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benarroch alBy BERNIE BELLAN Efforts on the parts of a wide range of Jewish community groups to provide assistance to certain refugee groups in the Middle East have moved to a new level.

While plans are still being formulated, and not all the groups that have indicated a willingness to get involved in one way or another seem to know how it is that they might contribute, we are able to report movement in a number of areas.
Foremost among these is the incredibly successful fundraising effort initiated by the newly formed group, Winnipeg Friends of Israel, that has resulted in over $120,000 being donated toward the specific cause of bringing in Yazidi refugee families who are currently confined to camps in Turkey.
We have reported on the Winnipeg Friends of Israel initiative in the past. As recently as July 13, the amount raised by that group was only $24,000, which would have been sufficient to bring one Yazidi refugee family to Manitoba.
Now, however, the total amount raised is sufficient to allow four more families to come here under terms of the Canadian Private Sponsorship of Refugee Program.
One individual who has played a key role in the drive to sponsor Yazidi refugees has been Michel Aziza, a low-key individual who deflects any praise for his incredibly successful work.
At a meeting of the Winnipeg Friends of Israel, held October 28, Aziza and Yolanda Papini-Pollock (who has been the driving force behind the formation of WFI, which is an ad hoc group open to anyone to join), outlined the Yazidi assistance program to date.
Aziza explained that the first $34,000 was funneled through Calvary Temple, which accepted donations for what became known as “Operation Ezra” for the first few months of the aid initiative. (That $34,000 has now been put into the hands of the Jewish Child and Family Service, as will be explained later.) The 34,000 was sufficient to allow the Pembina Mennonite Fellowship Church in Morden, Manitoba to receive authorization as the “constituent group” sponsor of the first Yazidi family, meaning that members of that church would be responsible “to provide the refugees with care, lodging, settlement assistance and support for the duration of the sponsorship period”, which is usually for a one-year period.

Recently the drive to assist Yazidi refugees took a different twist when the Jewish Child and Family Service agreed to become directly involved in the refugee assistance program. Donations have been accepted and will continue to be accepted by JCFS for Yazidi refugees. Further, the additional four Yazidi families who have been approved by the Canadian government as refugees who will be allowed to come to Manitoba sometime within the next 18 months (pending the cooperation of a very obstreperous Turkish government), and who are currently in camps in Turkey, will be sponsored by the JCFS. JCFS will act as the Constituent or Sponsor group for the next four families who have been identified through Operation Ezra. These families have all been registered with the UNHCR as refugees and applications to bring them to Manitoba are all in process.

At a meeting convened by Al Benarroch, executive director of JCFS, on Monday, October 26, a large number of representatives of Jewish organizations and synagogues, gathered together to discuss what each of their organizations might be able to contribute to the effort to aid Yazidi refugees.
According to Benarroch, JCFS “has a long history in settlement and resettlement work going back even to the boat people in the 70s.” He also cited “Russian refuseniks and Bosnians that had some Jewish connections” as other types of refugees who have received JCFS assistance in the past.
Following are the groups that were invited to attend that October 26 meeting: Winnipeg Friends of Israel, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, Aleph Bet Daycare, Camp Massad, BB Camp, Chavurat Tefilah, Chevra Mishnayes, Shaarey Zedek, Etz Chayim, Talmud Torah, Temple Shalom, Gray Academy, the Gwen Secter Centre, Herzlia, Rady JCC, Brock Corydon School, the Simkin Centre, Chabad, Jewish Heritage Centre, and the National Council of Jewish Women.
Benarroch said that over 20 people showed up – from about ten of the groups just listed.
In addition, several key volunteers who have already played a major role in the Yazidi assistance program, including Michel Aziza, Bob Freedman, Yolanda Papini Pollock, Belle Jarniewski and Leslie Wilder, were in attendance. Finally, representatives of the Mennonite Central Committee were also invited, but were not able to attend. (“They are the ones that have the formal agreement with the federal government for sponsorship of refugees,” Benarroch explained.)
“JCFS and other partners will be signing on as the ‘constituent group’,” he added. That’s the group that “is responsible for raising the funds and supporting the families upon arrival.”
“We’ve entered into this as providing the formal structure as the constituent group,” Benarroch said, “with the understanding that the volunteer laypeople will be doing most of the heavy lifting around the needs of the families upon arrival and in terms of raising the necessary funds.”
JCFS will play a major role once refugees have arrived here, in conjunction with the volunteers who will be stepping forward. “We have links within the settlement sector – everything from employment, to language training, counseling and treatment. So we’ll bring that wealth of experience,” Benarroch noted.

Why the Yazidis, you might ask? Benarroch suggested that “there’s such a close mirroring to our own Jewish history of 70 years ago, with the Holocaust. They have no homeland to return to, they’ve been heavily persecuted, decimated and traumatized.” The Yazidis are a people that numbered over 22 million some 700 years ago, but who now total only approximately 700,000, Benarroch explained.
Currently the JCFS is accepting funds for Operation Ezra toward Yazidi refugee relief and is issuing tax receipts for those donations. As far as what the various organizations that were invited to attend the October 26 meeting are concerned, Benarroch said it will be left up to each of them to consider how they might contribute, if at all. Some may decide “to collect pots and pans, clothing, to tutor in English, or even consider taking on sponsorship of another family” he suggested.

But, when it comes to helping a group that, until quite recently, for all intents and purposes, was totally unknown in this part of the world, I asked Benarroch how we, as Jews, are supposed to feel about getting involved in such a big way with people about whom we know almost nothing. I said to him: “We know nothing about the Yazidis - they know nothing about us. How is this going to play with members of Winnipeg’s Jewish community?”
Benarroch admitted that he’s been asked by members of the community why JCFS is helping “Muslims” from Syria? He acknowledged that the plight of all refugees, including Muslims displaced from Syria is tragic, but there is widespread ignorance about who the Yazidis are. The fact is though, that Yazidis are not Muslims. (Their religion actually derives from the ancient Zoroastrian religion. Interestingly, while Yazidis do speak Kurdish as their mother tongue, there is a pervasive hostility between some Yazidis and some Kurds. More about this in my Short Takes column.)
I also asked Benarroch how all this fits into the federal government’s plan to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year and Premier Greg Selinger’s commitment to bring in 10,000 immigrants  to this province next year. (While some of those immigrants will be refugees, by no means will all immigrants here be refugees.)
Benarroch answered that, while some of the members of Operation Ezra met with a representative of the province, that representative was glad to hear that the Jewish initiative was not asking for any financial aid. As far as where this all fits with what the federal government might be doing, it’s a little too early to know. (By the way, I helped to organize a meeting between Jim Carr and Winnipeg Friends of Israel in the summer where Carr was brought up to speed on the Yazidi situation, so I’m sure that Carr is going to be lobbied to help Yazidi refugees now that he’s a cabinet minister.)
In the meantime, Benarroch said that, while JCFS is accepting donations on behalf of Yazidi refugee relief for the community effort, and questions about the program to aid them which, as noted previously, was labeled “Operation Ezra” by Winnipeg Friends of Israel should be directed to Michel Aziza at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In a press release issued by the Jewish Federation on Friday, November 5, it was stated that “The Jewish community of Winnipeg is honoured to play an active role in helping Yazidi refugees find a new home in Canada.
“The Yazidis have been persecuted over the centuries. They are a monotheistic ethnic community with ancient roots and their own distinct religion and culture. The Yazidis have been targeted for annihilation by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). They hail mostly from Iraq; however, they no longer have a homeland. Many are languishing in refugee camps where they are subjected not only to prejudice but to violence. A small Yazidi community came to Winnipeg and now numbers approximately 180 members. Not only do we share with the Yazidis our experience of historical prejudice and genocidal persecution, but we also have a deep understanding of the difficulties endemic to settlement in a new country. Our two communities share a keen desire to be a part of Canada in every sense as contributing members of a strong and democratic society.
“The plight of the Yazidis was brought to the attention of the Jewish and general communities during an exceptional program organized by Winnipeg Friends of Israel. Indeed, WFI has spearheaded efforts to not only raise awareness but to raise the funds necessary to support and sponsor Yazidi refugees. In fact, to date, the campaign has raised approximately $120,000 - sufficient funds to sponsor 4 families and is currently working on a fifth.”

For more on this subject, and how members of Winnipeg’s Kurdish community would also love to have members of the Jewish community pay some attention to the plight of Kurdish refugees in Turkey, read my “Short Takes” column in this issue.

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#1 An idea about a way to help the Yazidi refugeesCarol 2019-03-04 15:55
Dear Bernie,

I am an American and I am greatly disturbed by the treatment of these Yazidis. My paternal grandmother's side of the family and village was wiped out in the Holocaust so these types of stories are not unknown to us. I am also a teacher. One way to help would be that if we could get some internet connection and a laptop computer, we can start some teachings. I can teach them English. I hear that people in refugee camps struggle with boredom so this is, at least, one forward moving and positive us elf their time. It can also give them skills for the future. What is the internet situation and do you think this is something that is "do-able"? Thanks. Carol