The unspeakable atrocities unfold half a world away, but to Karam Abdul-Ahad, the events in northern Iraq are palpable from southeast Vancouver.
Born in Baghdad and raised in Mosul, Mr. Abdul-Ahad immigrated to Canada via Jordan with his family in 2002, one year before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He has put down roots in Vancouver, becoming a Canadian citizen and owner and manager of a pharmacy, but his thoughts often wander back to the country of his upbringing.
Islamic State militants have taken over much of northern Iraq, and tens of thousands of minority Iraqis have fled from their homes. The group has killed hundreds of the country’s Yazidis – burying some alive and taking women as slaves, according to an Iraqi government minister – and stranded thousands more atop Mount Sinjar, where U.S. military aircraft have dropped relief supplies. The United States has conducted air strikes in the region to support Kurdish fighters.
Mr. Abdul-Ahad, who is Christian, recalled playing with children from varied religious backgrounds – Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims – when he was growing up, and no one cared about the differences.
“We used to live peacefully and practiced our religion in freedom without prejudice or persecution,” he said.
“It always gives me goosebumps to know that had my parents not made the decision to emigrate when they did, that this would be me there. My mother and sister could have been the girls that are right now being raped and sold as sex slaves in Mosul. It could be me being shot in the head in front of my family. It could have been me walking 40 kilometres in the 50 C desert out there. I could be sleeping on the streets of northern Iraq, waiting for aid. It just kills me inside.”
Mr. Abdul-Ahad organized a rally last month at the Vancouver Art Gallery to raise awareness of the situation and call on the federal government to increase resettlement of refugees from Iraq. According to the Canadian government, most of the Iraqis who settle here go to Metro Vancouver or the Greater Toronto Area. About 100 people participated in the July event, taking turns speaking and bearing signs that read, “We are the roots of Iraq,” and “Convert, pay heavy tax or die.”
Joining in was Nawfal Rassam, who moved to Metro Vancouver from his hometown of Baghdad in 1996. He said there are no words to describe what is happening in northern Iraq – and yet it is all he can talk about with family and friends.
“In my youth, we would hear about genocides in Angola and in other countries in Africa. We would think, ‘Why is it happening?’ I had no idea it would one day happen in Iraq,” said Mr. Rassam, who works in IT at the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
“A lot of Iraqis, our family and friends, when we sit together, we talk only about this. There is no other subject. Even if we try to open another subject, it goes back to what’s happening in Iraq.”
Mr. Abdul-Ahad, Mr. Rassam and others in the Iraqi community are hoping to organize another demonstration in coming weeks.
On the weekend, Canada announced $5-million in new humanitarian assistance for displaced civilians and religious minorities in Iraq. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama, pledging further humanitarian aid as needed. Mr. Harper also expressed “strong support” for U.S. air strikes against Islamic State fighters, which Canada considers a terrorist organization.
Canada has resettled more than 18,200 Iraqi refugees since 2009, and recently committed to resettle 5,000 refugees – the majority of which are Iraqi – from Turkey by 2018, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
“Our government takes this situation very seriously and will continue to build on our record of taking decisive action to resettle religious minorities and those facing persecution by [Islamic State],” press secretary Alexis Pavlich said in an e-mail.
From 2010 to 2013, 26 per cent of Iraqi government-assisted refugees to B.C. settled in the Guildford area of Surrey, followed by Burnaby (24 per cent) and smaller groups in New Westminster, Coquitlam and Richmond, according to the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.
A 2014 report by the society noted many Iraqi GARs arrive in B.C. with “emotional and physical scars as a result of the Iraqi war.” The society says it has also observed “a sharp increase in the number of Iraqi GARs who have arrived requiring special supports, e.g. deaf, Arabic sign language interpreters, blind, etc.”
With reports from Josh Wingrove in Toronto and Reuters