NEW YORK – Standing idly by was never an option for Steve Maman as images of Iraq’s brutalized Christian and Yazidi people marched across television screens in his Montreal home and filled the 42-year-old’s Twitter feed.
“The defining moment for me was when ISIS portrayed pictures of children crammed up in a cage dressed up in orange jumpsuits while outside a soldier held a flame to them. I said to myself, ‘Steve, you’re going to act,’” Maman said in a telephone interview with The Times of Israel this week.
The Montreal Jewish businessman and father of six founded a non-profit, The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI). Since its inception eight months ago, CYCI has successfully negotiated the release of nearly 130 women and girls from ISIS controlled areas in Iraq.
Since the Islamic State (commonly referred to as IS or ISIS) took over Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014, its followers have raped and sexually abused thousands of women and children, most of whom are Yazidi and Christians. Many have also been sold as sex slaves and brides to Islamic State fighters.
ISIS militants subject the women and children to inhumane conditions. Malnourished, the prisoners are forced to sleep in cages at night, according to the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights.
At least 2,700 more women and girls remain in captivity, Maman said, adding that his group’s mission will end when all are freed.
Canon Andrew White, formerly the pastor of St. George’s, Baghdad’s largest church, introduced Maman to a network of contacts.
According to White, it costs between $1,000 to $3,000 to liberate each woman and girl from the hands of ISIS. CYCI negotiates with brokers in ISIS controlled territories for their release. Most of the women and girls have endured extreme physical and sexual abuse.
“You have to buy them out. There’s no other way,” White said in a telephone interview.
While Canada will not negotiate with terrorist organizations such as ISIS, there is no law prohibiting nonprofits from pursuing the kind of work Maman’s organization is doing.
Initially, Maman relied on donations from Montreal’s Sephardic Jewish community. As word spread, financial support has come from Germany, England, Australia, Ireland and the US. So far CYCI has reportedly raised almost $450,000.
Aside from raising money through their GofundMe campaign, Maman hopes to enlist the support of Elie Wiesel and Oprah Winfrey to raise further awareness.
“You can act, or you can remain a spectator,” Maman said. “If you remain a spectator, know that you are among the same group of people who watched and did nothing as six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.”
‘If you remain a spectator, know that you are among the same group of people who watched and did nothing as six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust’
Once freed, the women and girls are initially taken to an Internally Displaced Persons camp in Kurdistan. There they receive food, shelter and medical care. Many of the women and girls are pregnant.
The newly freed are reunited with their families whenever possible. Assistance is offered to help relocate those whose families can’t be found.
“Nobody is alone. We are looking after them,” said White, who has worked with the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East since 2005.
Although the press has nicknamed Maman “The Jewish Schindler,” the comparison doesn’t sit well with the Moroccan-born humanitarian.
“Schindler is on another planet than me. For me I find it inappropriate to call me that, but if it helps raise awareness then so be it,” he said.
Rather, Maman stresses his is a team effort. Aside from the people on the ground, there is a whole group of “Jews, Muslims and Christians that make this possible. They are fighting tooth and nails to get the word out. Without them CYCI is worthless.”
In Montreal five volunteers oversee the operation, which includes making promotional videos, answering emails and putting together press kits. Kelly Amram, a licensed optician in Montreal, is one of those volunteers.
“This is the biggest genocide of women and children since the end of World War II,” she said. “When we say never again, we mean never again; no matter what your religion, what your belief is.
“People are donating as if it were their own children,” said Amram.