Dubbed by some as the “Jewish Schindler” for his efforts to ransom Iraqi women and girls women held captive by Islamic State fighters, Canadian Jewish businessman Steve Maman has rebuffed mounting criticism, telling the Times of Israel that graft and inaccurate reports are fueling confusion surrounding his controversial rescue initiative.
While Maman’s work initially earned him praise worldwide, some have started to question his claims of liberating almost 130 Christian and Yazidi women, while others have condemned his methods of paying mediators to negotiate the release of the women and girls kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery to the jihadist militants in Iraq.
In recent weeks, a number of key supporters of his organization, the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), have appeared to distance themselves from his efforts, and a delegation of Yazidi leaders demanding proof Maman had in fact liberated the women intensified doubts of his rescue efforts.
Maman defended the integrity of his operation in a phone interview with the Times of Israel, and insisted he has evidence to support his claims. He said that rampant corruption in Iraq and inaccurate media reports fueled a misinformation campaign against him.
“It’s like ancient Rome, people want to see blood, they want public humiliation — and so the media gives it to them,” he said, describing those criticizing his work as “haters.”
Experts estimate that in the last year, IS fighters kidnapped approximately 5,000 to 7,000 Yazidi women and children who are subjected to sexual assault, violence and are forced to live in inhumane conditions. An estimated 2,700 women and girls are believed to still be in captivity.
“The question you have to ask yourselves is who should you believe? Maman asked in a recent Facebook post. “Activists and humanitarians dedicating their lives to these people’s [sic] fates or certain government officials and affiliates that work from offices and airplanes?”
‘Welcome to the Middle East’
An open letter signed by dozens of Yazidi leaders and published by Vice News last month questioned Maman’s credibility and demanded proof the Montreal businessman had in fact rescued the 128 women and girls he claims to have liberated.
Days later a statement released by the aid organization headed by Rev. Andrew White — an Anglican priest who previously pastored one of the largest churches in Baghdad and who connected Maman with his local contacts in Iraq — said it was not affiliated with Maman’s initiative.
The UK-based Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East said it “does not collaborate with CYCI either financially or in terms of practical assistance,” and emphasized that Maman was strictly a “personal contact” of White.
White told the Times of Israel that the foundation’s letter was legally necessary and spoke highly of Maman, saying that he endorsed his “truly brilliant and outstanding work.”
“The issue is that FRRME is a registered charity in the UK, and they’re not allowed to engage in hostage release negotiations,” he said
“I don’t question him or his motives one iota,” White said and confirmed that he helped Maman and CYCI workers navigate the complex web of tribal networks in Iraq. “The fact is that many women and children have been released from captivity because of this dear man,” he posted on Facebook shortly after.
‘It’s like ancient Rome, people want to see blood, they want to public humiliation — and so the media gives it to them’
At about the same time, a Canadian-Israeli woman who made headlines last year when she volunteered to fight alongside Kurdish militias battling IS, also publicly distanced herself from the initiative after observing the intermediaries involved in the rescue operations.
Gillian Rosenberg said Maman flew her to Iraq last month to observe his activities there while she considered joining CYCI. Ultimately, she declined to get involved with Maman’s work after observing the low character of the smugglers involved.
“These brokers they’re working with would sell their own children for five dollars. I wouldn’t entrust my life in their hands,” she told the Times of Israel last week.
Rosenberg, who previously spent four years in a US prison for scamming senior citizens out of millions of dollars, said that CYCI pays brokers to “steal” Yazidi and Christian women and children from the hands of their IS captors.
However, White said that negotiating with brokers inside IS-controlled territories for the release of women is unavoidable.
“Welcome to the Middle East, this is how things function here, you have to work with what you have,” he said. “You have to buy them out. There’s no other way.”
According to White, it costs between $1,000 to $3,000 to liberate a single woman or girl from the hands of the extremist group. He says most of the women and girls have endured extreme physical and sexual abuse.
The August 26 letter from the Yazidi leadership stated it was “imperative that any organization claiming to conduct such a high-level project, especially one that deals so visibly with such sensitive problems, recognize the need for accountability and to open itself to the scrutiny of the leadership of the Yazidi community.”
Spiritual leaders and local politicians charged that Maman’s efforts “brought a high level of visibility to a delicate and sensitive rescue effort that should have been kept low profile. The signatories also expressed concern that he “may be reckless.”
Maman said he chose not to reveal the names of all the people he has saved in order to protect their identities and to uphold the integrity of CYCI’s work.
He said that all his operations were above board, and that his workers on the ground were careful to thoroughly document, fingerprint and take detailed statements from all of the released victims. Additionally, he said, CYCI keeps the Kurdistan Regional Government up to date on every released hostage, and has set up a registry to assist victims in finding their displaced families.
‘Welcome to the Middle East, this is how things function here, you have to work with what you have’
Maman contended that the Yazidi leadership’s opposition to the CYCI hostage release efforts is the result of corruption pervasive at almost every level of Iraq’s bureaucracy.
“All of this is being driven by unprecedented levels of fraud, corruption and internal political gain,” he said.
The known culture of Iraqi corruption not only survived the fall of Saddam Hussein, but has thrived in a power vacuum created by his absence, he said. “Its like the death of Saddam Hussein gave birth to a million little Saddams.”
The letter’s signatories also claim that when CYCI said it had rescued 102 people several weeks ago, it had only raised around $80,000 – a sum that seemed impossibly low. Maman countered the claim by saying that when CYCI began its work several months ago, the ransom fees were much lower.
Maman is skeptical of the letter’s authenticity, and says he doubts a number of the signatories, including Yezidi spiritual leader Baba Sheikh Kherto Ismael, were even aware of its existence.
CYCI’s Iraqi “fixer” — a US government-trained hostage negotiator and regional security expert — is in regular contact with Kurdish and Yezidi leaders in northern Iraq, and sent pictures of him in meetings purportedly discussing rescue operations with major players in the region, he said.
Ismael tearfully witnessed one of CYCI’s first-ever rescue operations, Maman recounted.
Maman slammed the Vice report that published the letter as full of “false information,” and said its account of his relationship with FRRME, and the seemingly conflicting details of the location of refugee camps utilized in rescue operations, were incorrectly reported by the news website.
Similarly, White confirmed that contrary to the Vice report, he does not operate any refugee camps in northern Iraq, and any rescued women or girls taken to camps after their CYCI negotiated release were run by the United Nations or local aid groups.
However, few women rescued by Maman have come forward to speak on the record. A reporter for Jaffa-based i24 news traveled to Kurdistan and interviewed a number of women who said they were rescued with CYCI’s help, but that seems to have been the only case and Maman himself has been somewhat media shy.
When asked if The Times of Israel could reach out to some of the women, Maman would only give the phone number of an aid worker whom he asked stay anonymous.
Several attempts to reach the aid worker were unsuccessful.
Some have raised red flags over ethical consequences of Maman’s initiative, arguing that paying hefty ransoms funnels more money to the terror group and will only encourage further abductions, resulting in increasingly higher payoff demands.
Maman has denied working directly with Islamic State members, and rebuffed claims that his work was creating an emerging market for human trafficking.
“I don’t talk to ISIS, I don’t fund ISIS, I don’t deal with ISIS,” he asserted.
Maman explain that his brokers on the ground negotiate the girls’ release by typically paying their captors several hundred dollars. “So we’re not funding them, we’re refunding them, therefore ISIS is not getting anything from it.”
He argued that $2,000 or $3,000 would not make a discernible difference to the jihadist entity that is estimated to be worth $4 billion.
The letter from the Yazidi leaders also expressed concerns that the ransom money would end up in the hands of IS militants, and called on CYCI negotiations to be handled with greater transparency.
Initially, Maman’s work relied on donations from Montreal’s Sephardic Jewish community, but as word spread, financial support began to pour in from across the globe. By mid-August, CYCI raised almost $580,000 through their GoFundMe campaign before it was abruptly suspended by the website following a complaint by a rape awareness group claiming Maman’s work directly funded IS’s highly-organized sex trade of Yezidi women and girls.
The crowdsourcing website did not give an official reason for canceling the campaign, although some speculated the CYCI page was shut down over fears it violated Canadian anti-terrorism laws.
According to Maman, the fundraising page was closed after it was compromised by hackers during the GoFundMe investigation into the complaint.
The Montreal-based Maman, who says his Jewish tradition motivated him to take action and establish his organization in January this year, remains committed to continue his efforts despite the public backlash that he described as being “devastating” to him and his family.
Maman says he is grateful for the Jewish community that has largely embraced his efforts and has shown him “incredible” support.
Israelis, he said, have been especially encouraging, and shown “outstanding amounts of support” for his efforts.
“A child being tortured, who is about to be thrown into a fire, it’s a sin not to help him,” he said. “You can act, or you can remain a spectator. If you remain a spectator, know that you are among the same group of people who watched and did nothing as 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.”
“Meanwhile,” he said, “I’m going to continue my work, I won’t let this deter me.”