Steve Maman, the ‘Jewish Schindler’ from Iraq, working to rescue young women taken by ISIS as slaves
A Montreal businessman has spearheaded the release of what he says are 128 Yazidi and Christian girls and young women from sexual slavery at the hands of Islamic State militants, with a project in motion to save many more.Steve Maman, already being dubbed the “Jewish Schindler” of Iraqi minorities by news outlets, is reported to have raised more than $200,000 — $50,000 over one recent weekend alone — to pay for the release of the captives during the past year. Ten more are expected to be liberated in the coming days.
As the world watched in horror while the Islamic State extremist group swept through northern Iraq last summer, capturing and executing thousands of members of the country’s minorities, Maman said he felt compelled to act.
“It’s a level of barbarism which was on another level of persecution,” the 42-year-old father of six said.
Last August, up to 5,000 Yazidis were executed, sometimes en masse, in Iraq’s Sinjar district and beyond, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights. Thousands more women and girls were sold into sexual servitude or taken as brides by Islamic State fighters, UN researchers found.
Canon Andrew White, until recently the pastor of one of the largest churches in Baghdad, connected Maman with negotiators and helped him navigate Iraq’s web of tribal networks.
“He is somebody who is really like a brother. He’s the first person who’s come to our aid,” White told the Star by phone from Israel.
Montreal’s Rabbi Saadiah Elhadad called for deeper military commitments from western leaders.
“I would like to see more organizations and people around the world emulate this kind of action,” he said.
A friend of Maman, Elhadad noted the rescue project’s so far unsuccessful appeals for cash to more than 60 church organizations across the country.
Maman, a Canadian of Sephardic Jewish descent, drew parallels to the Holocaust, “except in the Holocaust they would burn bodies of people that were already dead; here, they’re actually burning them to kill them.”
Last year the crystal wholesaler and classic cars dealer called on his business contacts and friends in the Jewish community to finance his project, titled the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI).
Maman also worked his industry connections in Baghdad to reach hostage negotiators and United Nations and government officials.
Things began to snowball after he launched a GoFundMe account last month that set a target of half a million dollars. He’s now said to be aiming for $5 million.
The money has made its way through front-line brokers, who take a hefty cut, to Islamic State combatants in the mountain ranges of Iraqi Kurdistan, Maman said. The girls can return to safety only for a fee of between $1,000 and $3,000, many having suffered violent physical and sexual abuse, he said.
About 2,700 young women and girls remain in captivity behind Islamic State lines, according to Maman. “If we get half of them, we’ll be lucky,” he said.
A CYCI promotional video shows a young woman, taken from Mosul as a sex slave, reuniting with her father in an emotional embrace on the outskirts of the northern city of Dohuk last month. Until very recently, neither knew if the other was alive.
Maman cited Oskar Schindler, the German factory owner credited with saving up to 1,200 Jewish lives during the Holocaust, as a source of inspiration.
“He’s a hero not just to me but to every human being,” Maman said. He also nodded to the lesser known Sir Nicholas Winton — “the British Oskar Schindler.”
Like Schindler, Maman’s early focus on the bottom line morphed into a humanitarian mission in a crisis. The Moroccan-born Montrealer’s initial interest in Iraq was based on business. He said he was in the market for classic cars to import.
The Yazidi religion is one of Iraq’s oldest and includes mostly ethnically Kurdish members. Assyrian Christians, one of the last groups to speak Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus Christ, have also faced brutal persecution over the past year, with gruesome images appearing on Islamic State social media accounts.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Canadian-trained Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq last May, announcing $139 million in humanitarian aid.
Gill Rosenberg, a Canadian-Israeli Jewish woman originally from Vancouver, spent the past nine months battling Islamic State militants on the front lines in Iraq and Syria. Now she has united with CYCI, appearing in a video posted to their Facebook page last Wednesday.
“What I saw happening was a genocide and not just a traditional war,” said the 31-year-old former Israeli Defense Forces soldier, believed to be the first female foreign fighter to join Kurdish forces.
“When you target women and children and kidnap them and sell them into sex slavery, at that point you are trying to destroy a people, and I couldn’t stay quiet and allow that to happen,” she said.
“I was raised with a strong Holocaust education, and I truly believe that when we say never again, that doesn’t just apply to the Jewish people, but to anyone.”
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