Nafiya Naso was only two when she and her parents and brother fled their home in Khana Sor, a village in Northern Iraq. As the Iraqi people rose up against Saddam Hussein, her father was forced to serve in the Iraqi Army, where he had been shot twice. He survived, and escaped, and that night, with little warning, the family fled to Syria.
“It was a seven day journey walking, mostly hiding in the day and walking by night,” says Naso, who now lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. “I was almost left behind. My mother was eight months pregnant and my older brother could walk.”
But two-year-old Nafiya was rescued when the family saw a donkey nearby, enabling her to ride. They ended up in Hasakah, Syria in a refugee camp, where they lived for eight years.
During that time she attended a school run by Muslim extremists. Six days a week they memorized the Koran. Those who couldn’t learn the verses were tortured in front of all the school, she says.
“And we were taught so much hate toward all other communities,” she says. “Particularly a lot of hate toward Jews. They told us Jews were monsters. They lied about their history. They told us anyone who was not a Jew, the Jews would kill.”
It was an ugly lesson that stuck for a very long time. But not long enough that the kindness she and her family experienced at the Rady JCC couldn’t undo it.
How they got there from Hasakah to the Rady JCC began when UN officials came to the camp and informed the refugees that the United States, Australia and Canada would be accepting Yazidi refugees. Naso’s family chose Canada because there were some other Yazidis already there. A Mennonite Church sponsored them and they were resettled in Winnipeg.
But the neighborhood in downtown wasn’t great. Someone stole her mom’s carpet. Her dad’s van window was broken. They were offered Manitoba subsidized housing. The only problem? It was down the street from the Jewish Community Center.
“We were terrified. Should we have stayed downtown?” Naso asks. “It stemmed from all the hate taught in the camp. My parents wanted to say, ‘Thank you, but no thank you.”
But they also knew it wasn’t safe where they were living. So they moved. And for seven years, the family went out of their way—quite literally—to avoid the Rady JCC, until her parents began having medical issues, and the doctor suggested a diet change and exercise. A neighbor finally convinced her mother that the best place to find better health was right at the end of the block.
But we’re not Jewish!
Naso went the first time with her mother to the Rady JCC. “I’ll be honest, my knees were shaking and I was almost in tears,” she says.
They passed through the first set of glass doors. She saw the security guard beyond the second set and thought, “This is not a good sign.” But she forged on.
She introduced herself, babbling, “We’re from Iraq, we’re not Jewish but my parents want to get an application to see if they can go to the gym, if not, it’s ok, we’ll just go.
“He looked at me like I was crazy, ‘No, people from all backgrounds come here,’” Naso says.
“My parents were truly welcomed with open arms. After a few weeks, my siblings started going and it was one of the best things that happened to my parents since we moved here.”
Her parents’ health has improved. They made friends at the Rady Centre. Their English improved. And the Jewish community has welcomed them in a way Naso never expected. In 2014, more than 600,000 Yazidis were under attack by the Islamic State. They were facing genocide. Naso knew she had to speak out, given her history.
She was knocking on doors, trying to get someone, anyone to pay attention.
Finally her MP Joyce Bateman put her in touch with members of the Jewish community who might be interested. At first, it was a little awkward, but as they shared personal stories, it became clear the Jewish community wanted to help. “It was hard for Yazidis to understand why they would take this on, but they went through the same things, and so many of them had family who were Holocaust survivors,” she says.
What began as a grassroots effort to highlight the plight of the Yazidis has expanded to include 22 Jewish and Christian organizations, with the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg leading the effort. To date, they’ve raised more than $380,000 and are sponsoring seven Yazidi families, two of which came to Winnipeg in July. In all, Operation Ezra, as it’s now called, will bring over 15 Yazidi families.
“The word genocide is nothing new to the Jewish community, and unfortunately, they felt our pain,” Naso says. “I could tell when we were sharing our stories with them. They were nodding their heads and they understood my story in a way no one else had.”