The Current

Government must do more to help Yazidi refugees, says advocate

Majed El Shafie and Mavis Himes have become lifelines for Yazidi refugees who have settled in Canada — as well as those still living under ISIS rule.

Majed El Shafie's organization has raised more than $3 million to rescue 600 Yazidi women from sexual slavery

Majed El Shafie, right, works in the Middle East to free Yazidi women still living in ISIS captivity. (One Free World International)

Read story transcript

A man who has raised millions of dollars to free Yazidi women from ISIS slavery says that the Canadian government could do more to help end their suffering.

"Sadly, I don't think that the Canadian government has got the picture fully and completely about what's happening with them," said Majed El Shafie, the president of One Free World International.

The non-profit organization has collected more than $3 million in order to rescue 600 Yazidi girls, El Shafie told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. The money came from public donations, he said, as well as his own pocket.

The Yazidi, a religious minority in Iraq, were targeted by ISIS in 2014. Thousands of Yazidi men were executed, while the women were sold in sexual slavery, and the boys taken as child soldiers.

Last year, the federal government pledged to resettle 1,200 ISIS survivors in Canada, with an emphasis on Yazidi families, but missed their target. One Free World International has been calling on the Canadian government to take in more Yazidi refugees, while El Shafie has been working to free those women still in ISIS captivity.

He said he negotiates with Kurdish tribes, who in turn negotiate with the militants to buy the women's freedom. His organization does not offer money, which could end up in ISIS hands. Instead, he said he trades food, material or the "forbidden fruit" of alcohol.

When asked if he is concerned that he could be accused of funding terrorism, he said that his main priority is helping to free these women.

"If the government wants to arrest me, please do," he told Tremonti.

"It's very easy to find me. Go to my website."

Mavis Himes, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, said that Yazidi survivors don't immediately link physical symptoms with the psychological trauma they have suffered. (Pierre Gautreau)

Survivor's guilt

In a documentary that aired on The Current, several survivors described the mass murder, sexual slavery and child abuse they suffered at the hands of ISIS. They have since resettled in Canada, but say they can't find peace while their relatives are stuck in refugee camps or ISIS-controlled territory.

Mavis Himes, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, said nothing in her 40 years of experience could have prepared her for the work she does with survivors in Toronto.

She cannot rest knowing what she's been through, and what her daughter is probably still going through.- Mavis Himes

One of the psychological barriers they face, she said, is knowing that they have escaped when others haven't.

"I know, for example, one woman whose last contact with her 15-year-old daughter was seeing them torture her daughter as she separated," Himes told Tremonti. "Her daughter is still under the hands of ISIS."

"She cannot rest, she cannot rest knowing what she's been through, and what her daughter is probably still going through."

Majed El Shafie and Mavis Himes discuss the plight of Yazidi survivors with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. (Pacinthe Mattar/CBC)

3,200 Yazidis still enslaved

There are estimated to be 3,200 Yazidis still living under ISIS, El Shafie said, adding that his organization's goal is to rescue them. 

The Current requested a comment from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which supplied a statement acknowledging the "unimaginable trauma" these refugees have endured and the "long journeys" they have resettling in Canada. Canada has "provided a new home to over 1,300 women and their families who endured the brutality of [ISIS], 85% of whom are Yazidi," the statement said, and the government has "increased funding for settlement services in every province and territory across Canada, totalling more than $1 billion."

El Shafie said he is grateful for what the government has done so far, but argued that the number of refugees could be increased.

"These girls deserve a new life, their families deserve a new life," he said.

"I think that our environment here in Canada ... our understanding of mental health issues will give them the best atmosphere."

Listen to this discussion near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar.


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