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Aftermath of genocide in Iraq:  Sikh mission of mercy

Tim Uppal talks to a young genocide survivor. Uppal asked the girl what she most wanted. She replied that she wanted her father and brothers back. They were abducted by ISIS and are still missing. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi.


"Love and be loved."--Rod Stewart, 2015.

In a world polarized along political and religious lines, slogans and stereotypes often obscure the truth and sometimes even promote falsehoods.

For example, some partisans would have ordinary folks believe that conservatives are heartless and don’t care about what goes on in the rest of the world.

While it may be true that some conservatives are unfeeling isolationists, there is no question that many conservatively minded individuals are deeply compassionate and believe in humanitarian activism and international engagement.

Humanitarian is an apt description of Tim Uppal, a compassionate conservative who believes in helping the vulnerable wherever they may be. So it’s not surprising that the Canadian-born Sikh travelled to Iraq this summer to provide humanitarian assistance to the survivors of the genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

Taking time away from family and work, Uppal made the long trip from Edmonton, Alberta to northern Iraq to help those who have suffered unimaginable losses and continue to endure terrible living conditions.

In the summer of 2014, ISIS swept across northern Iraq, capturing vast swathes of territory. And the jihadist army established a so-called caliphate based on a genocidal ideology that justified the eradication of religious and ethnic minorities.

The Islamic State systematically carried out campaigns of ethnic cleansing, mass murder, abductions of women and children, and sexual violence. The jihadists also deliberately destroyed cultural artefacts and churches, and looted and sold ancient works of art on the black market.

The Islamic State was finally defeated in 2017, driven from its strongholds in Iraq. However, ISIS fighters remain active in Iraq, adopting terrorist tactics, including suicide bomb attacks on civilian targets. Clearly, the security situation in Iraq is far from stable.

It was against this backdrop that Uppal travelled to the region previously controlled by ISIS. From July 17 to 24th, he worked as a volunteer with the faith-based humanitarian organization Khalsa Aid, which operates out of Great Britain. His humanitarian mission took him to the Kurdish controlled population centre of Erbil as well as to camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in northern Iraq.

Tim Uppal delivers humanitarian assistance to an informal IDP camp. The genocide survivors live in makeshift tents fashioned out of tarps. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi.

Uppal is a former Canadian Member of Parliament and served as the minister of state for multiculturalism in the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He was narrowly defeated in the 2015 federal election. In June of 2018, he re-entered federal politics, winning the Conservative Party of Canada nomination for the riding of Edmonton Millwoods.

Khalsa Aid, a Sikh nongovernmental organization (NGO), was founded by Ravi (Ravinder) Singh. “I had been following him for a number of years,” Uppal said in a telephone interview from Edmonton, Alberta. "It was amazing to see that someone was doing this,” he said of Singh's humanitarian work in Iraq and elsewhere.

When he was a Member of Parliament, Uppal spoke with Singh on the telephone “just to learn more about what he’s doing.” Eventually Uppal and Singh met in person in Ottawa, and Uppal offered “to help in any way.”

Eventually, recalled Uppal, he got a call from the NGO offering him the chance to go to Iraq to help with humanitarian relief efforts there. Uppal jumped at the chance. “And I am very pleased I did that,” he said.

Islamic State committed genocide

Northern Iraq is home to many ancient Christian groups—Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and others-- who are indigenous to the region. In 2014, when Islamic State forces swept across the north, Christian cities, towns, and villages were ethnically cleansed and homes were destroyed. And many Christians were killed and others were abducted.

The jihadists were also intent on wiping out the Yezidi, another distinct ethnic/religious group. In fact, the Yezidi were subjected to especially furious genocidal attacks, mass executions, and sexual slavery.

During his time in northern Iraq, Uppal met with survivors of the genocide and listened to their horrifying stories.

“I must say that it was an eye-opening experience,” he said of meeting and listening to the survivors. “Heartbreaking in so many ways; it was unbelievable.”

Uppal visited with the survivors in informal IDP camps. He explained that Khalsa Aid is helping many IDPs who were not able to find space in the main camps. These people are living rough in makeshift communities or even rougher in unfinished buildings.

“That’s where we met them, in their homes,” Uppal said of the survivors’ humble dwellings.

Tim Uppal (left) speaks with a humanitarian worker (right) as a young girl (middle) listens. The girl recently returned from ISIS captivity. Her only living family member is her father. "She cut her hair really short to look like a boy while in captivity," Uppal said. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi. ​

According to Uppal, the survivors of the genocide have endured “unimaginable situations.” And he said it was “very difficult” for him to hear women and girls tell their stories of sexual violence inflicted upon them by the Islamic State.

Despite the horrors of the genocide and sexual violence, Uppal said that it was inspiring to listen to women and girls talk of their desire to start businesses or begin a new life. “The spirit to do so, after what they have gone through, is just amazing,” he stated. “It’s inspiring. And it really shows how resilient they are.”

Survivors’ stories

“When you talk to older women, you will hear how they were jailed or held captive,” Uppal said of his listening sessions with the survivors. “And they were more concerned about what happened to their families. The men were killed off, the young boys-they are hoping they are still alive, but they still don’t know...and their daughters are being sold and used as sexual slaves.”

Tim Uppal (left) listens to Gawre (right), a genocide survivor. Uppal described her as "an extremely strong woman who was captured by ISIS." The woman managed to escape ISIS, but "her immediate and extended family is still missing," Uppal said. Gawre shows Uppal pictures of her family. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi.

Uppal also heard mothers talk about their daughters being raped and/or killed right in front of them. “It is difficult to hear,” he said again, his voice trailing off.

“You sit down with a younger woman, who was a sexual slave herself. And I didn’t pry for many details. I just listened through the interpreter.”

He said that many of the women talked about how they escaped from their ISIS captors, often in the dead of night. “Either they escaped,” he said, “or they were bought back by their families.”

Uppal explained that there are online groups that sell the female captives, posting pictures of and asking prices for the slaves. “I talked to a smuggler who helps people get their families back and get their daughters back,” he said. The families raise the funds to buy the daughters back. “I talked to a mother who is doing that,” Uppal added.

“The smuggler will take the money and pretend to be a purchaser and actually pretty much risk his own life to purchase this girl back for the family,” he explained.

“That’s happening right now,” Uppal continued. And he noted that there was a Kurdish government programme to help provide funds to buy back women. “But obviously there is more that needs to be done, and there are still women that are there (in captivity).”

Boys are also being held captive by ISIS. “I met a young boy whose family helped to buy his way out,” Uppal recalled. “He was a general labourer, and he was just used by ISIS to deliver food and deliver supplies and stuff.”

In addition, Uppal spoke to women who were held captive and impregnated by their captors, giving birth in captivity. But he said these children are not accepted by their mothers’ communities once they get away from ISIS. And he said that some mothers have to make the decision to either stay with their children in ISIS captivity, or leave their children behind and escape.

Uppal said that he met women “who left their children” behind with ISIS. And he also talked to families who said that their daughters won’t leave ISIS, because they refuse to leave their children behind. “It’ unimaginable,” he said. “I don’t even know how some of them are coping. And you can tell that there are some serious psychological issues that need to be addressed.”

The Canadian politician said that he spoke to other nongovernmental organizations that are providing assistance to the survivors of the genocide. And those NGOs told him that they are not equipped to adequately deal with the psychological trauma suffered by the IDPs.

Although ISIS has been defeated, the terrorist organization is still active in Iraq. Are the IDPs fearful for their personal security? “They are, depending where you are,” Uppal replied. “In the Kurdistan controlled region, they are probably not fearful for their security on a day-to-day basis. But because of what they’ve gone through, they’re always afraid that something could happen.”

Tim Uppal (centre) visits with genocide survivors living in an informal IDP community in northern Iraq. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi. ​

For example, Uppal said that while he was in the northern city of Mosul, an Iman (an Islamic cleric) “said that it is halal to kill the Yezidis and the Christians. So that’s still happening. There is still vocal support for killing them and to re-ignite this genocide,” he warned.

“So if we’re not vigilant now, if you’re not listening now and paying attention now, I think something like that can happen again,” Uppal said of the genocide.

Winning trust

Despite his good intentions, Uppal had work hard to win the trust of the genocide survivors

Uppal is a Canadian-born observant Sikh who wears a turban and full beard. And most of the IDPs in northern Iraq have probably never met a Sikh before. Did they assume he was Muslim? Were they fearful of him? “I think it was a bit of both ways,” he replied to the politically incorrect but obvious question.

“Most people had no idea who a Sikh was,” Uppal asserted. “Many of them, I guess, because of social media and TV, kind of associated (Sikhs) with India. But otherwise they didn’t know” about Sikhs.

“I think there was some hesitation,” Uppal acknowledged. So he tried to break the ice in conversation by smiling and being as friendly as possible “just so they are comfortable,” he said.

Tim Uppal hands out candy to children in an informal IDP camp in northern Iraq. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi. ​

In addition, Uppal said that it was helpful to have a Kurdish-speaking local representative at his side when he visited with the IDPs in their homes. “They knew there was no concern there, that a friendly person was coming to talk to them,” he said of putting the IDPs at ease.

Naturally, the genocide survivors wanted to know about Uppal. “And so we would have that conversation,” he said, recalling long talks with senior citizens, explaining the history of the Sikh people. “And they said that Sikhs are a lot like Yezidis, a religious minority. So some people knew a little about it.”

Sikh humanitarianism

There was a great deal of media coverage of Sikh extremism at the time of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s controversial visit to India earlier this year. And some of the coverage may have left some Canadians with a negative view of Sikhs.

What message does Uppal want to convey to Canadians about the Sikh community? “Organizations like Khalsa Aid are out supporting people all around the world, because of the core Sikh belief to help others, that we see everybody equally,” he answered. “It’s good for other people to know,” he said of the Sikh belief in humanitarianism.

"I wasn't sure how I would be treated as a turbaned Skih in Iraq, but I was pleased to find everyone I met to be very nice," Tim Uppal said. "Many people wanted to take pictures." Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi. ​

“I think international work is important,” Uppal said. Helping your own country is also important, he added.

Circling back to the importance of performing international assistance, Uppal said that many of the people that Khalsa Aid is helping do not receive assistance from any other organization. “And these are women with disabled children, and there is nowhere else for them to get diapers for the children, or supplies for the kids or milk for the kids, because it’s just not available or it’s too expensive.”

Longer term aid

If the survivors of the genocide are to have any sort of normal life, what needs to happen in the months and years ahead in terms of assistance? “What I heard from them is that they just want to go home,” replied Uppal. “And they want security.”

“And of course, those who are lucky enough to be chosen to come to either Canada or U.K. or other countries that are welcoming them, that’s great, that’s fine. But it really is a drop in the bucket. These are people who need help, that are not in their own homes. People being able to go back home, the security to go back, and have enough security to ensure that they can rebuild, that their economies come back together.”

Did the parents and children Uppal met talk about the challenges they face regarding education? “The main camps have set up schools,” said Uppal. “There is some schooling. The infrastructure is not there, but at least they’re getting some education," he noted.

“The ones who are not in the main camps are trying to get schooling in one way or another,” Uppal added, noting that some IDPs are accepted into local schools. “But it’s very much a patchwork system.”

However, he said that much more support for education is needed in order for IDP children to get a quality education.

According to Uppal, Khalsa Aid is not funded by the Canadian government. “Khalsa Aid gets support directly from individuals, but they do not get any government from either Canada or the U.K.,” he said.

He pointed out that the Canadian government usually funds well known humanitarian organizations. But the Khalsa Aid volunteer contends that smaller organizations tend to be “much more flexible.”

For example, he recalled meeting an IDP family and asking them what their biggest need was, to which they replied a water tank for clean drinking water. “Because we had taken U.S. cash with us, we were able to purchase and deliver a water tank to them the next day,” Uppal said.

“And we were able to do that with other products and medical needs,” he added. For instance, Uppal accompanied an IDP woman to the hospital for medical treatment, which the Sikh charity paid for.

Shopping trip

Khalsa Aid also takes women who have recently returned from ISIS captivity on shopping trips to buy clothes. And Uppal accompanied them on one occasion. The women were allowed to pick out their own clothes, “because when they were with ISIS, obviously, they wore what they (ISIS) gave you, which was just black dresses.”

The shopping trip was “really about dignity,” Uppal explained. “That was really something to be a part of, to be able to see that.”

Some of the women still chose to wear dark colours as part of their mourning process, he said. But others deliberately chose clothes with colour.

"Women who recently returned from ISIS captivity are provided an opportunity to go shopping by Khalsa Aid," said Tim Uppal. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid northern Iraq coordinator Sozan Fahmi.

“For me, it was really an eye opening experience,” said Uppal of his humanitarian mission to northern Iraq. “And it was very difficult to hear their stories, but absolutely inspiring,” he added.

Does Uppal have a message for Canadians about the situation facing the survivors of genocide in Iraq? “I think the main message is that the work there is not done yet,” he replied. “There is general security…but I was there in Erbil the day ISIS attacked a government building. So there are still possibilities of attacks.

In addition, Uppal pointed out that “there are still people calling for death the religious minorities. So it’s not done yet. The possibility of (ISIS) resurgence is there.”

Khalsa Aid is trying to help IDPs move beyond just surviving to actually earning a living on their own. For example, the Sikh charity has purchased sewing machines for IDP women, so that they can make and sell garments. “That’s the next level,” said Uppal.

"The next step in helping these women is to support them in their business endeavours," Tim Uppal said of the women who have survived the genocide perpetrated by ISIS. Pictured is a survivor sitting at a sewing machine purchased by Khalsa Aid. Photo credit: Khalsa Aid.

But Uppal said that the IDPs have a long way to go before they become self-reliant. And he appealed to Canada and the rest of the word to help them. “This is a cause that is very important,” he said.

“A lot of times, these issues of human rights, what’s happening around the world, become political issues,” Uppal added. "But we need to focus on the people."

Uppal said that after meeting the families, “you can’t help but to feel for the people themselves, and say okay, there’s more that we can do.”

However, he said that some of the genocide survivors “are not getting any help at all.”

Compassionate conservative

Does Uppal have a message for Canadians who think conservatives are not compassionate? “They’d be wrong,” he said, chuckling. And he pointed out that Conservative Member of Parliament Michelle Rempel has been speaking out on behalf of the persecuted and victims of genocide in Iraq. “When we were in government, we did as well,” he said of the Harper government’s support for persecuted religious minorities.

Tim Uppal (centre) meets with a family supported by Khalsa Aid at a camp near Mosul. "The boys have a debiliaiting disease that cannot be properly diagnosed or treated in Iraq," Uppal said. "There is no other medical help for them in the camps or Iraq."

“Conservatives, of course we’re compassionate," said Uppal. "Of course, we have taken steps all around the world to support people. I would have to say if anybody is saying that, they’re absolutely wrong.”


Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist who specializes in international relations, human rights, religious freedom, and humanitarian affairs. He has a Master’s Degree in political studies from Queen’s University. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston

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