COVID Stories: An Interview with Project Abraham

By: Cheryl

By: Ashley Tulio, Communications Specialist

As a part of our COVID Series blogs, MCIS recently interviewed Debbie Rose, Executive Director of Project Abraham. Project Abraham’s mission is to provide aid and assistance to refugees and immigrants who are in need and who are victims of war, persecution, unfair discrimination, or natural disasters. They does this by operating a sponsorship program to Canada. Once the refugees and immigrants come to Canada, Project Abraham’s mission is to ensure integration by providing settlement services, education, counseling, and other support services for immigrants and refugees in need, including language instruction, employment training, job search programs, translation services, referral services, and informational programs on Canadian culture and life.

We asked Debbie a series of questions about the Project Abraham mandate, history, how Project Abraham operations have changed during the pandemic, and how the community can get involved with the organization.

MCIS: Can you tell us about Project Abraham? How was it established?

PA: Project Abraham is a charitable organization that focuses on the successful integration of Yezidi survivors of genocide and sexual slavery in the GTA area. It was formed in 2016 as a small organization with a handful of people. During my first meeting as a volunteer, there were some volunteers, and half a dozen Yezidis and the volunteers were filling in application forms for private sponsorships. Project Abraham started when Mizra Ismail from the Yezidi Human Rights Organization-International. She approached a small not-for-profit called Mozuud Freedom Foundation and asked them to help sponsor some Yezidi refugees to come to Canada for family reunification. They eventually took the project on and called it Project Abraham.

I got involved in January 2016 and over that year, I quickly managed to get into a lead volunteer role. That year we raised $100,000 to bring over [to Canada] four families. We were raising awareness to raise money and we filled in a lot of application forms for private sponsorships. We were very fortunate because it usually takes about two years or more for your privately sponsored families to arrive in Canada, because it was just the Fall of 2016 when the government had agreed to bring over some Yezidi refugees and they expedited all the applications in the private sponsorship program. We had our four families over within six months of the application. It was like a miracle and it was just a joyful thing. At the same time, the government started bringing over all the Government-Assisted Refugees, which we call GARS. And in 2017 the nature of Project Abraham completely changed because we knew from our own experience that privately-sponsored refugees do a lot better in terms of integration than the GARS, simply because of what the volunteer team does on the ground. So we took it upon ourselves to recruit, train, and send teams of volunteers into all the families that had arrived here. We helped with whatever was needed, whether it was finding housing, helping with English, their finances, or even driving them to medical appointments. And that was our 2017. At the end of that year, we incorporated as a separate entity, and by the end of October 2019, we had our charitable status. It’s been an evolution, and each year has been very different because it depends on the needs of the Yezidis at the time and overall growth in the organization. It has been a very interesting journey.

MCIS: How does this service make a difference in the lives of Yezidis? 

PA: The Yezidis have been identified as the most highly traumatized of all refugees that arrived in Canada. They’ve been through incredible atrocities and their genocide isn’t over 100%. Even though the ISIS caliphate has been defeated, they are still very vulnerable in camps. The Yezidis that are here are tremendously traumatized, not only by what happened to them directly since many of them are survivors of sexual slavery under ISIS. They are not only grieving for those who are lost, but they also do not know if they are going to see their loved ones again, and some never get any definite answers. They are also separated from the other surviving members of their family and I think this is one of the most traumatic of all. Furthermore, many of the Yezidis, if they were getting an education, their education was disrupted in 2014 when ISIS attacked. Many never went to school and they come over here and are not literate even in their language. If you put two people in a beginner’s class and they are both illiterate in English, but one had literacy in their language and the other does not, they are not in the same place. So what was happening with the Yezidis, is that between the traumas which were already interfering with their ability to learn because they could not focus and had a lot of physical problems, etc., they were falling through the cracks and were not progressing with their English language skills. If we do not give them English language skills, they cannot integrate. And if they cannot integrate, then they are on welfare forever. When we recognized they were not doing well with the English language classes, we applied for funding from the Federal Government to create a program called the Yezidi Education Support (YES) program. It was supposed to start in April, however, due to the pandemic, it started in June and it has been going on for the last four months. It’s had tremendous success. So basically we are sending professionally trained ESL teachers to give them personal, individualized and customized language learning in very small groups, and it’s really good.

MCIS: How did COVID-19 change or challenge your service delivery process?

PA: It changed a lot because before that, volunteers would go to the homes of the Yezidis to help them out, and that stopped because of COVID. It became very much a lot of phone calling by staff around the community with interpreters. Also, rather than sending and assigning individual teams to different families, we now have a volunteer settlement committee that allows us to help anyone, as opposed to one family. Everything else is now remote. All of the administrative activities are virtual, using Zoom a lot for board and committee meetings. In terms of the Yezidis, it’s a lot of phone work as opposed to in-person. In regards to bringing over families, we would like to bring more in. The challenges, first of all, are that it takes a lot of funds to bring over a family. For the family that we brought over, we raised $45,000 and also raised money to take care of the Yezidis right here and just to keep the doors of the organization open. The request for family reunification is coming from Yezidis, from families who are still in Iraq, and people who are in Iraq are off-limits to us, according to the current rules from the government for private sponsorship. They are considered internally displaced people, not refugees, and so only the government can bring them over. So we keep hoping that might open up a little bit more so we can help reunite the families that are here with their family members.

MCIS: Are language barriers challenges that you face?

PA: There are many problems. One in particular, is that the Yezidis speak Kurmanji, which is one of the two main [Kurdish] languages. To complicate that even more, they speak in special dialects of Kurmanji. Also, there are not a lot of professionally-trained Kurmanji interpreters and across Canada, certainly here. The number of interpreters who are available to us is very limited. We rely on Yezidis who have been here first, however, they have their own lives going to school and raising families, but also because sometimes you need interpreters for personal purposes like therapy. It has been extremely challenging.

MCIS: What are your current hopes and plans for new projects? Are there any volunteer projects at the moment?

PA: There are a few things we want to do and what I think our highest priority right now is to try and get Chromebooks to our Yezidi community. We were doing outdoor teaching from the beginning of June to the end of September. We had canopy tents, folding chairs, tables, and whiteboards. Everything was outside. Everyone was socially distant with masks and face shields. With the colder weather it is now not possible, so we have reached a crossroads where, you know, people are going to have to go indoors, and with the rising numbers, not everybody’s 100% comfortable with that. We do need to help train the Yezidis technologically so we can start teaching those lessons on Zoom. We were going to bring computers into the equation anyway. I mean, the Yedizi Education Support program, also known as the YES, is a three-year program. They cannot integrate properly into Canadian society if they can’t type, fill out an online form, or navigate the Internet, which is very crucial for our times. This was going to be part of the curriculum, but we have sped it up because we need it now to move forward for safety purposes.

The next thing to move forward in regards to funding is expanding the YES program. Right now there are at most, maybe two classes of two hours a week, and they are finding them so beneficial that they want this to be their English program, as they are learning so much. In terms of our clients at the moment, because eventually the Yezidis will hopefully be integrated, and Project Abraham can maybe do some of the same services we developed with Yezidis with other similar populations, such as communities who are traumatized and illiterate. Right now we only focus on the Yezidis, and they just become our clients if they move into York Region and they go automatically into our system and part of our clientele.

MCIS: How can people get involved or access your services? 

PA: To get involved, they can visit People can donate or contact us to volunteer. We offer volunteer orientations and there are many ways to participate, whether it is being on the volunteering, settlement, social media, or fundraising teams.

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