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Nothing short of a miracle: from Bergen-Belsen to Mount Sinjar

At first glance, there isn’t an obvious connection between Bergen-Belsen and Mount Sinjar, except for tragedy and trauma. Still, the victims of two genocides intersected, generations and worlds apart from each other, at a time when dark forces were on the rise again.

Just before the lockdown in March 2020, an old friend invited me for drinks at her place. While there, I met a woman who was part of an organisation called Project Abraham, which resettled Yezidis from Iraq to Toronto. These were the survivors of the genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a slaughter that started on August 3, 2014, on the ancient plains of Nineveh. I had written extensively about Iraq during my career then reported from the field between 2003/4, travelling through Duhok, near Mount Sinjar, the holiest site for Yezidis. A decade later, Islamic State attacked.

I asked if Project Abraham was thinking of recording an oral history. This somewhat random remark led me to Paulette Volgyesi, who was teaching four of the Yezidi women to speak English. My interest was piqued further when I learned that she had been born in Bergen-Belsen in 1946 along with 2,000 other babies. The concentration camp in northern Germany, which the British liberated on April 15, 1945, is where Anne Frank and her sister Margot died, and there were 5,000 other camps across Europe, but Belsen was the largest on the continent. It later became a Displaced Person camp until 1950. The Allies built schools and workshops, and there were theatre performances, dances, and romance. It was a place where they “tried to make a broken people whole,” said Paulette, “it was nothing short of a miracle.”

Paulette’s story

Paulette’s mother was a Holocaust survivor who had spent the war years hiding and went to the camp after she found she had nowhere else to go. Paulette’s father had disappeared, so mother and daughter lived in the camp for a few months before moving to Paris, a stop-gap before finally ending up in Toronto.

Paulette’s story had so many fascinating angles. The original plan was to write about the Yezidi community in Toronto – a genocide that has slipped from our radar. I was intrigued by the intersection of these two genocidal campaigns. Paulette had told me she thought that being the child of two Holocaust survivors might help her to connect to the Yezidi women. Her adopted father had lost a wife and two babies in Auschwitz. Maybe she could show these women there was light at the end of the tunnel.

Paulette had seen the parallels when she encountered Project Abraham and knew she wanted to help. Her past informed everything about her, which made her compassionate, empathetic, and loving. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, Paulette had a keen sense of justice, someone who wanted to champion the underdog. Their parents’ trauma defined many second-generation survivors. “These emotions inform who we are,” she says, “and because I suffered, I empathise with what the Yezidis went through. I wanted to help them, and in the past two years, I have got to know them well, and they trust me.”

Except the Yezidis had never heard of the Holocaust, they had barely heard of Germany, and that was only in the context of where friends or family had immigrated to find asylum. Germany is home to the largest Yezidi diaspora. The truth was that their pain was too recent, too raw, too sharp to relate to a 75-year-old story about a people they knew nothing about from a foreign country that could have been Mars.

Something deeper connects both genocides. They are the same perpetrators, according to Emmanuel Didier, an Ottawa-based international lawyer who served as a First Secretary of the International Court of Justice.  “Daesh cadres are the managers of Saddam’s military intelligence, mostly from his tribe, which were all Baathists. And the Baath, common to Saddam (Iraq) and Assad (Syria), was created by Michel Aflaq in 1941 on the model of the Stalinist and the Nazi parties. Aflaq, a Syrian philosopher, is considered one of the principal founders of Baathist thought. Many former SS and Gestapo senior operatives at the end of WWII found asylum in Middle East countries, where they created the intelligence apparatus of those countries when they became independent in the late 50s.”

“But the greater story,” says Gary Rose, the communications director of Project Abraham, “is how we have not learned the lessons of the past.” There were parallels rather than intersections. This story created a unique opportunity to show how from extreme adversity, one person’s journey became instrumental in helping other survivors of genocide reclaim their lives. In a strange confluence of events, Paulette, a retired public school teacher, had taught Gary and Debbie Rose’s children before she got involved in Project Abraham.

In 2015, The Mozuud Freedom Foundation, founded by Irving Weisdorf, initiated Project Abraham to help bring Yezidis to Canada. Project Abraham began when Mirza Ismail, Founder of Yezidi Human Rights International, approached Geoffrey Clarfield. The latter was the Executive Director of Mozuud. Mirza was desperately looking for help sponsoring Yezidis under the Canadian government Family Reunification Program (FRP). Project Abraham has since become an independent NGO, with over 350 volunteers helping the growing Yezidi community in the Greater Toronto Area, and gained charitable status in October 2019.

Richmond Hill is a quiet suburb of Toronto with sweeping lawns and regular houses, a far cry from northern Iraq. Adlan, Malas, Ghazal, and Khawla had expected to spend the rest of their lives as wives and mothers farming on the Nineveh Plains as their ancestors had done. Paulette’s mother also never anticipated life in Toronto. She had grown up in a small village of fewer than 1000 people called Leczna, Poland, a crossroads, where her Orthodox grandfather dealt in wood. Her grandparents’ house held a Torah, and it was always filled with people, something her grandmother loved and encouraged.

“My mother could never talk about my father,” says Paulette over the phone in Toronto during one of our first conversations. I am impressed by how thoughtful, insightful, detailed and precise she is. “When my mother first arrived in Canada, her focus was survival, and I assumed the memories about him were too painful to discuss because he had died. So I do not know when or how my parents met or how long they were together. The only evidence I have of the depth of my mother’s love for him was a tiny picture she carried with her until she died. This was not a one-night stand.” Paulette, of course, has lots of questions, “but it’s OK,” she says, “I don’t need answers. I don’t have a right to judge or comment. These people had to remake themselves; it was a time of intense loneliness for both of them.”

When Paulette met the Yezidi women in 2018, they slowly came to trust her, and their stories began to unfurl. There were other parallels. The Yazidis, like her, also had missing relatives, daughters, fathers, sons.

After Paulette’s mother died, she decided it was time to look for her missing father, and her search began on January 7, 1985 when she wrote a letter to the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust survivors in New York. In October, she received a letter with six names that matched her father’s. She contacted all of them, but no one replied. Then six years passed before she tried again in February 1991. She wrote to several agencies, including the Israeli Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, the International Tracing Service (ITS) and the Jewish Agency Search Bureau, Israel. Four months later Paulette received an acknowledgement, and in 1993 and again in 1995, more correspondence to confirm that the investigation was still in progress. She continued to contact organisations from Israel to Poland to the US and Germany. Finally, in 1999, there was a glimmer of hope. The letter she had written fifteen years earlier netted a result. She received confirmation of her father’s place and date of birth. A few weeks later, she posted her father’s name in

Five more years passed until a stranger from Montreal called in mid-April 2014. Joseph Blank had noticed Paulette’s search for a David Recht from Lwow on and knew there was a group in Israel that was also looking for survivors from Lwow. Blank gave Paulette two email addresses. One bounced back.

More emails followed that might help her find her father’s birth certificate. She discovered that a David Recht had gone to Uruguay. This man was slightly younger than her father, but it wasn’t uncommon to find that people had changed their date of birth after the war. No luck. But there was a Max Recht who could be a cousin. He had hidden in the woods in Poland before the Germans discovered the hideout. His mother, Debora, and his brother were shot to death, but Max managed to escape with his grandmother, Yente. One day she went to the village seeking food, and never came back. His father Hanoch was taken with others to Yablonovska village, and they were executed there. Paulette called Max’s house only to discover that he had passed away two months before, but his widow told her that she knew the man she was looking for. David Recht had a wife and three children in Israel.

“I now had the phone number of Alex Recht, a possible relation, who was familiar with the family roots.”

After forty years, events moved quickly. In June 2014, Paulette received a reply to her email requesting her phone number, and two hours later, she was talking to her potential half-sister. The next month, when the DNA test results came back, it was a 98 per cent match; she had a brother and two sisters who lived in Israel. Unfortunately, her father had died ten years before, but her new siblings said she had her father’s eyes and character. He had never mentioned Paulette; in fact, he might not have known that she even existed. But the two families embraced each other. “I am happy that my father made a life in Israel and had three beautiful children. I feel very blessed to have them in my life as well as my brother and sister who live in Toronto.”

Adlan’s story

Before ISIS, Adlan had lived with her husband and three daughters in a small village in the Sinjar area in northern Iraq. On the farm she planted vegetables and when they were ripe took them to market to supplement the family’s meagre income. Her two brothers, three sisters and parents lived in another village not too far away. Like many Yezidi women, Adlan had no education because her family was too poor to send her to school. Despite that, she lived a happy, simple life in much the same way as her ancestors had. All that changed on August 14, 2014, when ISIS fighters swarmed onto their land. The first thing Malas knew about it was when her sister-in-law Ghazal called. It was 11am, and she said everyone was running to the mountains.

Yezidi society, a tiny minority in Iraq, dates back thousands of years, as does the now non-existent Jewish community that once thrived in Mesopotamia. Over the centuries, the Yezidis have often been targets of genocidal campaigns. They are monotheistic and believe God entrusted the world to seven angels, including the Peacock Angel, which some have (wrongly) identified as Satan. Yezidi traditions are passed down orally, and it is a “closed” religion, since no one can convert to the faith and those who leave are gone forever. Marrying out likewise means the individual has left the religion and is no longer considered Yezidi. These strict rules are one way the religion has managed to survive. The misinterpretation of its beliefs has incited centuries of persecution. In another parallel with Nazi sympathisers who denounced Jews, Yezidis say Arab neighbours helped ISIS locate them.

Peshmerga fighters had protected the ethnically Kurdish Yezidis, who live near the Syrian border. Still, the genocide began following the withdrawal of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Peshmerga militia. With no time to prepare, the Yezidis abandoned everything and left with just the clothes on their backs to live on the mountain or escape to Turkey. Chaos ensued. Daesh murdered their way into northern Iraq, destroyed holy shrines and abducted more than 7,000 women and girls, many sold as sex slaves. About 50,000 Yezidis took refuge on Mount Sinjar, where they held out without food or water for weeks.

After a few days, the family was told it was safe to return to the village, and they were promised that ISIS would not harm them. That held for a while, but it was not long before ISIS again separated the men from the women and children, whom they took to an Arab village nearby. Many women with children were sold on the slave markets and used as sex slaves. Over 10,000 Yezidis were kidnapped or killed, and over 3,100 were murdered. Many were executed by gunshot, beheaded, burnt or buried alive. There are about 500,000 refugees as a result. Ghazal, Malas, Khawla and Adlan were all victims, and some of their husbands and brothers are still missing.

Khawla is Adlan’s sister-in-law, and Watfi is Adlan’s daughter. When the family was separated, Khawla pretended that Watfi was her daughter, not her niece, to protect her as Watfi was only seven. Eventually, Watfi was taken away by ISIS women who beat her and forced her to speak Arabic until she forgot how to speak Kurmanji.

In 2016, Adlan and Khawla were rescued and found refuge in a displaced person camp and registered with the UN. They came to Canada in 2017, sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese in Toronto and Project Abraham. Watfi was still in captivity, but in 2019, the Peshmerga came to the village and rescued her. She was taken to a Yezidi family in Syria, and from there she was reunited with her grandmother.  With the help of a church in Brampton, Ontario, Artemis Karabelas raised funds to bring Watfi to Toronto.  Project Abraham had a hand in speeding up the process of the application for Watfi, which had been stalled. On December 23, 2019, Adlan and her daughter were reunited in Toronto.

The Canada connection

Paulette drove me the thirty-minutes to Richmond Hill to meet Ghazal, Khawla and Malas, who is the most talkative of the group; her English is impressive. We sat outside in the garden of the home they all share and Ghazal’s two young sons wandered from their basement flat to the yard, playing in the late afternoon on a hot August day. ISIS had indoctrinated the older boy, and when he was reunited with his mother, he was furious with her because she didn’t wear the hijab.

Malas is beautiful, and in 2018 she went to Iraq to get married. She is waiting for her husband, who is still in Iraq, to join her, but there is endless Canadian administration, which Paulette has helped them navigate. It’s a lot for anyone.

“This trauma is recent and still ongoing for them. Although these women have escaped the clutches of ISIS, they live every day with the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to the missing relatives. They live with the emotional and psychological and physical damage done while in captivity. And they live with survivor guilt. Family members still live in camps, and they are desperate to bring them to Canada. They are angry with the Iraqi government for not helping them. They feel the world has forgotten them and no one knows or understands what they suffered.

“They are disappointed in our medical system that, for example, does not give them results of tests. They don’t know how to be proactive and ask for this information. [We need to have an ombudsman to be the intermediary between them and the healthcare system.] Life in Canada is expensive, especially housing. Even though they have applied for subsidised housing, they do not understand why the waitlists are years long. They don’t know why we (Project Abraham) cannot facilitate moving them up to the head of the line.

“They don’t have the energy to do what they need to do to survive. The women suffer from headaches and stomach ailments. Even though they have eyeglasses, they don’t like to wear them. I don’t know whether the headaches are related to vision issues. Still, if they are not wearing the eyeglasses, that seems to me, at least, that more stress is placed on the eyes,” says Paulette.

They are trying to find another doctor (they do not have confidence in the one they now have). Malas is taking measures to improve her English. She has a full-time job working at the Tim Hortons coffee chain. She is trying to get her sister to take vitamin D and encourages her to take the medicine that was prescribed for her asthma. All of this is an ongoing battle.

When Paulette went to visit Khawla, it was a quiet time as everyone had gone to Dollarama. Khawla understands English quite well but has more trouble speaking it. Khawla is one of five children; she has four brothers, two younger than her and two older. One of her brothers, Maher, lives with her. Her mother is alive, but she does not know what happened to her father.

They lived in a small village near Shingal and farmed the land. Khawla’s job was to look after the crops. They grew tomatoes, cucumbers and melons amongst other fruits and vegetables. The source of irrigation was an electric pump which drew water from a well. The amount of water available varied from year to year and was reflected in the size of the crops. Khawla worked in the field, helped her mother with the cooking and cleaning and looked after her brothers. Her illiterate father learned how to drive, and together with his sons, they bought a car and a truck so that the boys could go to school, and they were able to take their crops to market. Khawla did not go to school because it was too far away, and so did not learn to read or write. Kurmanji is mostly an oral language anyway, and she was not exposed to Arabic until ISIS. By the time her father acquired the car and truck, she was older and felt too shy to go to school.

In Toronto, the community is very close-knit and often would get together, share food and conversation. They celebrate Eid by renting a legion hall and cooking copious amounts of food. There is music. The children tear around like whirling dervishes, and the adults do an interesting line dance around the room. They are very generous and show their gratitude to the volunteers of Project Abraham by encouraging everyone to eat and laugh.

But Khawla refuses to participate in these celebrations until she knows with certainty what happened to her relatives. She says she is too sad to go.

“We talked about Jewish mourning customs and the orthodox custom of refusing to participate in music or dance or any celebration for a year after a loved one has died,” says Paulette. “She nodded her head and said it was like that in her culture. “Did she know any Jews in Iraq?” Khawla said she didn’t, but she had heard of a great synagogue in the city of Nineveh, now part of Mosul. “I told her as simply and clearly as I could about the Holocaust and what had happened to my family and what it meant to me to discover I had siblings and to meet them.”

Common ground

“It is not that they are not empathetic to what happened to my mother and the Jews during the Second World War,” says Paulette. They had just never heard of the Holocaust before. It also happened so long ago that they don’t really relate to it and they have had so many of their own tragedies over the centuries to deal with. “I know that they are sorry for my family, but they lack the English vocabulary to describe their feelings. They are so focused on surviving here in Canada that other genocides are not on their radar,” says Paulette. They are dealing with ongoing trauma.

The reason this story is so important is that “we need to do justice for the Yezidis by bringing their suffering into public awareness,” says Gary Rose. “The Yezidis matter because all suffering of any people through no fault of their own should be addressed from compassionate grounds. Justice needs to be served to preserve our moral values. We need to evoke a sense of outrage that can lead to action. And the Yezidis also matter because our collective and personal experiences are what drive us to have empathy – and that also leads us to action. Paulette’s story provides a larger context as to why the Yezidis must not be forgotten and why we must keep remembering. We haven’t yet learned that unless we remember, we will keep repeating the atrocities of the past.”