When news of a Montreal businessman rescuing girls in Iraq first made headlines around the world, order Steve Maman basked in the limelight, doctor proud that he had managed to do something — something big — to fight the horror of the so-called Islamic State.
“The Jewish Schindler” the press dubbed him repeatedly, try in articles from Haaretz to Paris Match.
Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who is credited with saving 1,200 Jews during the Nazi Holocaust, is indeed one of Maman’s heroes, in whose footsteps he wanted to follow when he founded The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI) in June.
With the help of donations from the Jewish community and then the greater public, Maman says he and his team of volunteers on the ground in Iraq have rescued 130 girls and women, many of whom had been kidnapped and sold as sex slaves by the Islamic State.
Donations, on GoFundMe and then through PayPal on his website, steadily increased with the exposure, to more than $600,000 by Wednesday.
But then came more ink — this time from the Yazidi community itself — disputing the number of rescued girls and women and casting doubt on the whole operation.
In an open letter first published by Vice News last week, the top spiritual leader of the Yazidi community in Iraq, Babasheikh Kherto Ismael, as well as 19 other Yazidi leaders and activists, questioned how Maman, reportedly with only $80,000 at the time, had managed to liberate so many women and girls, when Iraqi families had to pay upward of $8,000 to rescue each of their loved ones.
They also wondered about the ethics of paying ransoms at all, when the money would surely line the pockets of ISIL fighters and motivate them to continue with their lucrative sideline.
As for Christians, the signatories to the letter, including Vian Dakhil, the only female Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, said as far as they knew, no Christians had been enslaved in the area — so none could have been liberated.
“It is unclear what Christian women Steve Maman claims to be saving,” they wrote, in calling for an inquiry into CYCI’s operations and a suspension of donations.
To be sure, verifying what’s going on in ISIL-held territory is a huge challenge. Few reporters, even among the battle-hardened, dare to see for themselves.
Into that information void, Maman has offered up one journalist to confirm CYCI’s work — Sean Moore, whose credentials show him as a radio broadcaster affiliated with a station in Chatham-Kent, Ontario — and Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest and the Vicar of Baghdad, who has started his own Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.
(At one point White paid a ransom for his own lay priest in Iraq — $40,000 — and has said he has employed up to 35 armed guards to protect himself.)
White could not be reached for comment, but in a Facebook post on Aug. 18 to his 25,000-plus followers, he praised Maman for his good work and defended the practice of paying ransoms for the girls, saying it was the only way to get them back.
“There are no more … established Christians or Yazidees that can be taken. They have already taken everybody available,” he wrote.
According to a United Nations report, in August, 2014, ISIL kidnapped an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Yazidi women and children, 2,700 of whom are still in captivity.
The Yazidis are an ethnic and religious minority of Iraq, Syria and Kurdistan believed to number about 700,000, who have been targeted by the Islamic State in their quest to “purify” the region of non-Islamic influences.
Maman also has the backing of Pamela Geller of the American Freedom Defense Initiative — best known for organizing the Draw the Prophet contest in Texas — and has recruited Gill Rosenberg to help with at least one rescue operation. Rosenberg is a Canadian-Israeli woman who became the first female foreign fighter to join the Kurds in their fight against ISIS.
Rosenberg also spent four years in a U.S. prison, for scamming senior citizens out of millions of dollars.
“The question you have to ask yourselves is who should you believe?” Maman asked on Facebook. “Activists and humanitarians dedicating their lives to these peoples’ fates or certain government officials and affiliates that work from offices and airplanes? CYCI will not answer to a group of people that decided or not to put their names on a piece of paper.”
Maman has threatened legal action against his detractors, and questions the credibility of those who wrote the letter, referring broadly to power politics and corruption in Iraq.
He has also offered to address any “official question” from an authority, he added, in Iraq or Canada. He will be holding a press conference in Montreal next week, he said.
In the meantime, the Montreal Gazette met with him Wednesday in his office in Ville St. Pierre, where he sells used Harley Davidsons, to ask him a few questions of our own.
Maman shared pictures of children, videos and interviews with people on the ground in Iraq and Kurdistan who vouch for his work, including Dr. Noori Abdulrahman, listed online as the Minister for the Department of Coordination and Follow-up in the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Maman also shared his thoughts on the mission to rescue girls from sexual slavery and the latest allegations against him.
Q: We’ve all been watching with horror what’s been going on inside the so-called Islamic State. But you are among very few in the West who have taken action. Was there a specific incident or report that forced you to get involved?
A: There was a report that showed children who were put in a cage, all dressed in orange, and outside of the cage stood an ISIS combatant holding a lit-up torch, threatening to burn them. This picture mimicked what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot. By looking at the photo, one could imagine the pain and loss, the terror these children were under.
I had already a few months prior taken Assyrian Christians out of harm’s way and sent them to Ankara. I thought I had done my share of good with that, but the picture of the children dressed in orange jumpsuits really was the pivotal moment I decided I would act.
Q: What kind of experience did you have as a Montreal businessman that allowed you to put together a team in another country and rescue women and girls who had been kidnapped?
A: I travelled the world looking for vintage cars for sale abandoned in palaces and garages. I made lots of contacts in high places. This work brought my dealership to Morocco and then to Iraq.
I also befriended a Christian Assyrian on the ground, and realized through him I could make a difference. He had contacts with the Iraq and Kurdistan governments. I used his credentials and my business sense to get funding.
Q: Your critics don’t seem to believe that you’ve actually rescued as many people as you claim. Why not provide names or other proof?
A: We have provided names, pictures and videos. They are on our website, on our Facebook page. People wish to view faces and we cannot divulge this personal information.
Imagine, you get taken and raped 250 times a year, 15 times a day. Steve Maman comes and takes you out. You don’t even have the strength to say thank you. Would you let me take your picture and show the world? I don’t want to add to their suffering.
It’s like in the Roman Coliseum. It was always sold out because people wanted to see the blood and the humiliation … Today the world sees the Jewish Schindler and thousands will be proud, but one girl whose face I didn’t blur will not be happy. But am I looking for fame or to protect these girls?
Q: Several Yazidi leaders, including the spiritual leader of the Yazidi community, have written a letter questioning the facts and the ethics of your rescue work in Iraq. What do you think is behind the skepticism?
A: Politics. It’s corruption and politics. … It’s (a group) who is trying to gain notoriety for being the saviour of the Yazidis where a Jewish man from Canada comes up and does so much more work than (they) do on the ground, where this Jewish man actually gives to the people without asking them to pay back. On the other side we have (this group of signatories) that are actually charging $8,000 per person that they bring back to the families. They used to get a kickback from the government per person and at same time are charging the family. They are getting paid twice. So Steve Maman screamed out loud to the government that they have to stop this practice that they are putting in debt people who have no shoes. So all of a sudden I have an aspiring political party that I’m humiliating for fraud and corruption on the ground.
They’re a mafia trying to get into politics by taking advantage of the plight of the Yazidi people who have lost everything.
We were specifically told by the KRG office of the president not to answer to this letter. They called it a political stunt, and said the letter is invalid.
Q: So how do you explain how you managed to save so many girls and women with so little money (about $80,000)?
A: It’s very simple — at the time when we pulled the first 100 people out of the caliphate, we only had to pay $50 to $250 each. Obviously after these children had been sold by ISIS throughout the caliphate, everybody knew the price escalated to $2,000-3,000. Prices have gone up tremendously. CYCI was incorporated in June. But this work started eight months ago.
Q: How do you respond to those who say you are funding the Islamic State by paying to rescue these girls?
A: I don’t talk to ISIS, I don’t fund ISIS, I don’t deal with ISIS. We have our CYCI team on the ground in Kurdistan, which is comprised of elite personnel. When I say elite, I mean a U.S. government-trained hostage negotiator and U.S. trained terrorism prevention personnel.
As far as motivating them to kidnap more, the caliphate is closed. You tell me how they’re going to kidnap another girl from behind the American soldiers at the border of Kurdistan. You tell me how they’re going to get girls inside Iran if they want to expand to the east. What about to the south? There’s the Iraqi army and the U.S. army that are amassed around the border of the caliphate. You really think a 30,000-strong army with four or five different armies surrounding them are able to do anything more? They’re not able to conquer anymore. It’s the end of the expansion. So don’t tell me I’m creating a market that’s emerging.
Q: Your fundraising campaign on GoFundMe has been suspended out of concerns over its legitimacy. How will your work be affected if GoFundMe no longer provides a platform for it?
A: We closed the GoFundMe campaign. We started it to get noticed, but our funds went up so quickly and we were paying a seven-per-cent commission. So when they froze the campaign to investigate (after a complaint by RINJ — Rape Is No Joke) we moved it to our website and PayPal. Now we pay 1.5 per cent. Since the letter came out, we’re raising more money than ever.
By The Montreal Gazette