Missionary Family in Iraq Reveals Perils of Relief Work — and Hope in War-Torn Region
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.
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.
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.
How did you serve and work with the Kurdish people during that initial season?
In 2014, we started very experimental and open-handed. We went in not as experts or even knowing what we should be doing. In the West, whether it’s Christian missions or secular NGOs, there’s a temptation. It’s to move into a place with a very clear vision and be “productive” right away. A lot of times, that is not viable.
We believe a ministry of presence is really valuable. Sometimes the most important thing is to show up and build friendships. Now showing up isn’t renting a hotel room and having your little life. It’s also not cheap “evangelism friendship.” It’s coming to serve a community.
The first film that we made about the Kurds is called Better Friends than Mountains. The title comes from a Kurdish proverb, which says, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” It was an instrumental word for me as we got started. If the mountains are the only friends they have, then let’s just start with friendship. It became the basis for our work.
Real friendship reflects actually valuing these people, their families and their future. From that place of valuing them, and being legitimate friends with them, we could hear the word of the Lord as to what we’re supposed to do.
At that time, the big need was relief. The first time we went, it was very cold and rainy. This was not the Iraq you see in the news; they faced a frigid winter. We began to provide provisional relief: food, water and blankets. Then we started providing medical aid, which became a larger emphasis later.
Why is filmmaking a big part of your work?
I believe God is a storyteller. He takes seriously all the elements of story, from sight to sound to color to music to emotion to intellect. Film really pulls in all these things.
You can read a book — and I believe in books, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something lost when you read a book. You don’t hear the author’s inflection. You can’t hear what he feels. You’re only reading what he has typed out. With film, you can connect with a person’s soul.
Film is also an expedient thing because it’s hard to explain to people what we do in the places we do it. Christian ministry in a conflict zone can be difficult to grasp. They ask: Wait, you’re in the Middle East? How far from ISIS? Instead of trying to explain it, I can just show them.
Our films bring people into our work, whether they give or are called to join us. I used to tell people, You can do front line ministry in Iraq and bear tons of fruit. Many in the U.S. would be like, I’d have no idea what to do! That would be stupid, foolish and dangerous. I’d probably die within the first 24 hours. Now I can hand them a film and say, “No, it’s possible. You can do it. This is what it looks like.”
So there are practical reasons why film is important. Having the ability to show frontier missions on-screen is powerful.
Your team has this passion for loving and serving the Kurdish people. Is it linked to their role in the region?
When I think about the Kurds, it’s not a political issue. It starts for me with God. Simply put, He called us there. In moving there, something happened in us and we love them like family.
It’s connected to the mysterious leadership of Jesus. When God calls you to a people, He burdens you for those people. He gives us His love for them. So on one level, I can’t explain it.
We also know the geopolitical influence of the Kurds. Right now across the Middle East, we see the divided house of Islam butchering each other. This last number of years was the Sunni awakening. Furious Sunni groups led the charge. Now, with the suppression and eradication of ISIS, there’s a shift happening.
This next era in front of us is really the rise of the Shiites. Iran and Iraq now have Shia-dominated governments. The Assad regime in Syria has been linked to Hezbollah. This so-called corridor from Tehran to Beirut is very real. Today, if a terrorist wanted to pass a package from Iran’s capital to the Mediterranean, he could do it. Just hand it off.
Because of that, it raises a few questions. Are there any opposition groups in the middle who aren’t crazy? Is there anyone who’s bringing any kind of checks and balances? Anyone who’s bringing healthy tension to this overwhelming majority power? The answer is the Kurds.
What the Kurds want is to live in peace. They’re not a people who dominate through conquest.
The Kurds are almost completely responsible for holding the ISIS blitzkrieg at bay. In the same way that the Kurds turned back the Sunni aggression of the last several years, they are positioned right in the middle of this Shia aggression. They are poised to face it head-on again.
It’s why I think the Kurdistan referendum on September 25 is a big deal. Without question, the next decade is very much going to be the decade of the Shia. What the Kurds want is to live in peace. They’re not a people who dominate through conquest.
Yes, they’re overwhelmingly Muslim — at least in northern Iraq. But the Kurds are not driven by Islamic ideology. A leader of the Islamic movement in Kurdistan recently said, “I’m a Kurd before I’m a Muslim.” To them, extremism is a cancer. They want to eradicate it because they’ve lived under the heel of extremism for so long.
One of my closest friends and comrades — like another father to me — he recently turned 43 years old. He told me, In my 43 years, I have known only two years where we are not at war with some extremist group.
Only two years! That’s a good window into the Kurdish psyche. Perhaps people fall in love with the Kurds so easily because they’re not a fanatical people. They hate extremism, by and large. The Kurds are simply level-headed, normal human beings.
Watch the complete film “Better Friends Than Mountains, Part One”:
As a 501(c)3 faith-based nonprofit group, Frontier Alliance International provides provisional aid and medical services in northern Iraq and across the Middle East. All donations go directly to fund relief work and are tax-deductible. Watch for part two of The Stream’s interview coming soon.