A group of Yazidi refugees is using farming not only to get settled in Canada, but to provide for themselves and their community, thanks to an initiative called Operation Ezra.
Operation Ezra — which means “help” in Hebrew — was launched in Winnipeg in 2015 to raise awareness about the persecution of the Yazidi people and to raise $35,000 to sponsor a Yazidi refugee family.
Michel Aziza, chair of Operation Ezra, said that the initiative began after a small group from a Jewish community met Nafiya Naso, a former refugee herself, as she was trying to raise awareness and support for the Yazidi people.
“We knew nothing about this, it’s not right, and we want people to know more,” Aziza told Global Citizen. “We felt we could help raise a little bit of money and sponsor a family.”
Within months, the initiative had raised much more than the $35,000 they had set out to collect, and had garnered support from many organizations, including synagogues, churches, schools, and businesses, eventually leading to a coalition of 42 Winnipeg-based multi-faith organizations.
In August 2014, ISIS began attacking the Yazidi people in northern Iraq. About 5,000 people were killed, abou 6,500 women were sold to ISIS fighters as sex slaves, and thousands more remain displaced.
“The more people we spoke to, the more money we were able to raise, and the more entities wanted to get involved with the project,” he said.
Operation Ezra sponsored 10 families between 2017 and 2018. They expect two more families to arrive from successful sponsorships in 2018, and another two to arrive in 2019.
Refugee families adjust to life in Winnipeg, through school and study programs, but Aziza said Operation Ezra noticed they were lacking in food, which is what sparked the idea to launch the farming initiative.
On top of the private sponsored families, the initiative works with 54 government-sponsored refugee families, which accounts for more than 250 people.
Aziza said they arrived in Winnipeg very traumatized — many are single moms and many were struggling with resettlement.
“One of the issues was financial, which then became a food issue for them, for many families that were not able to provide for themselves because the financial support at the time was not adequate,” he said, noting issues with the child benefit payments being delayed.
Initially, Operation Ezra ran a food assistance program, but one day a volunteer with a background in farming suggested they start a potato farm, and the idea took off.
Land for the farm was donated by the volunteer’s father in 2018, and the Yazidi families ended up loving it.
“We realized then how successful it was and how much they — the Yazidi families — appreciated not only farming, but also… being able to provide for themselves,” Aziza said.
For 2019, they went bigger.
Bo Wohlers, president of Shelmerdine Nurseries, donated this year's land, along with the seeds, and equipment, after reading an article about the farming project in 2018.
About a dozen families are now taking care of the farm, which sits on about 8 acres of land in St. François Xavier. They expect to harvest about 5,400 kilograms of potatoes, as well more than 30 different fruits and vegetables. With this, they expect to feed more than 50 families — about 250 people — for months, and they will sell the leftovers at farmers markets to make money for next year.
Refugees face many obstacles when they resettle in new countries. Government assistance is only provided for a year, so money and food security are pressing issues, but they also face barriers when it comes to language, culture, and health.
This farming initiative not only tackles food insecurity, but it also tackles mental health and community, as many of the Yazidis refugees settling in Winnipeg were farmers in their native land.
The participants said it made them happy to be farming and brought them good memories from their pasts.