Montreal businessman Steve Maman has been dubbed the “Jewish Schindler” for his efforts to rescue women and girls from sexual slavery in Iraq.
But now Maman is defending himself against questions about his motives, click methods and results being raised by politicians, activists and religious leaders from the very minority group he says he has been pouring his time and energy into saving.
In an open letter last week, the signatories questioned a claim they called “dubious” that Maman’s group, The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq, had rescued 102 women and girls (a number that has since risen to 128) with just $80,000. They also questioned whether the money paid for the hostage release was going back into Islamic State coffers. They are calling for Maman to offer proof of his tactics and the identities of those who have been saved before they will approve his work.
“We ask the friends of the Yazidi people all over the world who passionately support our vulnerable community to stop donating to Mr. Maman until his work is verified,” reads the letter, dated Aug. 26. “If his project is legitimate, safe, and ethical, we will also support him.”
Maman claims he has the backing of the Iraqi and Kurdish governments and credits his success to powerful and influential contacts in Iraq who have assisted his team of front-line workers.
He refutes critics’ allegations and says he is preparing to publicly defend his claims: “I know what I have in my hands. I can take the hit for another month, two months or three months in the media and let people say I’m a fraud and all that. But three months from now we’re going to go out in public and show everything we’ve done.”
Maman’s defence against the criticisms have become more strident in the last few days. He says he initially chalked it up to a misunderstanding that occurs as information is translated from French to English to Arabic to Kurmanji, a collection of Kurdish dialects.
A few days later, he sent a cease-and-desist letter to one of the signatories, University of Chicago Yazidi specialist Matthew Barber, who is a member of Yazda, a group that raises awareness about the Yazidi plight. The letter warned the signatories to end their criticisms or face a $5-million defamation suit.
Barber said there was immediate interest — and suspicion — of Maman’s claims, when they emerged in the media, of having saved more than 100 people from slavery.
“Of the people connected to me, nobody could find any person to verify Steve Maman’s claims and none of the Yazidi leaders that our team contacted could verify any of his claims,” he said in an interview.
Now Maman says his group will gladly open its books to legitimate government authorities or reputations like the Red Cross that may want to verify claims about the numbers or the fate of the thousands of women and girls who were taken into captivity by Islamic State fighters last year.
One thing he refuses to do is start publishing photographs or personal details of victims in order to justify or legitimize his efforts.
But Maman is hoping to put the critics to rest with the airing sometime this week of a report by an Israeli news crew who spent part of last week with his people working in northern Iraq.
“She’s got footage of my team, she’s got footage of the people that came out, she’s got footage of two little girls we just liberated,” he said. “She told me the people in the villages have (my) photo. People know who I am.”
By The Toronto Star