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.

Chatting With…Karen Goldenberg: ‘I Want to Build Bridges’

With the following, the CJR begins a new occasional feature: Question-and-answer style interviews with frontline workers in the Jewish community. We intend to find out what drives these leaders, using as a template the “4 C’s: Compassion, Community, Capacity, and Connections. We’ll find out what makes these tireless leaders tick.

We begin with veteran community worker Karen Goldenberg, whose accomplishments are many: An Order of Canada recipient, she was co-founder and the first executive director of the Community Occupational Therapy Associates (COTA); was executive director of Jewish Vocational Services; interim executive director of Ve’ahavta, the Jewish humanitarian organization; longtime volunteer with the United Jewish Appeal; and senior vice-president and acting CEO of the Addiction Research Foundation, now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

By DAVID WINTRE

Karen Goldenberg

CJR: What’s keeping you busy these days?

Two quite new projects are the Regent Park Music School and Project Abraham. The music school is located in downtown Toronto and gives children in that area their first introduction to music by learning an instrument and playing in an orchestra. For these children, it’s a life-changing experience to be able to find another world of sound and beauty away from their day-to-day lives, which sometimes can be pretty tough.

Project Abraham concerns the integration of the 250 or so Yazidi people that the government brought to Canada, and [who] literally have to begin their lives again. The Yazidis were originally from Iraq, and over centuries, have been almost “genocided” out of existence. They speak no English, of course, don’t have a numerical system of calculation, and are a 100 percent agrarian society. Project Abraham is a very challenging project but we are slowly gaining their trust, which is very exciting and rewarding.

Where and when did you learn compassion?

[From] my parents and particularly my father. He was another “frontline worker.” A small, quiet man with an enormous heart, he was a sole proprietor accountant who gave personally to virtually anyone in need. The money wasn’t a loan, it wasn’t charity. It was a “hand up.” There’s a big difference between interest on a loan, a charitable receipt, and “just like that.”

Later on, he founded, with the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] the “Casa,” [now Toronto Jewish Free Loan], which formalized what he had been doing personally for years. The Casa is still operating today. When he died, dozens and dozens of people paid their respects to my father, and some [of those] are pretty important people today. I hope they won’t forget and will teach their children.

We’re focusing on “the four C’s”: Compassion, Community, Capacity, and Connections.

All of those “C’s” are important – Compassion, of course. Put them all together and you have compassion for societies that are different from your own 

But it’s not easy. I’m involved in Israel in a project called Rosanna, which is a medical initiative between Israeli doctors and Palestinians, particularly [for] children, to help provide medical care for some severe problems. Not everyone on either side of the political spectrum is comfortable with Rosanna. In our own country, when politics and/or religion enter the picture, compassion for Native peoples or persons of colour can become compromised. I want to build bridges across cultures…political bridges, societal bridges, and religious bridges.

What about Community?

I am all about community. It is the glue that holds our society together and when it unsticks, such in the current pandemic, with the catastrophe in the nursing homes for example, society takes a big hit and thousands die unnecessarily. The personal cost is horrendous. Likewise, the economic cost to our communities.

Capacity and Connections?

Building capacity is related to sustainability and a bit of business acumen thrown in as well. The majority of frontline non-profits are generally underappreciated and underpaid for the critical work they do. The current pandemic exposed the soft underbelly of our healthcare systems, both in and out of the hospital settings.

Capacity is the ability for an organization to start up, to support itself while it grows, and then to maintain itself, remain agile, and continue to thrive so that it can help others. Many non-profits are cash-starved and work night and day to service their clients with little time or expertise for the “back room” – the board of directors, business development, strategic planning, etc. I consult to these situations and it is critical work. Not sexy, just essential for success.

“Connections” is the mother’s milk of our society, particularly when it comes to fundraising and therefore sustainability. While I am, and have been, active in large non-profit situations, my great love and passion are startups. I am a “nurturer” like my father and I like to grow things, like flowers and my family, of course.


David Wintre is a retired businessperson who is concerned about the less fortunate people in our Jewish world. And particularly those other “front line workers “who have been looking after our ill, aged, and economically disadvantaged so long and so well, every day, and how it has taken a global pandemic to recognize and properly thank all of them.