World Orphans/Journey117 sent our first-ever journey team to Iraq earlier this month. The team included individuals from around the Great Lakes, New Jersey, Texas, Florida, and even Canada. Matt Mehaffey, Director of Advocacy, shares his story of the trip, the team, and World Orphans work in Iraq. "You're going where!?!"  I heard those three words a lot as I prepared to lead this first J117 team trip to Iraq. To be perfectly honest, my own brain asked the "You're going where!?!" question more than once. Understandably, all I knew about Iraq was what I had seen through the lens of Western media.

Once the team arrived in Northern Iraq, our minds began expelling our preconceived notions as we witnessed with our own eyes the ways God is using World Orphans in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Since our work began back in 2007, God has continued to open doors in the ancient lands of the Middle East. Billy and Dawn Ray have been serving since then, and despite being among only a handful of followers of Jesus who live in the area, they have become well connected to major decision makers in the nation (all of whom are Muslim).

It was through these connections our team was invited by the Iraqi Director of Education to teach English to over 100 students in Soran. With the help of Kurdish translators, we used games, music, art, and storytelling to teach the students. One of my favorite memories of this trip will always be the way our translators, who are also teachers at the school, became fast friends of ours. The students at the school enjoyed our classes, and every day more kids were showing up. We were so impressed with the enthusiasm and respect the students showed us. We looked forward each day to teaching, and we left the school on our last day with heavy hearts.

Learning English is a huge deal in Iraqi-Kurdistan right now. Since the Kurds have found peace, the Arabic language has been replaced by English as their second language. Today, it is essential for career advancement. One way the Rays are serving the widows and orphans in Soran is by teaching English to the widows who surround the World Orphans community center (appropriately called “The Refuge”). During our trip, the first class of twenty graduated, and the ladies from our team attended. Both the Kurdish and American women were elated by the opportunity. The ladies on our trip especially enjoyed attending in their authentic Kurdish clothing!

I can't say enough about the impact The Refuge is having in Soran. Orphans and vulnerable children from the surrounding homes are drawn to it for its soccer fields and fun activities. Every morning our group went to The Refuge to play soccer, lead crafts, or help with construction on the building. Even with only about 30% complete, the World Orphans community center has already become a part of the lives of many children and widows in the community.

Of the ten people on my J117 team, I wouldn't be surprised to see half return to Iraqi Kurdistan, and even some returning for good. Of course, that is what happens when God opens doors--followers of Jesus walk through them.