Bring more Yazidi immigrants to Canada, Winnipegger tells MPs

A Winnipeg woman who helped bring Yazidi refugee families to Canada this month issued an impassioned plea to members of Parliament on Wednesday, urging them to help Yazidi people fleeing persecution at the hands of Islamist militants.

'Without your intervention, my people will not survive,' Nafiya Naso tells House of Commons committee

Nafiya Naso hugs a member of the Yazidi family who arrived in Winnipeg last week. She appeared before the House of Commons standing committee on immigration on Wednesday to call for more support for those who want to bring Yazidi refugees to Canada. (CBC)

A Winnipeg woman who helped bring Yazidi refugee families to Canada this month issued an impassioned plea to members of Parliament, urging them to help Yazidi people fleeing persecution at the hands of Islamist militants.

"The situation of my people is desperate and it is dire. I implore you to act to help save my people from extinction," Nafiya Naso told the House of Commons standing committee on immigration Wednesday in Ottawa.

"The Yazidis have held a unique and terrible religious status in Iraq and Syria which is different from any other group. It means we can be murdered and raped and [enslaved] with moral and civil impunity. Without your intervention, my people will not survive."

Naso is a member of Winnipeg's Yazidi community, which totals about 200 people. She is also part of Operation Ezra, a multi-faith grassroots group that brought two privately sponsored Yazidi refugee families to the city last week. The group plans to bring another five families for a total of 42 people.

After the hearing, Naso said she wants MPs to know that private sponsorship of refugees has its limits and a broader government program is needed to sponsor more Yazidis to resettle in Canada.

"I could see in their eyes that they were very moved, and I think we've really touched them, so I am hopeful that they will take it into consideration and initiate a larger-scale program to sponsor Yazidi refugees," she said in an interview with CBC's Radio Noon program.

Over three days of hearings on "immigration measures for the protection of vulnerable groups," MPs on the committee heard horrific accounts of torture, rape, murder and enslavement of Yazidi people, as witnesses offered emotional testimony about atrocities carried out by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

A United Nations report released last month said militants from ISIS, an al-Qaeda splinter group fighting in the Middle East to establish an Islamist state, were seeking to destroy the ancient religious community of 400,000 people through killings, sexual slavery and other crimes.

The report said the militants had been systematically rounding up Yazidis since August 2014, seeking to "erase their identity," a finding that meets the definition of genocide under the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.

"ISIS justifies its campaign against the Yazidis under the banner of radical Islam. It considers the Yazidi, too, as infidels and devil-worshippers who they view as subhuman," Naso told the committee.

"How is this not a genocide? This is a systematic elimination of people based on their religious beliefs."

The federal Conservatives have called on the Liberals to lift the cap on the number of refugee applications being accepted from Iraq this year to make it easier for private sponsors to bring in Yazidis.

Group needs sponsorship agreement holder

Under Canada's private sponsorship program, individuals or groups who want to sponsor a refugee must raise enough money to support them for a year. Naso said Operation Ezra has raised about $250,000 to date to sponsor the seven Yazidi families they are bringing in.

However, Naso said Operation Ezra is currently looking for a sponsorship agreement holder for one of the families it plans to bring to Winnipeg. Sponsorship agreement holders (SAHs) are organizations that have signed an agreement with the federal government to sponsor refugees themselves or work with others in the community to do so.

"In Winnipeg we're working through the Mennonite Central Committee and numbers are capped … each sponsorship agreement holder gets a certain number," she said.

"For our seventh family, actually, that we're sponsoring, we have to run around to find a sponsorship agreement holder that would take our applications in."

Naso called on the federal government to remove the caps, as well as help those who want to sponsor Yazidi refugees.

"It costs a lot of money. Like, we've raised $250,000 for seven families. We need the government to intervene," she said.

"The Yazidi community, the Jewish community, the Christian communities and other communities I know of in Winnipeg that are more than willing to step in and help make the process a lot easier, but we need the government to work with us to sponsor Yazidi refugees, bring them in — government-sponsored — and we will take care of the work on the ground."

More robust system needed, says organization

The House of Commons committee also heard on Tuesday from Brian Dyck, the Winnipeg-based chairman of the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holder Association, which represents about 100 organizations.

Dyck called on MPs not to prioritize refugee groups, but instead allow applications to be processed in the order in which they come in.

"There are certainly compelling reasons why some refugees need to be resettled on an urgent basis, and Canada already has a system for that.… However, as a rule, SAHs want to see applications processed in the order that they came into the system to see equal access to sponsorships from around the world," Dyck said.

"That's why I think it's important to focus on building a robust refugee settlement system that can handle the ongoing demands and at the same time respond to the urgent protection situations that come up."

Dyck also emphasized the importance of having organizations involved in international development to address trauma and help communities rebuild in countries where conflict has taken place.

"As you think about recommendations, it will be important for you to think not just of the people that come to you with these compelling stories — as important as they are — but how that resettlement, in combination with other efforts to work with victims of forced displacement, can work together," he told MPs.

With files from CBC's Radio Noon and The Canadian Press