In an exlusive interview with CIJnews, Steve Maman talks about his humanitarian work, his motivation for saving Yezidi hostages in Iraq and his impression of Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
|Steve Mamman with his beautiful family|
How it began
It all started on a routine business trip to Iraq in 2014, where Maman met Canon Andrew White, known around the world as the Vicar of Baghdad. Canon White pastored one of the largest churches in Iraq – St George’s Church in Baghdad – until the takeover by ISIS made it very dangerous for him to be there. When Canon White briefed Maman on the horrors ISIS jihadists inflict on religious minorities under their control, Maman was so shocked that he decided to raise funds through a GoFundMe campaign called the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI). Since the campaign rolled out on July 5, Maman raised over $530,000, all of which goes toward freeing captive Yezidi girls. To date, 130 Yezidi girls and a few boys have been liberated.
By a stroke of luck, (I don't believe in luck) Maman connected with a young Iraqi Assyrian Christian called Yusuf (not his real name), who used to handle security for visiting dignitaries to Iraq and later became a professional and decorated hostage negotiator. Yusuf, who is based in Dohuk and whom Maman calls a “superstar” became Mamans’ man on the ground, with contacts deep inside Mosul. With funds raised by the GoFundMe campaign and through his high level contacts, Yusuf is able to negotiate the release of the hostages.
Maman made it very clear that he does not negotiate directly with ISIS, only with civilians who already own Yezidi “slaves” and, in essence, by paying them for the hostages, he is only “reimbursing” them for money they already paid to ISIS when they originally bought the girls on slave markets.
Maman explained that ISIS leadership give Yezidi girls to combatants, who are unable to have sex with Muslim women outside of marriage. In Mosul, an ISIS stronghold, scholars issued a sex “fatwa” (religious decree) ordering Yezidis and Christians to give unmarried women to the mujahedin fighters so that they can fulfill their duty of sex jihad. Failure to comply with the fatwa will result in enforcing the laws of Sharia on them. Maman believes that sex jihad is one of the main reasons why ISIS attracts a large number of foreign Muslims men.
Maman told CIJnews that before agreeing to negotiations over a specific captive, he asks for pictures and names of the girls in order to verify the identity of the girls who are being released. Once the identity is confirmed, Yusuf meets them at designated spot accompanied by the Kurdish Peshmerga protection unit, the girls are delivered, money changes hands and the girls are whisked away in bulletproof cars to a safe house for a debriefing. Their names, ages and family connections are checked, as well as the names of their captors. Dates of kidnapping are recorded, as well as the location where they were kept and how many times they were re-sold. The cost of freeing one captive varies from $2,000 – $3,000 per girl.
Once released, the traumatized girls who endured unimaginable horrors, don’t get any medical or psychiatric assistance due to a shortage of funds. Girls who are unable to be reunited with their families are sent to a Yezidi spiritual leader.
When asked whether he is concerned that paying to liberate the captives might feed the cycle of kidnapping, Maman was adamant that securing the release of the hostages by any necessary means is a priority, and mentioned the example of Oskar Schindler, who saved 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by buying their freedom.
No Christians in Quebec
He also lamented the fact that before his campaign became internationally known, he raised $150,000 in 5 days from five Canadian Jews and one gentile, but his emotional plea for donations which he sent to 60 powerful churches in Quebec fell on deaf ears. He didn’t receive a single reply.
Jews know persecution
When asked what motivated him to help Yezidis and other religious minorities, he explained that Jews have experienced the Holocaust and know what it’s like to be persecuted. He says that what is happening to the Yezidis is a new Holocaust. “Jews know suffering and we are coming for you because nobody came for us.”, he said. “The world knew of the fate of the Jews in Europe but did nothing because the excuse was they didn’t know. Today the world knows what’s happening to Yezidis and Christians in the Middle East and today there is no excuse not to act. Jews have an obligation to make the world a better place.”
Maman’s goal is to raise 3 million dollars in order to secure the release of approximately 3,000 Yezidi hostages in the Mosul area. Unfortunately some girls cannot be rescued because they are out of his reach – those who were bought by Saudis and Kuwaitis and whisked to the Gulf countries, or those under control of ISIS in Raqqa, the unofficial “capital” of the so-called Islamic caliphate.
Maman believes that his mission will be accomplished once he rescues every last Yezidi and Christian hostage from Mosul.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper
On February 26, 2015, Maman met with Prime Minister Harper when he travelled to Ottawa to participate in a historic delegation of 30 Sephardic community leaders, activists and philanthropists from across Canada. The purpose of the delegation was to testify before the parliamentary committee on human rights regarding the threat posed by the current Iranian regime, which the Conservative government views as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today.
Maman told of his meeting with Prime Minister Harper, who was surprised to hear that a Jewish Canadian businessman is helping the Yezidis of Iraq. Maman applauded the Conservative government’s efforts to combat ISIS, which pledged to donate an additional $140 million towards humanitarian relief.
At a meeting with Harper, Maman thanked the Prime Minister for his position on Israel, and told Harper that in his eyes, and in the eyes of all the Jews of this world, he is a hero. “I feel a personal debt of gratitude in my soul towards the Prime Minister”, Maman said.
To make a donation to the campaign “Liberation Iraq Christian & Yazidi”, please click here: http://www.gofundme.com/liberationCYCI
ABOUT ILANA SHNEIDER
Ilana Shneider is the founding executive director of Canada-Israel Friendship Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the mutually beneficial, long-standing diplomatic, economic and cultural ties between Canada and Israel.. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org