Hadji Hesso is one of the fortunate ones. Originally from Iraq, Hesso and his family were brought to Canada by a church group in Morden in southern Manitoba 16 years ago. The employee of Winnipeg Transit was able to receive an education and raise a family in a secure environment. More so than most Canadians, Hesso can appreciate the benefits of life that Canada has to offer, in part due to his experience living as a refugee. He spent ten years of his life growing up as a refugee in a refugee camp in Syria before coming to Canada.
“Being a refugee is devastating,” he says. “It is a situation you never want to experience.
“When you have to flee your country, you lose your identity. You don’t know if you can ever go back home. You don’t know if you will ever see your family members or friends again.
“You don’t think about health, education, opportunity. All you can think about is survival.
“You don’t know who to believe or follow. And the people you are with don’t know either.
“And when you are accepted in another country, you are starting from zero. It is hard getting an education, a job, raising a family in a new country and culture when your mind is still in the country and culture you came from.
“Hesso is a Yazidi, an ancient people whose religious practices dates back thousands of years. Northeastern Iraq used to be the central hub of the Yazidis. The modern Middle East, however, now proves to be a tough neighbourhood for minority groups.
“In our region, there are no human rights and no one to trust,” Hesso says.
The roof caved in on the Yazidis in Iraq in August, 2014, when the resurgent Sunni Islamic extremist group ISIS (the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq) swept over the Yazidi homeland, murdering thousands and enslaving thousands more. For many, the only escape was nearby Mount Sinjar where tens of thousands of Yazidis fled and had to endure several days without food, water or shelter before American and European forces were able to escort them to the safety of refugee camps.
When asked why the international community failed to intervene, he cited the rapid unfolding of the ISIS onslaught. “It shouldn’t have happened the way it did,” he says.
In a story that is common to genocide, Hesso notes that before the ISIS invasion, the Yazidis got along well enough with their neighbours. “We worked together with our neighbours,” he says. “But as soon as ISIS came in, our neighbours turned their backs on us. We got no help and no support.
“All of us who survived lost family members.”
“I don’t understand how one person can kill another, how you can take away someone else’s life. That person could be a father, a mother, a baby. When you see some of the images, you cry for days. You can’t help yourself.” And while Hesso appreciates the welcome that countries such as Canada, the United States, the U.K. and Germany have extended to Yazidi refugees, he faults the same countries and the international community as a whole for doing little or nothing to stop the genocide of the Yazidis.
“I don’t know if the countries of the world chose not to intervene or didn’t know what was happening,” he says, “but many people who I have spoken to believe that the international community has the opportunity to stop the killing.”
“ Hesso reports that London Ontario and Winnipeg have the two largest Yazidi populations in Canada. “We have about 30 Yazidi families in Winnipeg,” he says. “We are working with a number of other communities and organizations in Winnipeg – such as the Mennonite Central Committee, the Jewish community and several church groups – to bring more Yazidi refugees here and help them rebuild their lives. “I believe that if you believe in what you are doing and have enough people behind you, nothing can stop your momentum. Sometimes, it just takes one person to start a movement.”