From Winnipeg, Canada, a Jewish Response to the Yazidi Genocide

Fellow blogger Lazar Berman recently wrote about the responsibility of Jews to respond to the plight of the Yazidi people and suggested possible action that might be taken by Israel and Jews around the world. Through his comparison of Eichah to the present-day suffering of the Yazidis, he provided powerful images of the ongoing genocide, which began the morning of August 3, 2014. As Jews, whether religious or secular it is incomprehensible that we could ignore the plight of this ancient people whose history may predate our own. A group of Jewish people in a far away community in Winnipeg, Canada did respond, with a project that has now grown organically to include partners in the multifaith community. We named it Operation Ezra, for the Hebrew word help, and the Prophet Ezra.

Operation Ezra greets our first Yazidi refugee family July 2016
Operation Ezra greets our first Yazidi refugee family July 2016


In March 2015, Nafiya Naso, a young Yazidi woman approached our community with the story of what was happening to her people. The small group that responded with an idea to privately sponsor Yazidi families included some children of Shoah survivors. My mother was an Auschwitz survivor and my father the survivor of six concentration camps. I have also interviewed many survivors; hearing once again about the torture and murder of women and children—of mass graves—of categorizing people as subhuman because of their faith was unimaginably familiar. Perhaps what gripped us most as Canadians was the idea of the impossibility of finding refuge—safe haven. Canada had perhaps the worst record of any country in accepting Jews attempting to flee the impending doom in Europe. Yet many people asked us why we were doing this. Were Yazidis Jews?

Although many volunteers have come forward and keep this well-oiled machine functioning, Nafiya, a strong, courageous young mother of three is truly a hero in this story, alongside Michel Aziza, who has taken on the chairmanship of the project and turned it into a 24-7 occupation. Without them, none of this would be possible. In order to make the project run professionally—from fundraising to resettlement services, Operation Ezra has remained rooted in the Jewish community as we have partnered with both Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and Jewish Child and Family Service, the latter having extensive experience in the field of resettlement and counselling.

From left: Michel Aziza, Nafiya Naso and Terry Duguid, Member of Parliament for Winnipeg South

As time went on, and the impending arrival of our families was announced, invaluable friends in the multifaith community joined us in the Operation Ezra growing coalition. The Salvation Army provided new beds and mattresses for every refugee and took them shopping for clothing. IKEA provided beautiful items for the kitchens and bathrooms of the homes we found for them to live in. A local synagogue sponsored two families and a church sponsored another. One incredibly generous man donated enough money to sponsor an entire family. As of today, Operation Ezra has raised almost half a million dollars and has privately sponsored 55 Yazidi refugees. Forty-one have already arrived and settled in Winnipeg. Their children are happily adjusting to school and many members of our new families have found work, with our help. Once a week, we hold an English as a Second Language class at a local synagogue, staffed with volunteers. The synagogue also serves as a meeting place once a month for our new refugees.

Weekly EAL class at Temple Shalom Synagogue
Weekly EAL class at Temple Shalom Synagogue

As we arranged for helping our friends to celebrate their New Year, we discovered that the month in which Yazidis celebrate the holiday, Sere Sal, is called Nisan. Of course, in Biblical times, the Jewish New Year was celebrated in the Hebrew month of Nisan. The translation of Sere Sal is – “the head of the year.” We have now helped our Yazidi friends arrange several celebrations and co-sponsored three memorials. They have been held at local synagogues, the JCC and a Unitarian Church.

Sere Sal New Year celebration April 2017

Each one of our refugees has suffered in ways that are difficult to imagine. They are so grateful to be here and to know as one mother described, that their children will never go to bed hungry again and are now safe. They speak of going from hell to heaven. They have been persecuted for only one reason—their faith. At our recent memorial on August 3, Rabbi Anibal Mass of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue addressed the gathering before we proceeded to a candle lighting ceremony. He spoke of our responsibility of Jews to rescue those in need, referring to our sacred texts. From the Mishneh Torah, he cited that there is no greater religious duty than to rescue those in need, for not only are the captive included in the category of the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, but their very lives are in jeopardy. As well, he reminded us of Deuteronomy 4:9—“Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children.”

19_2017 Aug 3
Yazidi refugees light a candles at Genocide memorial August 3, 2017

Forget? There are certainly many things I will never forget. The horrific: The little girl I met last week, the child of a government-assisted refugee who was nine years old. She had been repeatedly raped by ISIS for three years and then returned to her mother, also a captive of ISIS who was forced to be sex slave for several different men. And the little boys — also returned to the mother, after three years in ISIS captivity, the victims of severe beatings and a shooting  –two who suffer from seizures as a result. The wonderful: the smiles of the newly arrived families as they arrive to freedom. Watching the tears stream down 100 faces as we gathered to greet the families we waited for come down the escalator at the airport.

About the Author
Belle Jarniewski is the director of the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada and the current President of the Manitoba Multifaith Council. Since 2013, she has served on Canada’s delegation to the IHRA—the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Her book, Voices of Winnipeg Holocaust Survivors (2010), documents the stories of 73 local survivors. Belle’s passion for tikkun olam has led her to pursue a graduate degree in Dialogue Theology at the University of Winnipeg. Her thesis explored survivor narratives through the thought of the theologian Irving “Yitz” Greenberg. She is also one of the founders of Operation Ezra, an initiative to sponsor Yazidi refugees to Canada and to focus world awareness on this genocide occurring “in broad daylight.”
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