As It Happens

Steve Maman, the 'Jewish Schindler', working to rescue young women taken by ISIS as slaves

Montreal businessman Steve Maman is being praised as a "Jewish Schindler", as he continues to raise money to save young women and girls taken by ISIS in Iraq.
Screenshot of the CYCI GoFundMe page. (Steve Maman)

He's being called a "Jewish Schindler" -- a modern day rescuer of young women and girls in Iraq who've been taken by force by ISIS.  Steve Maman is the Montreal businessman behind a project called the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq, or C.Y.C.I.  And just as Oskar Schindler saved Jews from the death camps, Steve Maman is being credited with saving Yazidi and Christian women and girls from sex slavery.

"What motivated me is very simple...being Jewish, being part of a people that actually survived the Holocaust...we for six years waited for people to actually answer the call and come and help us," Maman tells As It Happens guest host Matt Galloway.

According to the United Nations, thousands of women and girls have been sold into sex slavery, or taken as brides by Islamic State fighters, since ISIS started fighting its way across northern Iraq last year. Maman decided to take action eight months ago.

"I decided myself, with the Yazidi and the Christians that were suffering in the caliphate that it was already too many months that had gone by without reaction."

He adds, "I was going to use the contacts I had on the ground in Iraq and the government contacts...I was going to put those to work and try to put together a start removing those children from harm's way and I wasn't going to wait for the world to react."

Steve Maman shakes hands with Conservative Leader Stephen Harper. (Steve Maman)

The project is working. Thanks to his efforts, Maman says that 128 children have made it out so far. He interviews the children after they have been liberated and their devastating accounts expose the stark reality of the situation.

"When it's women, younger women, it's always a question of rape...repeated's a question of being resold numerous times, we hear about beatings, we hear about women being under fed, we hear about women actually being kept in cages, we hear about women that were actually threatened with being burnt if they wouldn't do certain sexual acts."

How the funds are distributed and translated into successful release of the children is a somewhat murky process. But Maman wants to be clear that he is not simply buying the children's freedom.

"We raise the funds...we have the team on the ground which is a trusted team...these people receive the funds that we send to them...they actually have made great connections throughout the last 15 years in the areas of Iraq."

He stresses,"there's millions of inhabitants in Mosul and they're not all ISIS so we, within those millions of people, have found teams that were willing to work with us in order to get those girls out."

Working with these trusted teams means covering their logistical and security expenses while they negotiate with the captors. Maman says the captors are soldiers with ISIS but also civilians looking to take advantage of the market. Maman says the money is not channeled to ISIS directly. "We don't deal with ISIS and that's enough for me...we deal with intermediaries that are willing to help and I'm willing to cover their cost in order to save a world."

He adds, "at this point...I've got to tell you...I'm focused on saving lives...I'm not focused on the actual logistics of the payments and all the rest."

Furthermore, Maman implies that tracking the money to see if it supports ISIS is futile.

"ISIS is not a government, ISIS is not an official entity, ISIS is a group of people that call themselves ISIS and they have a flag...that's all they have so far."

He reasons, "so when you pay ISIS, there isn't such a thing as ISIS, you're paying individuals."

But why ISIS would agree to the release is concerning. Seeing it as a potential business opportunity, the arrangement could encourage ISIS to take more girls. But when asked whether the funds may actually help perpetuate the problem, Maman is quick to dismiss the idea.

"ISIS is worth today -- 4 billion dollars," he counters. "Do you think that my little meager two or 3,000 dollars per child is going to in any way or form help the power and might that ISIS may attain?"

Maman is adamant that the rewards of his work clearly outweigh the inevitable risks. The chance that some of his money may end up in the hands of ISIS is an unavoidable sacrifice to reach a greater good.

He argues, "you'd have to stand up and tell the 1,200 survivors thanks to Oskar Schindler and their 15,000 descendants, that they were liberated unlawfully...because we were liberated thanks to Oskar Schindler giving money to the Nazi."

"At the end of the day we are working with brokers and maybe or maybe not these funds may find there way through the 4 billion dollar entity to make them 4 billion 2 thousand -- who cares?"