Canada's immigration minister has approved a new policy allowing Yazidi refugee families in this country to sponsor extended family members still languishing in camps in Syria.
The federal government's initial program aimed to resettle Yazidi women and girls who were directly affected by ISIS violence, as well as their spouses, children and dependents. However, because of the volatile environment, many refugees arrived in Canada with few family members joining them. This new policy extends the time frame for sponsorship and widens the eligibility criteria.
"By changing the policy to be more inclusive of extended family members, we are showing compassion," Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said in an interview with CBC News.
He said it also shows Canada's commitment to not only having a robust asylum system, but upholding human rights around the world.
The new policy is good news for 16-year-old Emad Tammo, who was able to join his mother and sisters in Canada in 2017.
"Iraq's not safe … Killing people and stealing people like that," he said. "Lots of people ask me in Iraq and I want to help them."
His family was among an estimated 500,000 Yazidis rounded up and captured by ISIS in northern Iraq in August 2014. Yazidis are predominantly ethnically Kurdish and follow an ancient religion that combines elements from Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam.
Many young women and girls were forcibly converted to Islam and used as sex slaves or wives for ISIS fighters. Yazidi boys who had not yet reached puberty were separated from their families and trained as child soldiers. Older boys and men who refused to convert to Islam were executed.
An estimated 250,000 Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar near the Iraq-Syria border, where they were surrounded by ISIS and denied access to food, water or medical care. Many died before a military rescue operation gave them safe passage to Syria.
The United Nations' Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic says ISIS's actions against the Yazidis amounted to genocide.
Nofa Zaghla, Tammo's mother, and her four younger children managed to escape — without Tammo and his older brother and father — and spent nearly a year in a Syrian refugee camp. In February 2017, they arrived in Winnipeg as government-assisted refugees, part of the Trudeau government's commitment to settle 1,200 Yazidi refugees and ISIS survivors.
As of January 2021, Canada had welcomed 1,356 government-assisted refugees and 94 privately sponsored survivors — all Yazidi women and girls. The $21.7-million program covered income support, the Interim Federal Health Program, and settlement supports such as language training.
Zaghla had no idea what had happened to her husband and two older sons. Then, later that year, photos of a dusty and emaciated Tammo began surfacing on Facebook. They were posted by Iraqi forces who had rescued him after a battle in Mosul.
His case was expedited by the Canadian government, and within weeks, Tammo arrived in Winnipeg, to the joy of the Yazidi community.
Still bearing scars on his side, back and stomach after being shot by ISIS, plus the psychological trauma of the experience, Tammo says he's grateful to be safe and with his family.
"Too long I didn't see my family," he said.
He described the terror of moving from location to location and resisting threats to convert to Islam and become an ISIS fighter.
Tammo said he believes his father was killed, but has heard his older brother is still alive in a refugee camp.
"My brother … right now, he's alive in Iraq in the camp and I want to help him to get here, and I don't know how."
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'The clock is ticking'
Last December, the Yazidi community in Canada and more than a dozen community groups wrote a letter to Mendicino, asking for humanitarian aid for those in the refugee camps, and to fast-track applications that would reunite families.
They still haven't received a direct response, but are happy to hear news more family members will be eligible, said Jamileh Naso, president of the Canadian Yazidi Association in Winnipeg.
"They've been sitting in a refugee camp for over seven years now, and on top of this now, where they're facing a global pandemic with little to no access to health care, PPE supplies," she said.
Naso said there is an estimated 360,000 Yazidis living in camps for internally displaced people in Syria.
"This is really life and death, and the clock is ticking."
Under the current programs, refugees can reunite with extended family members through the private sponsorship of refugees (PSR) program. Spouses, common-law partners and dependent children can also come within a year after the resettlement of their family members in Canada.
However, some ISIS survivors in this country are unable to use that program because their remaining family members are still in their native Iraq, so they don't fit the definition of a refugee and can't be sponsored.
The new policy will make those people eligible to become government-assisted refugees or privately sponsored refugees.
Independent Manitoba Sen. Marilou McPhedran, who is also a lawyer and human rights advocate, has been working on this issue for years along with several other colleagues. She read a statement on behalf of Yazidis and their supporters in the Senate in February.
"These families remain so fractured, and the incredible additional agony, emotional agony for families because of COVID, it's made the situation for refugees so much more dangerous," McPhedran said in an interview with CBC News.
"In some cases, we're still talking about children, teenagers, members of families where they need to be reunified with their families here in Canada. And we need to make it a priority."
Refugees to Canada are provided with financial support either by the federal government or their private sponsors for up to one year. After that, they can apply for social assistance, which aligns with provincial social assistance rates.
In exceptional cases, income support can be provided for up to two years. The federal Immigration Department says there are currently no Yazidis still receiving federal income support from that 2017 program.
"We've got the flexibility in this policy to accommodate the demand, and certainly by expanding the parameters of the definition of family to include siblings, aunts and uncles and the like, that we will be able to fulfil the needs of the Yazidi refugee community again," Mendicino said.
Yearning for family
Tammo and his family moved from Winnipeg to London, Ont., nearly two years ago.
His mother, Nofa Zaghla, has given up hope of ever seeing her husband again, but still yearns to be reunited with her eldest son. She said she has other family members living in refugee camps whom she would also like to bring to Canada.
"We want Canada to help us to bring them," she said in Kurdish through an interpreter. "Those people, they're gonna be lost."
Tammo said he's grateful to be living a quiet life, working hard at his Grade 11 courses, playing soccer when he can — and doing what he can to help his brother and others still held captive in Iraq or living as refugees in Syria.
"They say it's not safe and there is no food, nothing, and all they want is to get out of the area," he said.
"Canada is not the same as Iraq. It's different. Safe."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc
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