It was early August 2014, and Yazidi-Canadian Nafiya Naso’s phone was ringing non-stop. On the line were terrified friends and family living through a horrific assault by ISIS, who had swept into the Sinjar district of Northern Iraq on Aug. 3 with brutal force.
“I heard how many people were killed and how the young women and children were taken,” says Naso, a 26-year-old nursing student and mother of two who is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
At the time, the horrors of the assault were still unfolding for the Yazidi people, a minority group in Iraq considered infidels by ISIS because they practice their own ancient religion. It’s estimated that as many as 5,500 Yazidi men and boys were murdered by ISIS in the August 2014 genocide, while thousands of girls and women were taken hostage and subject to sexual torture—and many still remain captive today.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis fled their homes on foot. An estimated 360,000 Yazidis have been displaced since the 2014 siege, seeking shelter in refugee camps in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Europe.
Resolved to help her people survive, 26-year-old Naso, who came to Canada from Iraq as a refugee in 1990, began knocking on doors. “I begged for help and it was so hard for me to get that help because no one knew who the Yazidis were, or what the heck I was talking about.”
Naso, who formed the Yazidi Community of Manitoba, soon found a strong ally in Winnipeg’s Jewish community. Together, they raised funds to privately sponsor a Yazidi family of seven, who came to Winnipeg in July 2015. Two years later that group, which calls itself Operation Ezra, has expanded to include over 24 agencies and multi-faith organizations. To date, they have privately sponsored six families (35 people in total) and helped settle them in Winnipeg, and have plans to bring 20 to 25 more people by the end of 2017.
Since they brought their first family to Canada, Naso and Operation Ezra have been instrumental in urging the Canadian government to make the settling of Yazidis a priority. That pressure has paid off. On February 21, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced Canada will accept 1,200 Yazidi refugees by the end of 2017.
“It’s a start,” says Naso.
Naso talked to FLARE about how it feels to be a refugee, what gets lost in public conversations about immigration and why it’s so important that we open both our hearts and our borders to those in need of rescue.
You left Iraq in 1990 when you were two years old. What were the circumstances?
Before I was born, my dad, as well as many other Yazidi men, were forced to serve in the Iraqi military in the war between Iraq and Iran. They were being treated as disposables and when I was two years old my dad was shot by Iraqis in the military simply because he was a Yazidi. After that, he managed to escape and that same day my family and I fled our home in Khanasour (in Northern Iraq, near Mount Sinjar). It was a long journey on foot. My mom was eight months pregnant at the time, my brother was three years old and I was a little bit heavier and wasn’t able to walk. My mum couldn’t carry all three of us so I was almost left behind. Thankfully she spotted a donkey nearby, and that donkey saved my life. That donkey carried me and my brother to the refugee camp in Syria where we stayed in tents in horrible conditions for eight years. The camp was wired all around and guarded 24/7 by Muslim extremists. No one was allowed to leave. If anyone needed anything they had to ask in advance. If you were lucky, sometimes they let you go, but most of the time they wouldn’t let anyone out.
How did you get to Canada?
One day [after six years at the camp], UN officials came and told all the Yazidis that Australia, Canada and the U.S. were accepting refugees. Luckily for us, about a year after, we learned that there was a Mennonite church in Morden, Man. [located in the southern area of the province, close to the U.S. border] that was willing to sponsor my family. That process took another year and we came and landed in Winnipeg. We stayed while our paperwork was processed for about two weeks and then moved to Morden ,where we spent over two years. We were welcomed by the entire community there with open arms and open hearts. They had a home ready for us that was fully furnished. They registered us for school, got us health cards and SIN cards, and volunteers would come and sit with us and help us with English and help my parents. They taught my dad how to drive a car and went out of their way to make sure that we were all successful.
You were 10 when you came to Canada. How did you feel as a newcomer after all you’d been through?
To be honest, I felt very scared, particularly about going to school and starting school in a new country. You don’t know the language, you don’t know the culture. At the time, there were maybe three or four Yazidi families across Canada. It was hard at the beginning, but after we picked up the language and my parents learned a little bit, it became a lot easier. We’re very thankful for the opportunity of being able to come here and being able to be around such good people, it’s just been great.
You and Operation Ezra were instrumental in bringing the plight of the Yazidis to the attention of the federal government. What’s your relationship to the federal sponsorship program that’s planned for this year?
We’re going to play a role in both our privately sponsored families and in the federal sponsorship model as well. We’re currently meeting with settling agencies and trying to take concrete steps and make agendas for when more people arrive. We’re trying to get ourselves organized and to let people know who we are and that we’re here to help in any way we can.
What’s the difference between a private sponsorship model for refugees and a federal sponsorship program?
With private sponsorship, we do everything for the families: volunteers register the kids for school, get them health cards and SIN cards. We have an network of volunteers who go into their homes and help the kids with homework and help the parents on outings, show them around and teach them how to take the bus. We’ve also initiated our own English language program with the six families we’ve brought here. We’ve partnered with Salvation Army, which has offered to provide brand-new beds and mattresses for every refugee that we bring in and also new clothing for all the refugees. We find them homes in locations where they are safe and close to good schools and shopping centres. We pay the extra rent to make sure they’re in good areas. We take all these things into consideration rather then just put them anywhere.
The government has committed to bring 1,200 Yazidis to Canada this year, which sounds generous. But you have more than 3,000 families alone on your waiting list…
Yes, they’ve heard of Operation Ezra and this is their only hope. If we count the people in those families, that’s about 15,000 to 18,000 individuals.
What gets left out in the public discourse about immigration and refugees in your opinion?
We have to understand that nobody wants to leave their home. For example, my parents came here in their 40s. They spent 40 years of their lives in one home and in one village. They were forced to flee—they didn’t want to leave their home and families behind. They were forced to do that and we were also forced to leave Syria as well. It’s a great opportunity [coming to Canada] and we’re so thankful for it, but people have to understand some refugees go from 10 different countries until they reach a safe place. They risk their lives. Many of them don’t make it —and that’s something that people just don’t understand. They assume that they just don’t like where they are and people just start packing up and start walking across borders. That’s not the case.
You do this unpaid and while balancing work, nursing school and a family. Why?
It’s a must for me. Strangers did it for me and my family some 16 years ago and I’m paying that forward just a little bit. This is for my own people and that’s how I look at it.