‘Jewish Schindler’ makes his case for helping Yazidi captives

Steve Maman, left, with Mirza Ismail

If no good deed goes unpunished, then Steve Maman understands why he’s come under fire for helping bring Yazidi girls to freedom.

Recently a letter was published by a Yazidi group in Iraq questioning whether he had in fact helped liberate nearly 130 Yazidi girls who had been taken as slaves by Islamic State (ISIS) fighters and supporters.

Maman, who was in Toronto last week for a rally in support of Yazidis, told The CJN he has evidence to support his claims – fingerprints, statements, witnesses. The attacks from a small group of  Yazidis in Iraq is nothing but domestic politics, Maman said. They are not community leaders and “they’re doing this for political reasons, to get a seat in the next election [in Kurdistan],” he said.

Despite the naysayers, Maman has his backers. Speaking at the rally, Mirza Ismail, chair of  Yezidi Human Rights Organization-International, who travels regularly to the Middle East to monitor the situation, endorsed Maman’s role in freeing enslaved Yazidis.

And The Times of Israel quoted Rev. Andrew White, an Anglican priest  living in Baghdad and who knows Maman’s Iraqi contacts, as saying, “I don’t question him or his motives one iota. The fact is that many women and children have been released from captivity because of this dear man.”

For Maman, there’s a moral imperative behind his work. He references the Jewish experience in Europe between 1939 and 1945, when the world stood by and did nothing. The ISIS attacks on the Yazidis is simply something he feels he cannot ignore.

It should have been addressed at least a year ago, when the genocide began, he said. There are only 30,000 ISIS fighters wreaking havoc in the region, suggesting a military option is necessary to bring their reign of terror to an end.

As for the public, “you can’t say you didn’t know. If you don’t act, you don’t  care,” he said.

So how does a guy from Montreal rescue young captives in a conflict thousands of miles away? For 20 years Maman, a native of Morocco, has been in the vintage car business, dealing directly with buyers in the Middle East. “I know the culture,” he said.

He also knows powerful players in the region. A couple of years ago, he made some key connections while trying to acquire cars once owned by Saddam Hussein.

He convinced his Iraqi contacts to get involved with his efforts to free Yazidi slaves. They, too, both Sunnis and Shiites, are “appalled by ISIS,” he said.

Leveraging his ties in the region, Maman set up a team of people, headed by an Iraqi who once worked for the U.S. army.

“They don’t go in and get the children themselves. They work with contacts in Mosul [considered the ISIS capital], who work with the same purpose we do, to get the girls out and stop the pain.”

The team negotiates the freedom of Yazidi girls – some of them as young as nine when they were sold in the Mosul market.

Maman stresses the girls are not ransomed. “There’s no buying. All there is, is negotiating.” When the “owner” is confronted with a message from a local Islamic authority telling him to release the girl, they release the girl, he said.

When he started his venture, he raised funds through GoFundMe. But his access to the crowdsourcing website was ended for reasons that remain unclear. Now he raises money through the website of the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq [CYCI], a group he founded, as well as its Facebook page and supporters.

Speaking at the Toronto rally, Maman  explained his rationale for creating the organization. He cited Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a famous rabbi who died in the early 1800s, who said prayers said in seclusion are the most powerful, and God takes great pleasure in hearing them.

Jews uttered these prayers of pain and abandonment in Auschwitz, and he imagined Yazidis are saying similar ones today.

“I wanted to help these innocents because these prayers in seclusion, these prayers of distress, came once again 70 years later. This time, it came from Mosul. This time, it came from women and children. Some of whom saw their brothers, sons and husbands get beheaded in front of them before being taken away and sold as sex slaves. Being held in cages. Being underfed and beaten. Being raped up to 30 times a day. Being resold numerous times. Being treated like cattle. Basically, being killed every single day, without their soul leaving their body!”

Maman said people have two options: acting or being spectators. He chooses to act.