Hundreds of Yezidis took to Toronto streets last summer to call attention to the plight of minorities under Islamic State rule. Photo by Michael Swan

Catholics join efforts to save Yezidi

  • May 4, 2015

TORONTO - For Ghina Al-Sewaidi — lawyer, Muslim and Iraqi-Canadian — the correct word to describe Islamic State attacks on Yezidi and Mandaean people is genocide. The correct response is to sponsor the survivors through Canada’s refugee system.

Toronto Catholics have joined with Al-Sewaidi to help bring Yezidi and Mandaean refugees to Canada.

Al-Sewaidi has teamed up with Toronto Police Inspector Chuck Konkel, the Office of Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto and the 18 volunteer police chaplains in Toronto. Catholic parishes, such as Konkel’s St. Anselm’s, have stepped up to support the sponsorship efforts.

“We can’t bring everybody here, but if we bring one or two families to start with, that would really be a start for us,” said Al-Sewaidi. “The Iraqi people, putting the government aside, they help each other from whichever ethnic minority they are, from whatever religion you are.”

A mere 200 Yezidi families across Canada and a similar number of Mandaeans can’t be expected to assemble the financial muscle or organizational strength to navigate the complicated refugee sponsorship system. That’s where the Catholics’ well-established network for sponsoring and resettling refugees can help.

Konkel quickly lined up the 18 volunteer police chaplains, a group that includes Christian, Jewish and Muslim clerics, to support refugee sponsorships.

konkel-al-sewaidiToronto Police Inspector Chuck Konkel, left, and Iraqi-Canadian lawyer Ghina Al-Sewaidi are among a team that has stepped up to help bring Yezidi and Mandaean refugees to Canada. (Photos by Michael Swan)

“This tragedy may be greater than that which faced the Vietnamese boat people,” said Konkel, who witnessed the boat people crisis up close as a young police officer in Hong Kong in the 1970s.

“We have an obligation as Christians and as Canadians to help,” he said. “You can’t lie and say you can’t do anything.”

For Yezidis, whose ancient culture and religion — among the first monotheisms in human history — are under threat, Toronto’s Catholic lifeline through the refugee system couldn’t come at a more critical moment.

“Some of them have lost 75 per cent of their family,” Yezidi Human Rights Organization International chairman Mirza Ismail told The Catholic Register. “These people are traumatized. There’s no way they can go back to Iraq.”

Yezidis came to world attention last August when the Islamic State chased 50,000 villagers living in the plain of Nineveh into the Sinjar Mountains, and in the process massacred up to 5,000. Young women and children were sold in open markets as sex slaves.

Islamic State justified the war crimes on the basis of Yezidi refusal to convert to Islam.

“If that’s the way it is, we want to die. We won’t convert,” said Ismail. “If you believe in God, you believe.”

Yezidis joined with Iraqi Christians — Chaldeans, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox and others — in a silent march through the streets of Toronto last August to call attention to the plight of minorities under Islamic State rule.

Yezidi protesters Samir and Massoud Kawal and their cousin Azad Essa warned that the world is standing by, watching a culture, a religion and a nation disappear.

“They’re selling them (Yezidi girls) on a market for $400,” said Samir.

The trade in young girls, some of them just nine or 10 years old, has sparked a wave of suicides among survivors, said Ismail.

The Mandaeans, an ancient gnostic religion, are pacifists. Their refusal to take up arms has made them easy targets for every terrorist group to sweep through Syria and Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government in 2003. From more than 60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq in the 1990s, today there are fewer than 5,000 left in Iraq.

“I think there are just about 3,000 left in Iraq. They are being persecuted,” said Al-Sewaidi. “They are pacifists. They really aren’t involved much in politics. They are educated and they are business people.”

Many in Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority, where the Islamic State draws its support, resent the success of the Mandaean and Christian minorities who have excelled in the professions and in business.

For the Christians, Yezidis and Mandaeans of Iraq and Syria, their great misfortune is that their traditional territory and home villages are located above vast reserves of oil coveted by the Kurds, the Islamic State and Baghdad’s government, said Ismail.

“Why do we have a United Nations? What has the United Nations done? Nothing,” Ismail said.

“What’s been happening is a form of genocide. There’s been killing indiscriminately, based on what? Human beings are human beings,” said Al-Sewaidi. “Children, elderly, male, female — they have no say in what’s happening. They are being killed and killed in barbaric ways. It’s very sad.”

At the Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto the process has begun for identifying refugees and matching them up with parishes and Yezidi and Mandaean families.

“We have to actually start doing paperwork now,” said Al-Sewaidi. “Now that the ground work is done, we have to start the paperwork.”

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