipegfriendsofisrael.com.)  
Since WFI’s original push last winter, in addition to Jewish Child and Family Service, the Jewish Federation, and Shaarey Zedek Congregation, other Jewish organizations that have indicated a willingness to become involved in the Yazidi refugee effort include: Etz Chayim, Temple Shalom, and Adas Yeshurun-Herzlia congregations; the Gray Academy, Gwen Secter Centre, Rady JCC,  National Council of Jewish Women, Camp Massad, and the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba. As well, two Christian groups - Pembina Mennonite Fellowship Church and  Bridges for Peace have already played an important role in the effort. The Manitoba Multifaith Council has also been actively involved since the early days and is represented on the steering committee.
In conclusion, while this is an ongoing story and so many details remain to be resolved, the one overriding lesson we can all take from what has happened so far is that members of Winnipeg’s Jewish community – working in conjunction with other non-Jewish groups, have taken a lead role in offering help to one of the world’s most marginalized and oppressed minority groups: the Yazidis.
Again though, where the federal government stands in relation to this aid effort is not at all clear. When will the three Yazidi families that have already been approved to be brought here arrive? How much longer will it take to process the other four Yazidi families for whom sufficient funds have been raised to sponsor? Those questions have not been answered by the government as of yet.
For more information about Operation Ezra, or to find out how you can get involved, contact Michel Aziza at 204-5110-0636 or Al Benarroch at 204-477-7430.