In mid-2014, as the Islamic State was busy founding its so-called caliphate across swathes of Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group focused its most brutal atrocities on the Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority population native to northern Iraq. International recognition of the plight of the Yazidis is credited by some as prompting foreign military intervention against the Islamic State, but not before an estimated 500,000 Yazidis were forced to flee their homes.
Some of those refugees have been able to start a new life in Winnipeg thanks to Nafiya Naso, a Yazidi and former refugee herself, and now settlement coordinator with Jewish Child and Family Services. This is her story.
After coming to Manitoba as a child refugee in the early 2000s, Nafiya Naso has since helped saved the lives of dozens of fellow Yazidis that fled the horrors of life under the Islamic State.
I’ve been living in Winnipeg for about 18 years now. My life began in a small village in northern Iraq called Khana Sor, but when I was two years-old my father and many other males in the Yazidi community were forced to serve in the Iraqi military, but they were being used as disposables – they were treated really, really badly. Some of these Yazidis managed to escape the military after being shot. One of those was my father, who managed to survive after being shot twice. The same day that he escaped the military he told my mother that we absolutely had to flee the country, or else agents from the Iraqi military would find him and kill him. So we decided to flee to a Yazidi refugee camp in Syria.
It was a seven day journey to the camp, mostly walking at night and hiding during the day. After seven long days we arrived at the camp, where each family was given a small tent, all the same size. The camp was guarded by Muslim extremists and had electric fencing all around it. People weren’t allowed to leave the camp unless it was absolutely emergency – and even then you had to really fight with the guards to convince them to let you out.
We lived in the camp for just over eight years. When I was four, the extremist guards opened a school in our camp that was funded by the Syrian government – we were beaten and tortured at the school every single day. We were called infidels and non-believers of Islam, we were taught to hate people of all different faiths except for their own, and we were forced to read the Quran and to memorize it.
After eight long years, UN officials came into the camp and told all the Yazidis that Australia, Canada and the United States were accepting them as refugees, so everyone signed up to the refugee intake list in a heartbeat. Luckily for my parents, just over a year later we were told that there was a Mennonite church in Morden, Manitoba that was interested in privately sponsoring my family. Another year and a half after that we arrived in Winnipeg, got settled for a couple of weeks and then we were taken to Morden.
We were welcomed there with open arms. We had housing that was secured for us that was fully furnished, we had members of the church that helped us to register for schools, and they taught my parents how speak English and taught my dad how to drive … They just really went completely out of their way to help us build a new life – and these were strangers! At first we were thinking okay, what are they after? Because we weren’t used to that at all. *laughs*
We lived in Morden for two years, and then my parents decided to move to Winnipeg because of our history and what we had gone through – and especially for my parents, they were having a really hard time adjusting as we were the only Yazidi family living in Morden, and there was a couple Yazidi families living here in Winnipeg. As much as we loved Morden, we just had to be closer to some people from our own community that shared the same culture and spoke the same language. We’ve been here since.
In the years that followed some of us kids went into post-secondary school or were just working, doing our own thing. My husband and I bought a house and had two small kids at the time – we now have three. *smiles*
The child care space inside Winnipeg’s Rady Jewish Community Centre, which is also home to Jewish Child and Family Services (JCFS).
We were just living life like normal people, until August 3, 2014 when ISIS swept through Yazidi villages and towns in northern Iraq and the entire Yazidi population was under attack. We started to receive countless horrific phone calls from family and friends that were begging for help. Our lives changed right there – we couldn’t just sit back and do nothing.
One of the biggest concerns for us at the time was, like, nobody knows who the Yazidis are, so we have to start there. We knew it was going to be a long process and we weren’t going to be able to get help immediately. So we started off by educating people, first people within the Jewish community because when we went around the city knocking on doors it was hard to get people’s attention except for about five people within the Jewish community.
They organized a presentation right here in the Jewish Community Centre and there was about 100 people that attended that night, and I had the opportunity to share a little bit about my personal story and what was happening to the Yazidi community. Right there and then, the people that attended wanted to take action, and they wanted to do two things: one was to raise awareness about the plight of the Yazidis; and two was to try to privately sponsor a Yazidi family of seven to be brought over to Canada as refugees. The funds that were needed to sponsor this family was about $37,000. That was no issue at all, the funds literally came in in a matter of a few days, and the more money that just came pouring in we thought okay, well, the more that comes in the more people that we can sponsor.
I’m happy to be able to say we have so far privately sponsored 11 families, a total of 65 people. We’ve submitted another application for a family of eight, and are currently working applications for another family of four. Funds that have been raised to date amount to just over $800,000 over the last four and a half years. We’ve also partnered with a number of different corporate groups in the city and province – IKEA, Canadian Footwear, Salvation Army. The list just goes on and on and on. I think it is 34 different businesses, agencies, churches and synagogues that have been involved in Operation Ezra, our sponsorship and resettlement program, which is housed under Jewish Child and Family Services, who provide tax receipts to donors, and things like that.
And so when I said the date of August 3, those calls that came through, they changed our lives, they really did. Because I never, ever saw myself doing this type of work, and it has really changed my life for the better. Today I work with the entire Yazidi population here in Winnipeg, mainly newcomers – a total of about 410 people. And that’s been my job for the last three years. I’ve just learned so much from this and I can go to sleep every night knowing that I have touched so many lives and been able to help people within my community as someone who understands their pain and shares their same culture and language.
Prior to hearing those phone calls, it was really hard for me to think that those inhumane circumstances I myself went through as a child actually exist throughout the world. But over the last five years, educating myself more and learning about what’s happening around the world – these things actually happen every single day. And over the last five years, when I said that my life has changed for the better, one of the things I promised myself was to try and help as many people as I can, especially the newcomers. Because I know what I went through, and the things I was taught, and speaking to the newcomers here – we’ve worn the same shoes.
A young girl, one of the 65 Yazidi refugees Nafiya Naso has helped bring over to Canada since the summer of 2015 through Operation Ezra. Photo: JCFS
I’ll be honest with you, up until five years ago I’ve always kind of been in my own shell. Because of the horrible experiences I had as a child growing up in a refugee camp, I was just never an outgoing person. You know, I didn’t really want to talk to anybody – went to school, did my work, took care of the house. That was just kind of life for me. Then five years ago, it all started because I spoke to a group of five people and I think about it now and we have hundreds of people volunteering for Operation Ezra, we’ve saved 65 lives.
For those Yazidi families that have come over to Canada, I’ve found that no matter how much you try to ease the transition to a new culture and a new place, you really can’t. You just can’t! Their way of life is so completely different that nothing is the same – you can’t compare anything. I mean, they all come from a society where 85-90% of the Yazidi population lives in small villages and towns in northern Iraq where it’s very dry, it’s very hot – all farmers. Most of them were lucky if they finished grades 7, 8 or 9 and then their parents would take them out of school and they would work on the family farm.
That’s how people grew up. Their homes were made out of mud bricks, so they didn’t worry about paying rent because they built their own homes. Electricity is really poor – they’re lucky if they would get electricity for 2-3 hours per day. They didn’t have clean water to drink. And that’s the way of life they are coming from – it’s how Yazidis have lived for centuries. And so you really can’t explain life here to them unless they come and see it for themselves. And so it’s been a real challenge settling most of them just because nothing is the same here. *laughs*
One thing, back home parents run the show at home, and it’s mostly the males that run the household. So coming here, where there’s no other Yazidis around you, and where it takes parents much longer to pick up the language – my parents struggled big time – I found it really strange that a year after arriving, my parents were relying on all of their kids to translate for them, like 100% relying on their kids. I found it really, really strange, but I see it with all the other Yazidi families right now, and I often think I wonder how they feel. These parents must feel pretty humbled considering they ran the show all their lives and here they are, they’re begging their kids to go to a medical appointment with them or to go grocery shopping with them.
With the younger kids, they just dive right in to embracing their Canadian-ness. I notice them making big gains week to week – they aren’t shy, they pick up the language so fast, make a lot of friends. I noticed with older kids, with high school students, a lot of them go to the same school, so during break times they stick to their own group a bit more. Because of the language barrier they are a bit more hesitant or a bit more afraid to open up.
For me personally, when I was growing up, I never spoke to anyone about my story because I was scared what kind of reaction I would get, and because of my horrible experience growing up in the refugee camp. But working with these newcomers now, people are actually really supportive, especially other kids. I visit a lot of the schools that these kids attend, and like, other kids are very welcoming. They want to help newcomer kids pick up the language, they want to become friends with them, want to become closer to them. I think that’s something I missed. I often well, you know, wonder if I had shared my story maybe I would have had more friends, or could have been more successful in high school or something, you know.
Education is a huge key – education, education, education. It’s very important. Where we come from we were taught nothing but hate, to not accept people of other cultures, of other religions, people with different skin colours…. There’s just so much racism and so much hate inside of you if you are being taught from a young age to look at the world that way. So, I think coming here, and after being in schools for a few years, and learning to open up to the people around you, it makes a huge difference.
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