The latest speaker in the Diversitas series shed light on the ongoing genocide of a religious group in Iraq.
Nafiya Naso has lived in Manitoba for 20 years now, and spoke at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre on April 10 about her own experiences and the ongoing genocide of the Yazidi people.
One of the most important things about Manitoba (and Canada) to Naso is that this is a place where “humanity exists,” a stark contrast to her own experience growing up Yazidi in Iraq.
When Naso was two years old, her father was forced into the Iraqi military along with many other members of the Yazidi community.
“They were forced to serve in the military and used as disposables,” she said. “They were used to fight in the front battles simply because of their religious beliefs.”
Yazidi people believe in God and seven angels. The head angel is the Peacock Angel, who acts as a messenger between God and man.
Yazidis don’t have a holy book, as their tradition is oral. Naso said that, along with their belief in the Peacock Angel, leads Muslim extremists to view them as devil worshippers.
Naso said 700 years ago there were over 7 million Yazidis in the world, and today there are just under 1 million left.
“This genocide is nothing new to the Yazidi community,” she said. “It’s just ongoing.”
After being shot twice, her father managed to escape with other men and Naso’s family fled to a refugee camp in Syria.
“It was a seven day journey by foot, mostly hiding during the day and walking at night,” Naso said. “My mother at the time was eight months pregnant, and she had my three-year-old brother and me. Halfway through the journey I was almost left behind because I had a hard time walking and she just couldn’t handle everybody.”
Naso said they found a donkey, and that donkey saved her life, carrying her and her brother to the refugee camp.
They lived in the refugee camp for eight years, some of that time in a cramped tent. During her time in the camp, Naso said the Syrian government opened a school.
“All of the kids in that camp were forced to go to that school,” she said. “We were taught by Muslim extremists, we were beaten every day, we were tortured, we were called infidels and non-believers simply because of our religious beliefs.”
At that school, Naso said they were taught to hate every other community.
Eight years after her family arrived at the camp, United Nations officials came into the camp to tell the Yazidi community that Canada and the United States were accepting refugees.
Her family went on the waiting list, and a year later after interviews and undergoing medical and security tests, Naso and her family were cleared to come to Morden.
Naso remembers seeing snow for the first time when they arrived on March 11, 1999.
“I was thinking in the refugee camp every night, you think you’re going to die hungry, you’re being beaten and tortured simply because of your religion,” she said. “How can one human do such things to another, it’s horrible, and where is the rest of the world? Now we were saved and we come to a great country like Canada and we complain about snow.”
Naso has done plenty of work in Manitoba and abroad to spread the message about what is happening in Iraq, Syria and Turkey and bring Yazidi families to Canada.
Since March 2018 Naso, in partnership with Mennonite Central Committee, Jewish Child and Family Services and the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, has helped bring and settle 10 Yazidi families, a total of 55 people.
Applications for another three families have been submitted, and Naso said they hope to be able to welcome them soon.
“I think we’re going in the right direction and things are looking very good,” she said. “We hope to do many more families in 2019 and 2020.”
To educate people about the plight of her people, Naso said what she tries to do is spread positive messages. “Back home, all we were taught was how to hate, and how to kill, all sorts of different horrible things,” she said. “Being here and having an opportunity to grow up in a great country like Canada, I think that the message of peace and love, you just spread that and over time aspects change and people change.”
Naso had to undergo some of that change herself and unlearn the violence she had grown up with.
“I can tell you 20 years ago I absolutely hated Christians, I hated Jews, I hated Muslims,” she said. “I hated everybody. I didn’t see these groups of people as human beings. Now coming here and being helped by people in these communities… I think the message is just the message of love and peace and kindness.”
“You spread that and it overpowers the message of hate, for sure,” she added.
Naso said not very many people even know who the Yazidi people are, and when she speaks about her experience she often gets questions about their historical background.
“People are often shocked when I say it’s one of the oldest religions standing today,” she said. “We’re one of the first peoples in Iraq and we’re not even considered as even second-class people in our own country.”
Even many people in Iraq didn’t know who the Yazidis were before ISIS, Naso said.
“People were not allowed to go to school, people were not allowed to work in big cities because these Muslim extremists or the Iraqi government did not want people to interact with the Yazidis,” she said. “People have been poor and for centuries my parents, my grandparents, great-grandparents, that’s how they grew up. That was life for all Yazidis.”
Since ISIS began their genocide of the Yazidi people, Naso said things have been changing and people have been speaking up more.
She referenced Nadia Murad, a Yazidi human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, along with other leaders who are speaking up to educate people about the Yazidi people.
“I find it’s a responsibility of each and every Yazidi around the world to be doing the same thing and to educate people,” she said.