JIAS Helps Yazidi Kids Rebuild Lives Through Education

Aug. 5, 2020 – By SUSAN MINUK

Precisely six years ago, the world witnessed the horrific attempted genocide of the Yazidi people in northern Iraq. It was on Aug. 3, 2014 when ISIL fighters entered the Yazidi city of Sinjar, beginning a killing spree that claimed an estimated 5,000 civilians and the widespread raping of women, including girls as young as nine. Thousands of prisoners were kidnapped and turned into slaves.

In all, ISIL’s murderous actions resulted in approximately 500,000 Yazidi refugees.

In November 2017, some 1,200 Yazidi arrived in Canada as refugees, with about 250 settling in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto. They continue to face multiple barriers to integration, including adult illiteracy and post traumatic stress disorder.

To combat those, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services of Toronto (JIAS) has launched an online school support program for Yazidi refugee children aimed at boosting basic literacy, love of learning, and self-confidence.

The pilot program is funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and runs through Aug. 13. 

“The importance of welcoming the stranger has been ingrained 36 times in the Torah,” Elise Herzig, executive director of JIAS Toronto, told the CJR. “It’s the one commandment that’s been repeated more than any other.”

For refugee students, education is a particularly healing and empowering process, Herzig said.

“Many of these individuals are illiterate both numerically and unable to read in their own language. The idea was that these children would be provided additional skills to supplement what they were learning in the school system.”

JIAS serves 14 families in the Yazidi community. There are 48 Yazidi children in the summer school support program.

JIAS supplied families with tablets but faced the challenge of how to run an online learning program for a largely illiterate population – and during a pandemic.

“How do you teach families lacking basic English language and literacy skills to use technology when you can’t sit with them in person?” asked Herzig. “What happens when you need to troubleshoot?”

It was “hours and hours” of work. First, a translator had to find out whether families were able get online. If they could, did they know how to turn on the device?

“We had to think in ways we never imagined,” Herzig went on. “We basically found out that every kid could click on the number 9. We set it up in a way that if they clicked 9, the account that we preset up for them automatically recognized the 9 and put them into the Zoom room.”

Sometimes, kids forget to sign in. JIAS has to call and remind them because they don’t know how to tell time.

The curriculum includes English as a second language, virtual field trips and an arts-based mental health program to help the kids “deal with their past experiences and everyday stress that all kids go through, including COVID,” said Herzig.

JIAS partnered with Project Abraham, a registered charity that supports the resettlement in Canada of victims of genocide, ethnic cleansing and abduction.

One program participant’s mother remarked that her son “now has courage to try to read as he sees his friends are reading in the program.” 

What can we learn from the Yazidi?

“They are strong and have incredible resilience,” said Herzig “The way they form community and the way they support each other is quite remarkable.”


Susan Minuk
Susan Minuk

Susan Minuk is both humbled and heartened by everyday stories with the power to touch or inspire her readers’ lives.

Letters to the Editor: July 8, 2020

Responding to Wilkinson

July 8, 2020

Jeffrey Wilkinson (“Zionists not Welcome’ and the Responding Deafness,” CJR, July 7) names three points he says are “unhelpful” and “meant to reduce or silence criticism of Israel.” These are the conflation of the terms “Jewish” and “Zionist;” the definition of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people; and the equating of widespread Jewish support for Zionism with a mainstream consensus about Zionism.

Respectfully, these three points are common ideas not because they are “meant to silence” anyone, but because they are largely true. They are arguments not meant to weaponize antisemitism, but to draw attention to the slippery way anti-Zionism and Jew-hatred are frequently intertwined.

It’s not Jews who conflate the term “Zionist” with “Jewish,” it’s anti-Zionists who insinuate, as the owner of Foodbenders did in several social media posts, that “Zionists” have conspiratorial and manipulative control over the media, the government, etc. The fact that someone uses a different word does not mean we can ignore the use of an old-school canard and trope of Jew hatred. 

It’s not unfair to equate widespread Jewish support of Zionism with a mainstream position; that’s what a mainstream position is. When a person says Jews are welcome as long as they aren’t Zionists, as the owner of Foodbenders did in her posts about Zionism and Jews, that’s called tokenizing. It too is a discriminatory practice, meant to insulate the offending person from criticism for their actions.

Lastly, defining Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people is not a tactic for stifling criticism. It is a basic understanding of Jewish history from the perspective that the Jews are a people who have suffered centuries of oppression culminating in genocide. Of course, none of this excuses rude behavior or harassment on any side, But it takes someone who doesn’t see Jew hatred as a real problem to dismiss the main argument for Zionism as “stifling” or to refuse to allow Jewish people to define the terms of what counts as hate and discrimination against themselves.

That’s the real reason so many of us are bothered by the attitude displayed by Foodbenders, and in Wilkinson’s op-ed. It represents the very resistance to Jewish self-determination, including the right to define our own experiences of discrimination, exclusion, and oppression, that makes Zionism a necessity for Jewish thriving in the modern world. 

Rabbi Jordan Shaner
Toronto


ISIS Fighters Deserve Their Fate

July 8, 2020

It is a little surprising but not unexpected that New-York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) levied an accusation of human rights violations against Canada on June 29. They very baldly stated that our government is neglecting a group of 26 men who suffer in a brutal prisoner of war camp inside Syria, controlled by the Turkish military. The real surprise, however, is that the subjects of the complaint consist entirely of ISIS combatants. 

Truly, Canada is guilty of so many racist actions that it owes many restitution. But for HRW to advocate for followers of a terror organization that beheaded, raped, and slaughtered its way across three nations – stealing unbelievable resources along the way – warrants censure. These individuals do not deserve mercy, and HRW ought to reevaluate its priorities for advocacy. 

ISIS, worse than Al-Qaeda, caused more harm and inspired more attacks than its loathsome predecessor.

The prisoners deserve whatever horrors they incurred for themselves. Their families should never be permitted refugee status in Canada because they could wreak mayhem inside our borders.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is right to evade questioning about repatriating former citizens and ISIS members because they forfeited those rights long ago. Let them remain where they are. 

Christopher-Michael Mansour
Barrie, Ont.