At a high-end car and motorcycle dealership in Montreal, a Canadian-Jewish businessman has made it his mission to save Christian and Yazidi girls from ISIS. What began as just another business venture for Steve Maman, a car dealer specializing in luxury automobiles, would turn into saving the lives of thousands of people.
Born in Morocco and immigrating to Canada at a very young age, Maman describes himself as an Orthodox Jew who grew up with “a great sense of being proudly Jewish.” Maman’s journey began following the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein, sons of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Aside from their horrifying reputations consisting of rape, murder, and torture, the brothers also had a voracious appetite for fine automobiles.
“[Uday and Qusay] traveled the world to collect fine cars,” said Maman. “They had over 500 cars in their collection – the most valuable cars in the world – Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, you name it. They even had a 1958 Bentley Continental Dropped Coupe, which is worth several million dollars.”
Then He Learned About the Iraqi Genocide
At the time, Iraq would not allow any of these cars to leave the country. But Maman’s business inquiries resulted in a close friendship with Canon Andrew White, the former Anglican vicar of Baghdad’s St. George’s Church, known by many simply as “the Vicar of Baghdad.”
During one of their conversations, White told Maman of the dangerous situation facing the last five Iraqi Jews who lived in Baghdad. With a history stretching as far back as biblical times, the Iraqi Jewish population once numbered 150,000. This remnant celebrated Shabbat at St. George’s Church under White’s protection. White even recounted how they would celebrate Jewish holidays at the American embassy in Baghdad, alongside American Jews serving in the U.S military.
White also spoke to Maman about the genocide taking place against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq. The vicar gave an account of the thousands of women and children ISIS was holding captive. Amidst the beheadings, torture, and other horrors of the genocide, thousands of women were being sold into sexual slavery. Maman knew he had to do something.
“From 1939-1945, Jews were being murdered during the Holocaust,” said Maman, “despite the fact that everyone around knew it was going on. It was three years into the genocide [of Christians and Yazidis] yet nobody acted. That is why I did what I did. I didn’t trust anyone else to do it.” In November 2014, Maman founded the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI) to free hostages from ISIS territory.
‘We Will Leave It At That’
In early 2015, Maman was part of a delegation that met with then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. After his speech, Maman approached Harper, praising him as a hero for his strong pro-Israel stance and “all he had done for Jews.” According to Maman, “Harper had tears in his eyes and was very touched.” During their meeting, Maman then reported of his plans to rescue women and children from ISIS territory.
“Harper loved the idea,” said Maman. “The [Canadian] federal government and [former Canadian minister of National Defense] Jason Kenney provided support to the rescue efforts under his leadership. We will leave it at that.”
When the vicar left Baghdad in November 2014, he left behind a security team that was integrated into CYCI’s rescue operations. Through a variety of methods, Maman set about trying to liberate as many of the estimated 10,000 women who were being sold in Iraqi slave markets as he possibly could. When ISIS terrorists were away from their homes, civilians would be hired to extract enslaved women and bring them to safety. In total, 140 women and girls were liberated.
“When you see a girl being rescued, you cry,” says Maman. “I don’t care how tough you are, you cry.”
CYCI’s liberation operations eventually came to a tragic end. In December 2014, Maman’s team orchestrated the rescue of a group of Yazidi girls to find refuge in Kurdish territory. According to Maman, his team was blocked by Khairi Bozani, a controversial figure in charge of Yazidi affairs in the Kurdistan Regional Government. Bozani reportedly did not want them to go through, leading to an argument at the border. Bozani said it was due to a lack of necessary documentation, but Maman blamed it on corruption. After a week of waiting, the girls were barred from crossing.
“I lost 20 girls that day,” said Maman, trying to hold back the sadness in his voice. This marked the end of CYCI’s liberation operations. To this day, no one knows the fate of those girls.
Steve Maman Has Touched 30,000 People
This also marked the beginning of CYCI’s humanitarian missions, which have affected the lives of thousands of Yazidis. CYCI sent essential supplies to at-risk communities. These items included 2,500 winter jackets, 1,500 pairs of winter boots, cooking oil, flour, kerosene heaters, and money envelopes to hundreds of people in refugee camps and cities. CYCI funds were also spent on gifts such as soccer balls, which were distributed on Christmas Eve for the children.
With the help of the Greek government, Maman organized the “Yazidi Exodus Mission” enabling 2,311 Yazidis to go through Greece to find refuge in Germany.
“The Greek government was amazing!” exclaimed Maman. “They helped us every day and brought the refugees everything they needed. God bless them for what they’re doing. In December 2016 when the camp was being shut down and we begged [the Greek government] not to close it, they instead paid for hotel rooms in Thessaloniki to house the Yazidis.”
It is estimated that 30,000 people have been touched by Maman’s operations. Maman was careful not to blame the genocide of Christians and Yazidis on Islam as a whole, making sure to differentiate between ISIS extremists and mainstream Muslims.
‘I am an Orthodox Jew who loves Morocco as much as I love Israel.’
“I don’t see Islam as a negative religion,” says Maman. “Radical Islam is giving that religion a bad name!” Maman noted his efforts were praised on the front page of The Baghdad Times and that he gained an audience with King Mohammed VI of Morocco, where he was honored with High Patronage. During a visit to the University of Rabat, Maman recounts the pride students expressed and the warm welcome he received as beyond any of his expectations.
“I am an Orthodox Jew who loves Morocco as much as I love Israel,” says Maman. In fact, I’m not sure which one I love more, Israel or Morocco!”
Maman has been dubbed by many in the media, his community, and others as “the Jewish Schindler.” Although at first he resisted that title, Maman now wears it with pride.
“He who saves one life, it’s as if they have saved the entire world,” Maman says, quoting the ancient Jewish precept from the Talmud. “You can act now or be a spectator. We as Jews know only too well from the horrors of the Holocaust that we must do everything we can to make sure such a genocide never happens again.”
Bradley Martin is a fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon and deputy editor for the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.