Q&A Steve Maman: ‘Jewish Schindler’ saves girls from ISIS

Steve Maman, left, at a recent meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa PMO PHOTO

Montreal businessman Steve Maman, 42, recently founded a new organization, the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), whose mission is to save the children and women who have been turned into sex slaves by the Islamic State. CYCI is using crowd-funded donations and other gifts to pay for their release.

“This noble and just fight should concern all human beings who love freedom, peace and justice. These Iraqi Christian and Yazidi women and children, who are now being persecuted, sold like cattle and brutally violated, have become martyrs whom we don’t have the right to abandon in the hellish universe where they struggle valiantly,” said Maman, who has been dubbed the “Jewish Schindler” because he says he was motivated by Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved Jews during the Holocaust. 

He sat down with The CJN for an interview earlier this month.

How and under what circumstances did the women and young girls you are trying to save become the sex slaves of the Islamic State fighters?

Since they invaded the city of Mosul and large portions of land in northern Iraq about a year ago, Islamic State militants have continually committed barbaric atrocities that have killed hundreds of innocent Iraqi men, women and children. Many young Christian and Yazidi women and girls – Yazidis are a non-Muslim minority whose religious tradition was born in ancient Mesopotamia and goes back to the first years of Islam and draws its essence from Zoroastrianism (especially the dualism between good and evil), Judaism and Christianity – have been taken hostage and sold to Islamic State fighters in brothels or public markets. They have become sex slaves. Some of the girls are less than eight years old. Today, they live in despicable conditions. They suffer from malnutrition and unspeakable physical abuse – they are raped several times a day by the Islamic State fighters and also by the inhabitants of Mosul, who take advantage of this pitiful situation to satisfy their sexual needs with these young girls. Several of the women and children are forced to sleep in metal cages, like animals.

It’s a horrible human drama that, until now, doesn’t seem to have aroused much emotion in public opinion.

This indifference to these humiliated children who are held in contempt is appalling. However, according to very credible reports by the United Nations, today, in the Iraqi territories controlled by Islamic State, children can become sex slaves at the age of eight or nine. It’s repugnant and intolerable. According to information confirmed by the United Nations, most of the sex slaves in Iraq are Christians or Yazidis. A UN emissary recently discovered an incredible document in a village in northern Iraq reporting the prices paid by the Islamic State terrorists to “buy” – a term that is in itself disgusting – these children. Girls of seven, eight or nine are sold for the ridiculous sum of $215 (US).

So, these Christian or Yazidi women and children are daily victims of barbaric acts committed by their abductors.

Yes. They are raped 30 to 40 times a day by the Islamic State soldiers. A UN report describes their current appalling practice: the virginity of these little girls is reconstructed about 20 times, with a surgical procedure right out of the Middle Ages, so that they can continue to satisfy the unbridled sexual desires of the very religious Muslim warriors of the Islamic State. The girls whose virginity has been reinstated are the most in demand on the market.

What are the main objectives of CYCI?

To come to the rescue of these Iraqi Christian or Yazidi women and children who are being persecuted and violated and free them from the merciless yoke of their captors. We are the only official organization that has made its mission to save these helpless, bruised human beings. I am very proud to be the heir of a magnificent spiritual and humanistic patrimony thousands of years old, Judaism, which reminds us every day that he who saves one human being in danger of death, also saves all of humanity. 

During World War II, supposedly “democratic” and “enlightened” nations preferred to confine themselves to a most unfathomable, crass silence, rather than coming to the aid of the millions of Jews who were sent to their deaths in the Nazi extermination camps. It’s a dark and shameful chapter for humanity. 

My decision to undertake concrete initiatives to try to save the Iraqi Christian or Yazidi children being persecuted today was strongly inspired by the very courageous actions of German industrialist Oskar Schindler during World War II. He saved 1,200 Jews from death. We don’t have the right to do nothing and abandon these hundreds of women and children to their fate.

How and with the help of what groups or individuals are you operating in Iraq?

We are operating in Iraqi territory thanks to the invaluable aid of a leading figure in the Christian community of Iraq, Rev. Canon Andrew White, nicknamed the “Vicar of Baghdad,” spiritual leader of the only Anglican Church still in Baghdad, St. George’s Church. This unconditional friend of the Jewish People and the State of Israel was forced to leave Iraq a few months ago following death threats he received from Islamic State and Al Qaeda after he organized a meeting in Cyprus of Israeli and Iraqi religious leaders. 

Thanks to the support of Rev. White, we were able to establish a team in Iraq, made up of specialists – some of them trained by the CIA – in freeing hostages who have been captured by radical Islamist groups. These experienced negotiators, who know the terrain very well, have in recent years been the instigators for the liberation of several western hostages held by Al Qaeda or Islamic State militants.

Are you paying a ransom to the Islamic State fighters to have them free the women and children held in captivity?

It’s not a question of a ransom paid directly to Islamic State leaders. Our men on the ground play the role of brokers with the Islamic State fighters who have taken women or children hostage. They limit themselves to paying the fighters the amount they spent to “buy” a woman or a child. Our basis for negotiation is the “reimbursement” of the amount they paid to become “owners” – to use the dirty word the Islamic State militants use – of a virgin girl. 

How many Christian or Yazidi children have you already liberated?

We have already freed 128 children. We began our work this past January by helping three Christian families in Iraq when Islamic State fighters were surrounding the village where they lived. We helped them leave the country and settle in Ankara.

Our goal is to free 613 children – a highly symbolic number in Jewish tradition. Since July 5, we have collected $382,574. We are counting on the immense generosity of all those who support our actions, in several countries. Our objective is to raise $9 million. The cost of liberating one Iraqi child held by Islamic State soldiers is between $2,700 and $3,000.

Who is supporting your organization?

We can now count on the support of generous donors in several countries, Germany in particular. In Canada, the Moroccan Sephardi community is supporting our work enthusiastically and very generously. I am very proud to be an active member of that community. 

We have also sent out a strong appeal to about 60 Canadian Christian churches and organizations. Until now, they have not shown their support. It’s crucial for the Christian believers who have a love of peace to join CYCI. Pope Francis I recently launched an appeal to all men and women of goodwill to come to the aid of Christians in Iraq and the Middle East who are today victims of horrible persecutions and a disgraceful policy of ethnic cleansing. 

For more information on CYCI, send an email [email protected], or call 514-448-4662 or 514-823-2277.

This interview has been translated from the French, and edited and condensed for style and clarity.


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