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About 100 Yazidis and their supporters held a peaceful demonstration in London, Ontario yesterday to commemorate August 3, 2014, the day ISIS terrorists unleashed torture, sex slavery and genocide against the religious minority. They were raising their voices, too, against media and political fickleness that has abandoned them without the promised help they now desperately need.
“The world seems to have forgotten us,” Dalal Abdi told Convivium from her home in the southwestern Ontario city. “I can’t believe it’s been six years, and so many of our people are still missing or suffering in refugee camps.”
The Canadian director of the international advocacy organization Yazda said intense media focus on 2018 Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad failed to produce long-term support for Yazidis. Yet help is still desperately required if individuals and the community are to heal from the horrors ISIS inflicted. A key need is specialized counselling for women who, like Murad, suffered extreme trauma when they were tortured and held as sex slaves. Another is promised-but-stalled family reunification, Abdi says.
Her voice chokes with emotion as she sifts through photos she received recently from relatives in northern Iraq. One shows dense black clouds of smoke in the background, and the remnants of some badly scorched tents. Compared to them, the roughest camping tents in Canada would seem luxurious. Her extended family continues to live in the tents despite a fire that raged through the tattered shelters after they fled their Sinjar district village.
In many ways the photo of the raging fire and the burnt tents are symbolic of what happened to Abdi’s people on August 3, 2014. It was a dark night of terror for the Yazidis, who had lived an almost idyllic pastoral life for millennia, largely unknown to the rest of the world.
ISIS terrorists swept through their homeland and, in their determination to “cleanse” the region of all religious minorities including Yazidis and Christians, tortured and massacred thousands of men and old women as well as enslaving thousands of young women. The International Organization for Migration estimated 200,000 Yazidis fled in terror.
Canada recognized the Yazidi genocide in October 2016. In February 2017, the federal government pledged to bring 1,200 Yazidis refugees, particularly women and girls, to the country within four months.
About 800 Yazidi survivors did make it to Canada. They now live mostly in London, Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, and remain in urgent need of help and support, said Abdi.
“Thousands of Yazidi women, men and children are still missing, and it hurts our hearts to think of it,” she said. "In the year of COVID-19, help and support from the government and other sources has slowed dramatically. The promised family-reunification program has come to a standstill.”
Geoffrey Clarfield is a Toronto anthropologist and an independent consultant for the Canadian Coalition Against Terror, a non-partisan advocacy group. Clarfield has made it his mission to seek justice and support for Yazidis. He has strong criticism for the Canadian government’s handling of the Yazidi file.
“Canada has neglected its moral obligation and there is no political will to bring in more Yazidis,” he said in an e-mail interview with Convivium. “These are especially vulnerable refugees, mostly women who endured slavery, a few men and many children.”
In response to a question about whether Canadian Yazidi refugees are receiving the support they need, Clarfield said: “From my own networks and experience the answer is an emphatic ‘no’.”
He reinforced Abdi’s point about family reunification.
“They were promised that family members would follow, and this has not happened. They do not have a long-standing established network of Yazidis in Canada, like the Italians or the Ukrainians before them. They are on their own,” he added.
Adding to Yazidi burdens is the ongoing war and bloodshed in their homeland in northern Iraq. In June, Turkish warplanes bombarded the region in a campaign against so-called Kurdish rebels. Yazidis who had just begun to return home are caught in the crossfire.
Clarfield is unequivocal about the effect of this on Yazidis living in Canada. They email and phone their families in the Middle East daily, he said.
“Anything that happens to the Yazidis in Iraq and Syria is happening to their immediate relatives. They are slowly learning that Canada is actually part of the coalition fighting in Syria and Iraq but they are astounded that they do nothing to protect Yazidi there, in Iraq, in the IDP camps or in refugee camps."
Rev. Majed El-Shafieis the founder and President of One Free World International (OFWI), a Toronto-based international human rights organization dedicated to being a voice for persecuted religious minorities and victims of human rights violations around the world.
The non-profit organization’s work ranges from lobbying governments to conducting daring rescue missions in the heart of conflict and post-conflict zones. It is wholly supported through donations from members and friends.
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The Egyptian-born El Shafie, who was once the victim of faith-based persecution himself, gives a passing grade with a “need for improvement” to Canada for its support of Yazidi newcomers.
“The Canadian government has done something, but they can do better,” he said in a telephone interview. “They had to be pushed to recognize the Yazidi genocide, and then took in 800 Yazidis. Since then, they’ve thrown them under the bus in terms of providing support for their rehabilitation and resettlement.”
“The Yazidis have no credit history, and can’t find housing as landlords don’t want to rent to them,” he pointed out, adding that specialized, culturally sensitive psychiatric services are an urgent necessity for the process of rehabilitation.
“The word ‘impossible’ is not in my dictionary. We just have to build the plane as it’s flying,” he said, when asked about the unexpected challenges posed by COVID-19.
“With the pandemic and the continuing instability due to the political agendas of Turkey, Russia and Iran, the situation is worse than ever for people in refugee camps. Our team on the ground in Iraq has been helping as much as possible delivering hand sanitizer and masks, and training camp leaders on best practices to help control the spread of the virus.”
He added that the camps they are working in are populated by Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims, and disproportionately by women.
“I can assure you that without special support, 50 per cent will die immediately of COVID-19, because they are ill nourished and live in crowded conditions where social distancing is impossible,” El Shafie said.
The pandemic-related economic downturn has caused funds to dry up and donations to become scarce, he added.
“We had to take loans from the bank to continue our work because we can’t leave them to die in these camps.”
“All Canadians except the Indigenous, were all refugees or immigrants at some point,” he said, appealing to Canadians to consider donating to support the life-saving work.