From his office at The Prancing Horse — a high-end car and motorcycle dealership in Montreal — Steve Maman is scrolling through picture after picture of Yazidi women and girls he’s helped liberate. They were held as slaves in northern Iraq by fighters with the Islamic State group.
“You relive the emotions,” Maman explains as he looks through his files of dozens of women and children. “It’s anger. Right now I’m getting angry. That’s all it is. It builds anger. You get angry.”
In August 2014, IS militants raided villages in the Sinjar District of northern Iraq. It’s an area occupied by many Yazidis – a religious minority practicing an ancient religion, pre-dating Islam.
IS considers the Yazidis heretics, and set out to purge the villages of men, and to kidnap thousands of women and children to sell as sexual and domestic slaves.
Not long after the invasion of Sinjar, an IS video surfaced, showing a group of men laughing and joking about buying and selling Yazidi girls.
“Can you prove to her you’re a man?” one of the men asks another.
Maman, a car dealer specializing in luxury vintage automobiles, saw the news coverage of the massacres across Sinjar, and says he felt he had to take action. He calls his mission not a “choice” but “divine providence.” He says he’s inspired by his religious beliefs, and also by Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who rescued 1,200 Jews during the holocaust.
WATCH ABOVE: Montreal car dealer explains how searching for a rare car in Iraq, led to saving Yazidi women and girls from slavery by the Islamic State
“I see what’s happening to these people on the news. They kill them. OK, they kill them. What can you do?” he says. “But, if you stop for a moment and imagine that ISIS was in Montreal, and we were hostage, you would be praying the most beautiful prayers that a human being could send to God that somebody come and rescue you.”
In November 2014, Maman began working to set up his organization CYCI, the Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq. Months later, he began to raise money online. To date, Maman’s organization has raised more than $800,000 and Maman says they’ve rescued more than 140 women and children. Maman says the money raised goes to funding an elite security team working on the ground in Iraq.
“A lot of them were specializing in hostage negotiations, had credentials that were incredible,” he says.
PHOTO GALLERY: CYCI claims it has rescued more than a hundred women and girls from slavery in Islamic State group-held territory. CYCI rescue teams document every “liberation” by filming and photographing them and taking victim fingerprints and written testimonies. CYCI founder, Steve Maman says he’s documenting the rescues so that one day, in the event the one day, perpetrators of the slavery and abuse might be brought to justice.
The team gets as close to areas controlled by IS as possible to meet operatives working inside. Those operatives negotiate with people who are holding Yazidi women and girls. Maman says the negotiators have the blessing of Iraqi ayotollahs and imams, who still hold a lot of influence over many civilians living in IS-controlled territory. The girls are freed and brought to meet the CYCI rescue team. Every “liberation”, as Maman likes to call them, is filmed and documented. Women and children are interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed. Maman keeps all documentation in his filing cabinet.
Maman, reading aloud, shares some of the stories of the women he’s rescued.
“They married by force and raped me after that. I feared that there is no life and I try to kill myself but … I was not able to complete the killing of myself. Every day I was crying because I don’t have another way.”
Maman has faced criticism and skepticism in his mission, some asking whether he is funding terrorists to get the women back and others whether he is actually rescuing woman and girls at all. The documentation is not just to prove himself to his detractors, Maman is also building a record of war crimes.
READ MORE: Who are the Yazidi?
“We’re doing it in order to keep this information for later on in life when Iraq is going to become a secure country again,” he says. “Those people that actually committed these crimes could face the court of law. We have their names. We know who they are. We have the location of where they lived in some cases. And those documents will be important one day because they’ll be testimonies of what they did.”
Today, there are refugee camps in northern Iraq that are overflowing with Yazidi families. In recent days, IS fighters retreated from Sinjar when Kurdish and U.S. forces pushed them out. As some former residents return to the area occupied by IS for more than a year, they’re finding mass graves and only beginning to take stock of the destruction. The United Nations is investigating what happened in Sinjar as a genocide.
Maman says keeping track of the devastation to the Yazidi people is a lesson taken from history and the holocaust where Jews in Nazi death camps waited six years to be saved. He says he doesn’t want to see the same thing happen to the Yazidi women and children.
“These girls have been there for a year. A day is too much. It’s been a year.”
With files from Allison Vuchnich
“The Jewish Schindler” airs Saturday, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. on 16×9