Despite mounting questions about his credibility and criticism that he may be supporting terrorism, a Canadian businessman says he is more determined than ever to continue his controversial quest to buy the freedom of Yazidi and Christian women and girls enslaved by the brutal terrorist group, Islamic State.
In a September 1 interview with the Forward, Steve Maman likened his situation to that of a schoolboy assailed by bullies.
“You would sometimes see a younger boy get up and start swinging out of adrenaline,” Maman said in accented English during a telephone interview from Montreal. “This has actually gotten me so more motivated to actually get up and redouble our efforts.”
Maman’s voice was hoarse from the strain of the previous few days. “I can’t take any more calls,” he said. “I need a few days of rest.”
Just a few weeks previously, when a slew of media outlets drew attention to Maman’s work to free women and girls held by Islamic State, Maman was hailed as a hero and dubbed the “Jewish Schindler.”
In just eight months, Maman’s charity, The Liberation of Christian & Yazidi Children of Iraq, which goes by the acronym CYCI, has raised more than $500,000 and claims to have bought the freedom of more than 120 women and girls.
But critics soon questioned the ethics and legality of paying money that may well end up in the hands of Islamic State, a group designated as terrorist by the United States.
Meanwhile, Yazidi leaders and supporters in Iraq and the United States demanded proof that Maman has rescued as many women and girls as he claims.
In a letter published by Vice News on August 26, they called on people to stop donating to Maman’s group until he could “provide thorough, documented evidence” of his rescues “to members of the Yazidi Supreme Religious Council and the key Yazidi representatives in the Kurdish or Iraqi parliaments.”
Yazidi leaders stated that they had tried several times to seek such evidence privately, but Maman “dismissed our inquiries and refused to provide any information.” They said that if Maman did not comply, they would ask Canadian authorities to investigate CYCI.
In response, a lawyer acting on Maman’s behalf sent a cease and desist letter to the critics, threatening to sue them for $5 million if they did not stop their campaign.
Maman issued a statement on Facebook saying that CYCI has “nothing to hide.” He did not reply directly to the Yazidi demands, but he did offer to provide documentary evidence to governments of countries including Canada and Iraq as well as to nongovernmental organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Maman wrote that all “CYCI liberations are documented, including fingerprints and detailed statements from the victims.”
Previously Maman has published images of some liberated women and girls. They include videos purporting to show former slaves being reunited with family members.
Geller told the Forward in an email that she completely trusts Maman’s group.
“I know from my own work rescuing girls in danger of honor killing that the nature of the work makes it counterproductive to release all the specific details: It could endanger the girls being rescued,” Geller wrote. “The Yazidis have raised questions. They have not produced evidence of any wrongdoing.”
Although Yazidi leaders did not ask Maman to release further images publicly, Maman stated on his Facebook page that he would not publish any more images because he did not want to re-traumatize women, many of whom are victims of rape.
Maman also compared the storm of online criticism to those who flocked to the Colosseum in Rome to witness executions, accusing his critics of “killing with words, with hate, with deeply rooted anti-Semitism.”
Maman’s Facebook posts, in French and in English, elicited hundreds of comments of support, many from Montreal’s Moroccan Jewish community, to which Maman belongs.
A typical commenter, Claude Bellaiche, wrote in French that Maman is “absolutely right” to refuse to reveal further images. “It’s unacceptable that the society we live in asks for images,” Bellaiche wrote. “What you are doing is entirely to your credit.”
Maman told the Forward that the scale and intensity of support have surprised and galvanized him and his CYCI colleagues. It “made us realize we have more supporters than we thought, more love out there than we thought, and at this moment the team is more determined than ever to go out and make a difference,” he said.
Maman is a well-known real estate developer and luxury vintage car dealer from the tight-knit Moroccan Jewish community in Montreal.
According to an interview he gave to The Jerusalem Post in July, Maman said he stumbled across the plight of Yazidi women and girls during a trip to Iraq two years ago when he was trying to track down luxury cars that belonged to the executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In Iraq, Maman met an Anglican priest, the Rev. Canon Andrew White.
But White’s organization, The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, released a statement on September 1, saying that the group “does not collaborate with CYCI either financially or in terms of practical assistance.”
CYCI states that it frees girls using a network of brokers and fixers who negotiate the release of slaves in areas of northern Iraq controlled by Islamic State.
Maman told Fox News that his group’s money does not fund Islamic State directly.
He said the money “refunds” slave owners for the price they paid for women and girls, which is usually, according to Maman, between $50 and $300.
Citing Oskar Schindler’s rescue of Jews during World War II, Maman said, “The Talmud says one who saves a life saves the world, and I am going to act by this phrase.”
Montreal’s Sephardic community is centered in Cote-Saint-Luc, a suburban municipality so heavily Jewish that its nickname is “Cote-Saint-Jew.”
Traditionally, the area was known for being liberal and Ashkenazi. But the community has become increasingly conservative and Sephardic following an influx of Jews, mainly from Morocco, over the past 20 years.
Leaders of Maman’s former school, L’École Maïmonide, declined to comment about Maman, as did several congregants of the synagogue he attends, Congregation Sépharade Or HaHayim. Roger Dahan, the synagogue’s executive director, said, “What he does, he does it on a private level that has nothing to do with our synagogue.”
Additional reporting by Sigal Samuel.