Facing danger of ISIS, Pa. organization ministers to Iraqi refugees

Written by Lee Dussinger, Lebanon Daily News | May 18, 2015 1:35 PM
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Photo by Submitted to Lebanon Daily News

Plain Compassion volunteers wrapped these houses in plastic to insulate them during one of their mission trips to Iraq to assist the Yazidi people, who are under threat from ISIS.

(Undated) -- Driven from their homes and forced atop Sinjar Mountain without food or water for two weeks, the Yazidi people of northern Iraq faced what the United Nations described as genocide at the hands of ISIS.

The men were executed, and the women were targeted for sexual slavery supported by a technicality of Sharia. Though airstrike campaigns and advances by Kurdish Peshmerga forces alleviated the immediate danger, the Yazidi people were left as refugees with nothing, living in sparse, concrete dwellings without windows or doors and bereft of basic infrastructure.

The Yazidi refugees of Sinjar are the tragic flashpoint, a world away, toward which central Pennsylvania crisis response and missionary organization Plain Compassion directs its efforts. Plain Compassions functions by sending supplies and teams of young Americans to perform humanitarian aid and spread the gospel.

Although, the Yazidi have been, and will continue to be the major focus, Plain Compassion has reached several other groups of displaced Iraqis as well.

Plain Compassion, named for the Plain people, meaning the religious orders of the Amish and Mennonites, was founded officially in September 2014 by Merle Weaver and Ramon Stoltz.

Weaver is Mennonite, and Stoltz was raised Amish but no longer observes its religious practices. Although Plain people are the majority of their volunteers, it is not exclusively composed of Plain membership, and the gospel expressed by Plain Compassion is nondenominational Christian.

"I began to see that if we could use disaster response as a way to launch the gospel, then we could be really effective," Stoltz said. "When people are hurting they will accept anyone who will help them."

Weaver and Stoltz each have different duties within the organization. Weaver, a successful businessman and father of 10, coordinates funding and support in America to make the trips feasible. Stoltz works internationally, traveling to the sites in Iraq before the teams arrive to coordinate their work, lodging and safety.

Plain Compassion deploys a different team every two weeks. A total of about 20 teams, with more than 120 volunteers, have been sent to Iraq since the group's founding. The teams are mostly Americans in their late teens and early 20s, but the oldest volunteer at this point was 70, and the youngest was 14. Although the organization is located in Pennsylvania, volunteers have come from as far away as Montana.

"A lot of American teenagers are looking for something real. Churches are sheltering teenagers from the world, but that's not something they want," Weaver said on why Plain Compassion has been successful in recruiting from a young demographic. "Most teenagers are idealists. The same thing that is fueling ISIS on the evil side, in a different way, is fueling this on a good side."

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Photo by Submitted to Lebanon Daily News

The Yazidi people were forced from their homes by ISIS. Many men have been killed, and women have faced repeated sexual attacks.

Average teams are composed of a maximum of eight to 10 participants; acceptable team size has shrunk, though, as dedicated members have been staying independently in Iraq. Plain Compassion at certain times has experienced a surplus and resorted to putting volunteers on a wait list.

Weaver provided an account of a young woman who, after volunteering for a two week period, became so inspired that she decided to return indefinitely. Her plan was to learn the language and embed herself in the community to provide to continuing aid and also to preach the gospel. "She called me, and we had a conversation about it. She quit her job and set things in order with her family and then got a one way ticket." Weaver said.

Duties vary between different deployments. Most recently, tasks concerned wrapping bare cement dwellings in insulating plastic and creating a better septic system.

"We are about showing love with our hands. If they ask questions our team members will answer, but we aren't treading on anybody's toes." Stoltz said, acknowledging that Plain Compassion has done far more physical work than religious conversion. "The way we look at Plain Compassion is akin to clearing a piece of land for farming. We clear the land, helping people physically, and that builds inroads into their hearts."

There is also a component of informal psychological counseling involved as the Iraqis for whom they are working are deeply scarred. Stoltz described how Yazidi mothers, trapped on Sinjar Mountain and starving, resorted to cutting themselves to feed blood to their infant children. Some young women, whose husbands had been executed by ISIS, found themselves sexually exploited by the same ISIS executioners.

"These are extremely resilient people. These girls are married and divorced many times a night by ISIS members -- which we would call rape -- but it's supposedly legal in their religion," Stoltz said.

For the most part, Plain Compassion crews are welcome. In fact, they are often desirable guests. Stoltz shared that the Yazidi refugees frequently invite them in for tea and want to spend time with the crew members.

Although volunteers often enjoy a good reception, the dangers facing Plain Compassion and its organizers are numerous, Stoltz reports. Ten million active land mines litter Iraq; ISIS seeks to kidnap and execute Western aid workers; and because of the Christian message, non-ISIS affiliated Muslims, who take offense, could harm them with near impunity.

"They shoot what they don't like over there or throw bombs in the houses they don't appreciate the occupants of," Stoltz said. "We rely on death to self. We are God's. Whether we walk the street of Pennsylvania or Kurdistan, our life is in God's hands. It gives us a really relaxed attitude towards fear."

Although there is danger, they have no intention to cease their work. Both Weaver and Stoltz state that the will of God created and sustains Plain Compassion. They report feeling a significant spiritual calling to go to this region and do this type of missionary work.

"I never imagined that we would start our own organization, but when we did, it was like a door swung opened, and we got sucked through the door. We didn't walk through. It was like we were sucked through by a vacuum on the other side," Stoltz said.

"Ever since the first team went, we've had a constant stream of people. That is an indicator of what the spirit, the wind of God is doing," Weaver said. "To own that as Plain Compassion would border on sacrilege. It is God. We just happen to have a sail up, catching the wind."

Plain Compassion also sent a crew to Nepal in response to last month's deadly earthquake.

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Photo by Submitted to Lebanon Daily News

Yazidi children are now living in refugee camps in northern Iraq. Plain Compassion has sent multiple groups of volunteers -- in groups of about up to 10 -- to the region to help them.

This article comes to us through a partnership between Lebanon Daily News and WITF. 

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