A group of Yazidi spiritual and political leaders, activists, and aid workers are demanding an inquiry into the work of a Montreal man who claims to have rescued 128 Yazidi and Christian women and children enslaved by Islamic State militants.
Steve Maman has attracted international attention for his Canadian non-profit group, The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), which on its website claims to have "single handedly helped save over 120 Yazidi and Christian women and children from ISIS [Islamic State, or IS] controlled territories in Iraq" through a network of volunteers. Headlines affectionately dubbed the Moroccan-born Jew and luxury car and crystal dealer the "Jewish Schindler."
As of Tuesday, a GoFundMe page he set up in early July had swelled to more than $580,000 from donors around the world.
But now, concerned members of the Yazidi community in Iraq and the United States — including their top spiritual leader Baba Sheikh — have issued a written statement calling on Maman to cease taking donations until he proves that he's doing the work he says he's doing.
The letter, entitled Public Inquiry: Yazidis Call Upon Mr. Steve Maman to Validate his Claims of Rescue with Evidence, has received 20 signatures and was released exclusively to VICE News. It outlines their concerns, ranging from disbelief at the number of women Maman claims to have saved to his alleged bartering with IS to pay for their freedom.
"Several weeks ago, when his website claimed to have raised $80,000, the number of rescued 'women and children' listed on the website was 102. The high number of rescues for such a low monetary figure seemed a dubious claim," says the letter, signed by prominent figures such as Baba Sheikh and Vian Dakhil, the only woman Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament.
"CYCI/Liberation Iraq project has brought a high level of visibility to a delicate and sensitive rescue effort that should have been kept low-profile. We are concerned that this may be reckless," the letter adds.
It calls on Maman's team to provide "evidence regarding their alleged rescue activities, including the contact information of the families/individuals he claims to have rescued, to the appropriate authorities: members of the Yazidi Supreme Religious Council and the key Yazidi representatives in the Kurdish or Iraqi Parliaments."
When VICE News raised the group's concerns about Maman's work with him, he spoke of rampant corruption in Kurdistan and accused naysayers of having ulterior motives and trying to drive him out for their own gain.
"There's a beautiful saying: don't believe what you hear, believe half of what you see," he said. "This should apply specifically in the case of Kurdistan…what's happening on the ground there is a level of corruption beyond what people can imagine to the point where they're ready to push out a group called CYCI that's bringing money to Iraq, for the purpose of them getting rich off liberations. It's mind boggling."
He added: "We are doing this with a pure heart to help people."
His GoFundMe page disappeared on Tuesday after a women's rights group, the RINJ (Rape is no Joke) Foundation, says it filed a complaint to GoFundMe against Maman's operations, which it perceives as funding IS and fueling the sex trade. RINJ Foundation provided VICE News with a copy of a cease and desist letter from a law firm that said it was representing Maman. The letter demands the group stop posting its accusations against CYCI on its Facebook page.
CYCI is still accepting donations through Paypal.
The letter from the Yazidi group also raises concerns about the possibility that the money raised by Maman might indirectly end up in the hands of IS fighters.
"Steve Maman has implied or revealed in his interviews and in a video that he posted online that he has direct negotiations with IS. We are concerned that he might be engaging in an enterprise that has the net effect of providing funding to jihadists, without any oversight," the letter said.
The Yazidis are a religious minority in Iraq with an estimated population of 700,000. They espouse a complex religious worldview that combines facets of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam. To members of the Islamic State, though, Yazidis are unworthy and unclean "devil worshippers." Last August, the Islamic State officially introduced its campaign to enslave Yazidi women and girls. An estimated 5,270 Yazidis were abducted in 2014, and more than 3,100 are believed to still be held captive.
Khidher Domle, a Yazidi human rights activist who maintains a database of Yazidis kidnapped by IS militants, told VICE News in a phone interview this week that he has scoured thousands of names on their list for any indication of Maman's involvement. VICE News has not seen this list.
"We have a list for everyone. Who's been liberated, what time, date, from where, the last area where they were, who the first person was to make contact with them, how they got out, how much was paid. We have all those documents," Domle said. "None mention his group or those who work for him."
He added: "We want to see donations go to the right places to really help people be liberated … And we're in the midst of a big tragedy and then someone comes to work to make himself as the hero when he's not."
On Sunday, a meeting about Maman's work took place in Kurdistan at the behest of the director general of Yazidi Affairs in the Kurdistan Ministry of Religious Affairs, Khairi Bozani.
"But [to be clear], I am not part of what they do," Bozani told VICE News in an interview through a translator. "I just asked them to come to give information about their job."
Bozani said a man who works with Maman, named Dawood, attended, along with a well-known Yazidi rescuer name Abu Shujaa.
"I asked Dawood about [Maman's work] and Dawood said 'we saved over 100 people.' But when I asked for names, he just gave me 15 names and when I asked about the others, he did not give any names. I know that Steve is claiming they saved 128 people, but that's in the media and we don't know whether that's true or not," Bozani said.
Maman, on the other hand, argued that his group "actually were able to prove at that meeting, with pictures, fingerprints and documents that the people that we have liberated were documented like no other liberators on the ground … The only one that is able to show credibility so far is me."
Maman said Dawood brought only 15 names because that is all they felt comfortable disclosing. "We didn't want to divulge anything else other than that. The reason behind it is simple: we knew that if we showed the other 113 names that are missing, these people were going to go running to them to…pay, to take photo-ops and take away those liberations from us."
Maman showed VICE News images of Dawood with the rescued girls and children, followed by photos of the Iraqi man with the Maman family. These, he says, prove that his organization is legitimate.
But when asked to provide proof of the 128 rescued people, Maman showed around 20 photos of the men, women, and children. A handful of these were members of Dawood's family, according to Maman, who showed VICE News an email he'd received, containing photocopies of the relatives' official documents and passports.
Maman explained that he trusts only one member of the Yazidi community. "It's the representative of the Yazidi prince in the world. He's in Baghdad at the head office of the prince. You know there was a king, a Yazidi king, did you know that?" he asked.
Maman said in a second phone call on Tuesday that he would be conducting a rescue mission in the Kurdistan region on Wednesday and that two journalists would be present to witness it. "There's going to be one very prominent United States journalist … somebody on the ground representing Glenn Beck … his name is Matt …" said Maman, who couldn't recall Matt's last name. "He's already met with our team and all that, and he's going on a liberation, he's going to videotape."
"We're basically going to have a lot of people there, so we're going to end the rumors on the ground and we're going to show people how we do it compared to others," he added.
The Reverend Canon Andrew White, who is affiliated with Maman's group, brushed off any concerns that the group isn't above board. In a phone interview with VICE News on Tuesday, he said the group has "evidence of everybody."
"I couldn't care less what they say. They're not on the ground doing it. Of course people will say this. They say this all the time. And I'm not going to argue. Now people are being killed doing it. We're not in here just to mess around with journalists," he said before hanging up the phone.
According to CYCI's website, the girls and women are "sent to Canon Andrew White's IDP (internally displaced person) camp in Kurdistan" after they are liberated.
However, Rasheed Rasheed, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Duhok told VICE News in an email that "all the IDP camps in Kurdistan region of Iraq are run by the authorities." Rasheed added that the UNHCR was not aware of any camps run by "Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad or Canon White."
Matthew Barber, a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago who researches the Yazidi community in Iraq and works with Yazda, a Yazidi rights advocacy group, told VICE News he became suspicious of Maman's group when he'd heard they were claiming to rescue Christian women.
"Any researcher who has followed events since last summer knows that the IS enslavement project was a campaign targeting the Yazidi community, and not the Christian community," he said. "If CYCI/Liberation Iraq claims to be rescuing enslaved Iraqi Christian women, who are they, where are they, and from where were they rescued?"
When asked about the rescue of Christian women, Maman said that "I never used the word enslaved. I said that they were held hostage and were sex slaves … We were told that 15 percent is the amount of people that were Christians out of all the people that we took out."
Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of Iraqi Parliament, has been working with rescue missions and cares for survivors for the last year — and has been at the top of IS' kill list for doing so.
Dakhil told VICE News last week that she started having concerns about the way Maman and his group were operating last July after discussions with him and other members of the Yazidi community.
"I haven't met with any girls who have told me she has escaped because this man has helped," Dakhil said. "I sent him an email and told him not to use my name in his propaganda. He then accused me of not caring about my people."
Maman provided a July 15 email from Dakhil to him in which she says she's "grateful" for his interest in supporting the plight of the Yazidi women. But Dakhil said she has since declined to support his work.
"And I do not agree to use my name to promote for such a delicate subject to raise funds," she wrote in a July 24 email to Maman. "I'm sorry but, I can not have a hand in this."
VICE News also spoke to Abu Shujaa, a Yazidi man who runs an underground network to free Yazidis captured by IS. He was featured in the July PBS Frontline documentary Escaping ISIS.
Shujaa represents one of only a small number of people involved in rescuing the Yazidis from IS captivity in Iraq and Syria.
In an interview through a translator last week, Shujaa described an instance in which he says people working for Maman tried to take credit for the rescue of a family he says his network arranged in early August. According to Shujaa, a man working for Maman's group contacted Shujaa and offered to provide support for the Yazidis he rescued after they were brought to safety. Shujaa says he took the offer up two weeks ago after his team rescued "a woman and some children" and told Maman's team where the family was located so they could provide humanitarian aid.
"I gave them their phone number and how to get there, and they went. But the problem is that then they gave the women and they gave the children some documents to show that they rescued them," Shujaa said.
Maman rebutted that Shujaa has done the same to him. "We actually caught Abu Shujaa and other liberators coming into our liberation people, taking photo-ops with them and posting them on websites where they claimed to have rescued them," Maman said. "Those people were our liberations, not theirs."
VICE News has not been able to independently verify Shujaa's and Maman's accounts of these events.
Indeed, in a part of the world that is overcome with conflict, it's difficult to ascertain what is happening on the ground — and what interests are at stake. Even those involved in the delicate rescue efforts acknowledge more accountability is needed in the midst of contradictory narratives.
Murad Ismael, one of the letter's signatories and co-founder of Yazda, told VICE News in an interview he would like to see more oversight and transparency of the rescue operations.
"We need organization and good people doing this in the midst of chaos," said Ismael. "It's our responsibility to make sure our women are respected after the horrible things they've been through."
Brigitte Noël contributed to this report.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne