Opinions

A Sephardic Jew meets her Yazidi sisters

Earlier this year, 3 Generations’ Board Chair Nadia Zilkha traveled to Toronto with our team to meet and interview Yazidi survivors of the 2014 genocide by IS. This work was facilitated by Project Abraham, a Toronto-based not for profit organization established to help Yazidi refugees resettle in Canada. This is Nadia’s account.

Each female victim of the Yazidi genocide interviewed by 3 Generations in Toronto last month told her unique horrific story with the same fierce intensity and precision. The details varied, but they all spoke of their captors’ extraordinary brutality, their own vital will to carry on and their unifying luck. And each emphasized the goodness of the group, Project Abraham, now helping them resettle in Canada.

In 3 Generations’ most recent project, I’d felt more compelled than ever to join Jane Wells to meet and interview some of the Yazidi survivors living in Toronto: women who were kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery by IS after the genocide in their home of Sinjar. Because of my own family’s hasty escape from Iraq in 1927 (the Black Hand Society was hunting down my grandfather), I had felt a particular affinity with the Yazidis.

 

I quickly learned, however, that my family history had not equipped me to fathom the atrocities and hardships these women had endured at the hands of IS. It made me truly confront the terror that in our modern era, genocide continues unabated.

 

The women were all wearing black, against our dark backdrop. The only color in the room was the survivors’ red-painted fingernails. Their faces filled with pain as the horrors spilled out in their native Kumanji dialect. They spoke of their journey, traversing from Northern Iraq to Syria and back again. But Jane and I understood that their survival rested purely upon their own wits, bravery and ability to outsmart their captors.

 

Before and after they shared their stories, they were eager to make us feel welcome. They had prepared food—Middle Eastern dishes that would have made my grandmother pause in rapture, including sesame date pastries and burnt rice. These feasts were accompanied by tea, served in small glass cups. I felt transported back in time, to visits at my grandparents when I was little.

 

These Yazidi women have already lived in Canada for 18 months. Their children can now speak and read English with confidence and independence. As with so many children of immigrants, they are helping their parents navigate this new life.

 

But the Yazidis still maintain their traditions and cultural identity. They come together to celebrate weddings and new births. This frequent connection to community helps ground them in their newfound and strange surroundings. There is even discussion that inviting more of their closer relatives to join them in Canada will help them heal and reduce their sense of isolation.

What is many times forgotten is that it requires more than money to settle the Yazidis into their new life. So, thankfully, the Project Abraham volunteers have offered many other kinds of help to fill in those gaps. Many of them are the children of Holocaust survivors, who had immigrated to Canada themselves following genocide. Now their adult children have the opportunity to give back. To say that witnessing the kindness and commitment of these strangers, who have adopted the Yazidis into their community, was moving would be a true understatement.

The volunteers see protecting the Yazidis as a near-full time venture. Theirs is an emotional, as well as physical, commitment. It was heartwarming to watch as the Yazidi women communicated to their adopted second families through broken English and sign language.

 

In the age of Trump, I was struck by the sharp contrast between the attitudes of United States and Canada in addressing the humanitarian crisis. In the bitter cold of Toronto, the Yazidi tale was one of resilience and endurance.

Filmmaking is a slow process and 3 Generations has much to do before we can create a work that honors the resilience of these Yazidi survivors. I am grateful to have helped record and document these crimes against humanity. I believe 3 Generations’ mission of amplifying the voices of victims of genocide and atrocities, of giving them dignity through the opportunity to be heard.

— Nadia Zilkha

New York City 2019