It was a warm July evening in Winnipeg. Without much fanfare, a crowd began to form at the arrivals area of Richardson International Airport. Kids held balloons and signs of welcome. Media joined the swelling numbers, as did some local politicians and a few Salvationists. The sense of anticipation mounted as it became apparent that the flight from Toronto had arrived. Every arrival has its stories—this was no exception. This flight carried a family of eight, a Yazidi family, that had just come from a refugee camp in Turkey.
The Yazidis’ roots lie in ancient Mesopotamia, or modern Iran. Their religious identity is shaped by a monotheistic understanding of God. It is estimated that just a few decades ago, the Yazidis numbered close to 23 million people; now there are barely 700,000. Years ago, the Yazidis were forced by extremists to migrate west to Iraq; they settled mainly in the Mount Sinjar area. It was here, in August 2014, that the Islamic State attacked them, and still holds more than 3,000 women and children captive while thousands of men and boys are missing. Weeks before the arrival of this family of eight, Canada’s government joined others in naming this atrocity a genocide.
Through my involvement with the Manitoba Multifaith Council, I have come to know people of Winnipeg’s Jewish community. Two years ago, colleagues in this community mounted Operation Ezra, a comprehensive, community-wide response to the Yazidi crisis. Jews recognize themselves in the plight of the Yazidis, especially because of the way the world, including Canada, failed to respond to mounting anti- Semitism in the 1930s. What began as a grassroots Jewish initiative took on a multifaith character with help from different Christian organizations, such as the Mennonites and The Salvation Army. At the heart of the effort, as well, was a young Yazidi mother, Nafiya Naso, whose family sought refuge in Canada 16 years ago. Nafiya now works with seniors in a Winnipeg personal care home, and also serves with me on the board of the Manitoba Multifaith Council, chaired by Belle Jarniewski.
Through Operation Ezra, contact was made with a Yazidi family in a refugee camp two years ago. The process of bringing the family to Canada was hard work. They eventually made it to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in early July 2016, ready to fly to Canada. And then it happened. Without warning, suicide bombers attacked and shut down the airport just hours before the family was set to fly. Their flight was put on hold.
After a week’s delay, and much anxiety, they finally boarded a flight to Toronto. And then on Monday, July 11, this family of parents and six children emerged at the top of the arrivals area. A huge cheer went up. Canadian flags flew and people wept with joy. At the bottom of the stairs, a Yazidi father embraced his brother, whom he had not seen for 26 years. Members of the Jewish community wore smiles as bright as a prairie sky. The media conducted various interviews. Gradually the crowd dispersed, and the hard work of settling this family into Canada began.
Mom, dad and the six kids spent a few days with other Yazidis. In time, they moved into a house that had been obtained through Operation Ezra and prepared by many, including the efforts of Salvationists. The Army’s National Recycling Operations in Winnipeg provided new beds and mattresses. Debbie Clarke, the divisional director of emergency and disaster services in the Prairie Division, arranged to take the family to a Salvation Army thrift store to obtain appropriate clothing, such as a Winnipeg Jets T-shirt for one of the boys! All of these efforts took place under the guidance and blessing of Major Shawn Critch, divisional commander, and Major Rob Kerr, divisional secretary for public relations and development.
Barely two months later school began. I dropped in to see the family one afternoon, along with Debbie Clarke and Major Sandra Budden, corps officer at Winnipeg’s Heritage Park Temple. It gave us an opportunity to say hello more personally and ask how things were going. Nafiya translated for us. The family acknowledged that when they left the refugee camp they were both excited and worried about friends they had left behind: “The living conditions of the camp are very difficult, especially with winter just around the corner.”
And yet they were tremendously grateful to be in Canada. They understand the need to grasp the language of their new home. When I asked the youngest daughter, Roz, what new words she had learned in her Grade Two class, her eyes lit up and she proudly said, “Book.” I asked her older sister, Aida, which of her brothers teased her most since coming to Canada; she smiled and waved at all of them. Some things never change! But the brothers—Khalid, Abdullah, Ahmed and Saood—all speak highly of their teachers as being “friendly and supportive.” One of the boys has gone right into Grade 12, without having spoken English before. All of the boys enjoy sports, with Abdullah and Ahmed playing on their school’s soccer team.
Mom and Dad, Manifa and Khuder, also go to school, and are learning the language and ways of this city and nation. They express deep gratitude to everyone who has made this venture possible: “We love the people of Canada—the generosity and love people show to strangers.”
Nafiya notes: “Watching the families settle in and become part of our Winnipeg community is an amazing feeling. I cannot put into words how proud I am of everything we have accomplished. It is a magical thing what ordinary humans can do when we come together.”
Before I left that day, I asked the family what they thought a Winnipeg winter might be like. They didn’t know what to say. I simply smiled.
This is the story of one refugee family’s journey to Canada. It can seem a little like a few loaves and fish before a hungry multitude. But it’s a story that needs to be told beyond Winnipeg. In fact, a courageous Nafiya had an opportunity during the summer to tell her people’s story to a parliamentary committee in Ottawa. And during the summer, I was invited to join political and organizational leaders in lighting a candle during a service commemorating the victims of the Mount Sinjar massacre of 2014.
It’s also a story of Salvationists working with others to help build a caring world. At a time when there is so much talk about building walls, it has been The Salvation Army’s privilege to partner with others in creating hospitality. To welcome others as God has welcomed us. This, too, is an expression of hope.
Major Ray Harris is a retired Salvation Army officer. He attends Heritage Park Temple in Winnipeg.