Soran, Iraq is tucked into the Zagros Mountains of Northern Iraq, where springtime is brilliantly green and winters are harsh and thick with snow. The terrain is majestic and fierce.
When the Ray family moved to the Iraqi Kurdistan region, they didn’t know what God had in mind for them, but they heard the call to go, and listened. After building relationships in the area, the family was approached in 2009 by Mayor Krmamji Dargali, who asked the Rays to establish a community center that would minister to widows in the region through education and job skills training, enabling them to continue supporting their children.
The community center was affectionately and prophetically named: “The Refuge Community Center”. Oh, the beautiful things God had in store. Billy and Dawn Ray, along with their three boys, in partnership with Tim and Sarah Buxton and their three children, began to establish roots in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Then, in 2014, everything began to change.
ISIS wreaked havoc across Iraq, targeting religious and ethnic minorities in what has now been justly declared a genocidal campaign. As a result, millions of desperate Iraqi families were suddenly on the move, seeking refuge. As a peaceful safe haven in the midst of violence, many turned to the region of Northern Iraq. Thus, in a matter of days, the community center was repurposed to not only serve widows and orphans of the region, but to create space for Yazidi and Shabak families fleeing ISIS.
In August 2015, The Refuge Initiative was officially established.
The efforts of the Buxtons and Rays have been tremendously blessed and multiplied, as the Refuge Initiative now includes five self-governed micro-camps that wholistically care for the needs of approximately 700 people through the provision of adequate housing with running water and indoor plumbing, trauma counseling, access to food, and education. For the children in this region, education is vital.
"With guns, you can kill terrorists. With education, you can kill terrorism." -Malala Yousafzai
In a country where political and economic stability will continue to remain a distant dream, the children grow further behind in their education with every passing day they miss school. For many of these youth, the long-awaited day of returning home will not change their educational circumstances, as the Iraqi government will not allow children to miss such large quantities of time in the classroom. These youth run the risk of never receiving a formal education again, yet at TRI, the children have a much more hopeful story.
English, math, music, and art classes have been held in the community center, but the space is proving to be too small for the more than 100 children currently receiving an education. In an effort to remain focused on wholistically caring for refugee and IDP families, ground has been broken for a school.
This school, an answer to many prayers, will be 16,000 square feet and two stories high. A gym will be located on the ground floor, with nine classrooms upstairs. The facility will make both the teaching and the learning process far more accessible to the educators and students, as space will no longer be a daily issue.
By focusing on education for these families, we remind them that they weren’t always refugees, and they won’t always be refugees. We remind them that they have a hope and a future, and the circumstances they currently face will not determine the rest of their lives. Children that would be at risk of forced child labor or human trafficking within the confines of a large, bustling macro-camp are instead receiving some dose of normalcy in their lives as they go to to school each day to learn, to dream, and to grow.
"For we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." – Ephesians 2:10
As they continue to follow God’s leading, the Rays and Buxtons come face-to-face with the good that God planned for their families so long ago, the good that they could never have planned for themselves, and the good which has provided refuge for so many families. In the soil of devastation and brokenness, goodness and hope are blossoming.
We’re excited about the work God is doing through TRI in Northern Iraq. As we educate the future leaders of Iraq, establish Christ’s deep hope in the hearts of refugees, and continue to celebrate God’s providence in the midst of devastation, we want to invite you to join us. We’re seeking 538 additional sponsors for TRI and would love for you to be a part of this.