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Missionary Family in Iraq Reveals Perils of Relief Work—and Hope in the War-Torn Region

Josh Shepherd : Sep 25, 2017  Stream.org

Dalton Thomas and family have seen the rise and fall of ISIS firsthand. In the midst of crisis, they've become friends for life to the Kurds of Iraq.

[Stream.org] Since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or ISIS), more than 10 million people have been displaced. The United Nations calls it "the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time." One family has been right at the center of it. (Photo: Dalton Thomas and his wife have been raising their four sons in Iraqi Kurdistan as they lead relief efforts through Frontier Alliance International/courtesy Dalton family/via Stream.org)

Dalton Thomas, a human rights activist, missionary and filmmaker, knew his team couldn't run from the crisis. As head of Frontier Alliance International, Thomas issued a call for skilled volunteers even as he raised his own support. Then he moved to Iraq with his wife and four young sons.

They've seen a lot over the past three years. Recently, the Kurdistan region in Iraq—where their ministry has established an operations base—has been alive with political speculation. On September 25, the Kurdish people will vote on whether to seek independence from Iraq.

Reached via phone from an undisclosed location in the Middle East, Thomas shares his insights from the front lines... and why people of faith should care about this war-torn region.

What inspired you to launch an outreach effort into northern Iraq?

Two events really impacted me. One dates back to when I was little. My dad, who is geopolitically wired, told me about what Saddam Hussein did to the Kurds. Many thousands were killed when he ordered poison gas dropped on Kurdish cities. For some reason, that stuck with me. So I have this affinity for the Kurds as a people.

Then, decades later, I began missions work in the Middle East. We were in Turkey after the so-called Arab Spring began, and I noticed something. The Kurdish people we met were so warm and kind. Being a persecuted minority group often leads to a victim mentality. The Kurds didn't have that. They reflected a profound lack of entitlement and self-righteousness.

There was a deep patriotism that they were Kurdish, but it was different.

As a relief organization, we started looking at northern Iraq, thinking, Maybe we'll start something there some day. Then Fallujah fell in early 2014, and the Islamic State came on the scene. When Mosul fell, we knew it was time. We needed to mobilize quickly. We carried out a few short-term trips to test the waters. Our medical team built initial relationships to start and see what would work best.

We believe a ministry of presence is really valuable. Sometimes the most important thing is to show up and build friendships.

In a relief capacity, we made the Kurds our number one priority in the Middle East. That's when I felt like it was time for our family to move to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Was it difficult to have your family with you?

No, it has been fantastic—it's a great place to raise boys. I have four boys, and they love it. Raising girls is a challenge because of the culture. Societal and religious issues mean that being a female in that environment is very hard. But if you're a male, it's a boy's world.

Our family really took to it. Part of that is because it really took to our family. We were immediately embraced and welcomed. I feel safer there than I do anywhere else. Even with everything raging, we felt this sense of peace about it. Part of it is that peace comes from being in the will of God. It's also that Iraqi Kurdistan is a unique and amazing place...

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