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YazidisBy BERNIE BELLAN
It seems like ages ago that we first reported on the efforts of an ad hoc group known as Winnipeg Friends of Israel to bring a number of Yazidi refugees to Manitoba.


The plight of the Yazidis was first brought to the world’s attention a little less than two years ago when that small group of people – which once numbered over 23 million, but had been reduced only to 700,000 as a result of constant persecution by other groups over the years, came under brutal attack by ISIS in their home area of northwest Iraq. At that time tens of thousands of Yazidis were forced to flee to the top of a mountain in Iraq known as Mt. Sinjar, where they faced extremely harrowing conditions until their siege was lifted by Kurdish forces who came to their rescue.
Shortly thereafter, a young Yazidi woman by the name of Nafia Naso emerged in Manitoba as an eloquent spokesperson for the plight of the Yazidis. In April 2015 a small number of members of our own Jewish community decided to begin an organized effort to raise funds with the goal of sponsoring seven Yazidi families in the immigration process so that they could be brought to Manitoba, where approximately 250 Yazidis had already relocated previously.

The drive to sponsor Yazidi refugees really took steam last summer. By last July some $24,000 had been raised by Winnipeg Friends of Israel. By October 2015 that amount had reached $120,000. In November 2015 Jewish Child and Family Service decided to take an active role in the drive to sponsor Yazidi refugees and a plan known as Operation Ezra was born.
Working together with the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and a number of other Jewish organizations, JCFS ultimately saw a total of $250,000 raised, which was more than enough to sponsor the seven Yazidi families.
A spokesperson for the Jewish Federation said: “The Jewish Federation of Winnipeg is very proud to be playing an active role in Operation Ezra. We more than understand both the necessity and the urgency of the project. This is more than a social obligation, it is a mitzvah.”
 
What began as a small grass roots initiative, Operation Ezra has evolved into a multi-community coalition that has created awareness, lobbied government and coordinated volunteer relief efforts and fundraising. Indeed, over $250,000 has been raised to date.

After many twists and turns, the first two Yazidi families, made up of eight individuals, finally arrived in Winnipeg from Turkey late Monday evening, July 11. In addition to the five other Yazidi families, which it was the original goal of Operation Ezra also to assist in coming to Manitoba, the Jewish Federation stated in an email issued in December 2015 that “the broader goals of Operation Ezra are to sponsor and successfully integrate 15 families (100 individuals) over the next 12 months.”
In January 2016 this newspaper reported that “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.”

We asked Michel Aziza, who played a key role in organizing Operation Ezra – and in raising a huge proportion of the $250,000 that was ultimately donated, to comment on the success of the drive to bring the first group of Yazidi refugees to this province and to describe what the next step will be for Operation Ezra. Here is what Michel wrote:
“I became involved in Operation Ezra because I learned that the Yazidi people were desperate for help and as a Jewish person, I felt I had an obligation and responsibility to assist in any way I could. I have had the privilege to be able to spend the time and focus on this project for the last year and a half. I am very proud of the many organizations and agencies within our community that stepped up and played an active role in this rescue operation. From Winnipeg Friends of Israel launching this initiative to JCFS and Shaarey Zedek Congregation sponsoring families, Operation Ezra became a coalition of over 20 multifaith agencies - an unprecedented demonstration of our capacity for kindness and concern for one another.
“In terms of next steps, there is really only one and that is that we need to take this rescue mission to the next level. Saving a people from genocide cannot be the responsibility of the private sector alone. A larger scale government program is desperately needed and the model we have developed through Operation Ezra can be followed in order to actively engage multifaith communities across our country. A government/private sector partnership is the only effective way to bring and successfully settle large numbers of Yazidi refugees. I hope this will be the next step for Operation Ezra.”

Finally, we asked Nafia Naso to describe how much the assistance of the Jewish community has meant to her and to the Yazidi community of Manitoba. (Nafia, by the way, is now a board member of Jewish Child and Family Service.) Here is what Nafia wrote:
“I feel truly blessed to have had so much support, love and kindness shown to me and the Yazidi community by all our partners and supporters, and in particular the Jewish community. This would not have been possible without JCFS, the Operation Ezra Board and countless other organizations who’ve volunteered their time and energy for such an amazing cause. The Jewish community was the first to lend a hand in our time of darkness when ISIS began their genocidal campaign against the Yazidis in August 2014. Our histories have many similarities and that gives us an even greater push to act.
We will keep doing what we are doing and save as many lives as we can.”

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