Less than a year after arriving in Calgary, Shahla Murad and Hasan Kheder are not only prepared for another Canadian winter but are also filled with excited anticipation — for one very special reason. “Our baby is due in January,” says the 21-year-old Murad with a shy smile. “It’s a boy.”
On Dec. 14, 2017, the young couple came to the city with nothing more than hope, that life would give them a second chance to enjoy the simplest things we all too often take for granted: a feeling of safety and security. “They have helped us so much,” says Murad of the staff and volunteers from Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS), one of the country’s largest refugee agencies. “Everything we needed, they made sure we had.”
Murad and Kheder, 23, are Kurdish-speaking Yazidis from northern Iraq, followers of a religion that blends elements of many faiths, including Christianity and Sufism, an esoteric strain of Islam. Yazidis — a faith one must be born into — have been persecuted for generations in their home country, despite a reputation for being a peaceful people. There are less than one million Yazidis in the world today, most of them in northern Iraq. In August of 2014, followers of the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked their main town of Sinjar, at the foot of Sinjar mountain. While tens of thousands escaped by fleeing onto the mountain, thousands were killed or captured, while many of the women and girls were sold into slavery, in markets in Iraq and Syria.
In recent years, Canada has welcomed almost 1,200 Yazidis, mostly women and children. Rather than dispersing them throughout the country, however, those genocide survivors were sent to Calgary, Toronto, London, Ont., and Winnipeg to be part of special refugee programs. The reason for this, says CCIS executive director Fariborz Birjandian, is because they are a unique refugee population. “Their trauma is still so new,” he explains, “and we had to find a different way of helping them.”
The Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (ccisab.ca) is one of 12 recipients of the 2018 Calgary Herald Christmas Fund, now marking its 28th year. The brainchild of Herald newsroom employees in 1991, the fund has raised nearly $27 million for local social agencies addressing critical needs in the community. Each year, a volunteer committee selects worthy charities from more than 100 applications, featuring their stories in the Herald and providing readers with an opportunity to help out.