“First they came for…” Ottawa’s Kurds Demonstrate Against ISIS

kurd2“We are Christian. We are Muslim. We are Yazidi. We are Jews,” was called out on the loudspeaker as demonstrators from Ottawa’s Kurdish community gathered on Parliament Hill.
Rondek immediately caught my eye with her bright yellow abaya, covered in Kurdish flags.
Where did you get that from? I asked, referring to the abaya.
“Back home,” she replied.
By back home she meant the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, a province in Northern Iraq which holds the Kurdish diaspora’s hopes for a possible independent Kurdish state one day. Kurds, like Palestinians, lost out when Sykes-Picot decided to carve up the Middle East into states more in line with British and French interests than the demographic realities of the people who had to live there.

I lost Rondek as I tried to find one of the organizers to speak to. I had been invited by Pirjin Jaffer, and decided to attend out of personal interest, but with any demonstration I attend, I like to talk to the organizers. But Pirjin was nowhere to be found. But I recognized her sister, Vehman, and decided to chat with her to see anyone in attendance was actually Yazidi.
When I asked her she said that the demonstrators were mostly Sunni Muslim and some Christians. “There are not many Yazidi who have left Iraq. Although there are some in Germany,” she explained.
The lack of Yazidis in diaspora has a lot to do with their socio-economic marginalization in their countries of origin. Let’s face it, most refugee communities that make it to Canada are often made up of those who were relatively well-off in their homelands.
Ottawa’s Kurds are mainly a community of refugees who experienced displacement during the Iran-Iraq War and the Anfal, what Kurds label as a genocidal attack against their communities in Northern Iraq led by Saddam Hussain. The Anfal is officially recognized as genocide by the British, Swedish and Norwegian governments.

The Jaffer family hails from Dohuk province in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is home to a sizable Yazidi population. “People think they are devil worshipers but they are not,” she said.

Academic Sebastian Maisel conducted extensive field research with the Yezidi communities of Syria and Iraq and sums up the community as follows:

The Yezidis are an ancient Kurdish-speaking ethno-religious community. Although their enemies consider them members of a heretical, devil-worshipping sect, they do ascribe to a monotheistic belief system with roots in ancient Mesopotamian cultures, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. Yezidis also venerate several angels; chief among them is Tawsi-Melek (the Peacock Angel), who is believed to act on behalf of God as custodian of the universe. The concepts of hell and eternal sin do not exist in Yezidism, but Yezidis do believe in reincarnation and transmigration. Similar to the Druze, Alawites, Shabak, and other syncretistic groups in the Middle East, the Yezidi community has a clerical hierarchy and strict rules regarding endogamous marriage and initiation.

“People have tried to destroy the Yazidi 72 times. This is the 73rd.” Vehman stated. She is actually referring to a Yazidi song, which lists the various communities that have tried to kill them, from the Arabs to the British.The Yazidi have faced persection in Iraq even under the US’s watch.

I have always been struck by the recognition amongst Kurds of their community’s religious diversity, although the majority of Kurds I have met in Canada identify as Sunni Muslim, they have always seemed aware of fellow Kurds who were Alevi Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Yazidi.
When I shared this observation to Vehman she agreed that she had been raised with an awareness of this diversity “Our villages were side by side, we spoke their languages and they spoke ours. Because of the Anfal in the 80s many of the Christians fled to other parts of Iraq or to Europe and America. The Jews fled to Israel. The Yazidis stayed although some fled to Europe,” she explained
I spotted Rondek again this time holding a poster.
Reading the poster, I realized that it was paraphrasing Pastor Emil Martin Niemöller famous statement, which exist in many versions, but generally goes:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Pastor Niemöller had been an early support of the Nazis, particularly their anti-communism. But as Nazi power progressed and asserted supremacy of the state over religious freedom, Niemöller spoke out against the government’s control of churches, and was placed in a concentration camp.
Neither Rondek or her brother Karim, were aware of the quote’s origin, but Karim explained to me what the quote meant to him and why he agrees with it.
“If no one speaks for others, like in the case of genocide, if it is not happening to you so you don’t fight for the other people who it is happening to, you never know it might happen to you one day and there will be no one to fight for you. So we have to give what we expect from others.”
Karim added that he felt that it was important to stand up for any community facing injustice, not just his own. “We are concerned about everybody, whether it is Arabs, whether it is Kurds, whether it’s Muslims or Christians, whether it is Gaza or Kurdistan, we need to speak out.”

To learn more about Kurds in Canada visit

The Kurds in Canada: A Question of Ethnic Identity by Judith Peralta (Carleton University Thesis)
The Kurdish House of Greater Toronto Website

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