In the far northeastern region of Iraq, surrounded by towering mountains in a remote corner of the world long threatened by violence, stands a place of refuge.
There, Billy, BA '95, and Dawn, BSEd '98, Ray, along with their partners and colleagues, have set up camps for displaced families in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
The Rays felt the call to Iraq several years ago, and neither the threat of war nor the trepidation of raising a family in a community where few Westerners had been could keep them away. More than 600 Iraqi refugees chased from their homes by the Islamic State group are thankful that the Rays heeded that call.
The Rays have followed their call to the front lines of the mission field for more than 13 years in the Middle East, spending six years in Turkey before the move to Iraq. Along the way, their three sons--Peter, Andrew and Jonathan--were born in Turkey and immersed in a lifestyle far different from their American counterparts. Though the area is one of the world's most volatile regions, the Rays feel a sense of peace and strong commitment to their calling there.
"The safest place in the world," Dawn says, "is the center of God’s will."
It was the mission field that brought Billy and Dawn together. Though they attended Baylor and the same church, Billy and Dawn met when both were in Turkey on different mission trips. They were married one year later and joined in a life of service together. When they felt the call to Iraq, they connected with World Orphans, an organization that mobilizes churches to care for orphans. Billy was named Middle East director for the organization, and the Rays began holistically serving not only orphans, but many different people in their community.
Two years after moving to Iraq, the Rays settled in the mountains in the town of Soran, 75 miles from the frontlines of the Iraqi people battling the Islamic State group.
Soran is sheltered in a rugged canyon, physically and geopolitically isolated from the frontlines of the fighting and blessed with advanced warning should violence move its direction. Those attributes make it a perfect place for refugees from the surrounding areas. The Rays see God's hand in placing them there and preparing them for a moment when hundreds would need a refuge.
"The mayor became one of my best friends," Billy says. "We became close, and the mayor, first occasionally and now pretty constantly, would call and tell us of a need, and ask if we could help any in any way. And there have been a lot of needs. God really brought us that favor with him. After we got there, the mayor told us the city really needed vocational training for widows in a neighborhood and asked if we could help. From there, that grew into us building a community center."
The community center vision became the prophetically named Refuge, an 8,000-square-foot building offering vocational training, language classes, an event hall and outdoor playgrounds and soccer fields.
"We developed relationships in the community over time," Billy says, "and when ISIS hit, it was just natural for us to go in and ask how we could help."
First, it was 20 families, fleeing to Soran mere hours before most of their homes and hometowns were destroyed. The mayor told Billy the families needed shelter. Providentially, Billy had Refuge to offer. That was September 2014. Refuge now provides for more than 600 refugees--and counting--in five separate camps. As before with the community center, the Rays and World Orphans had no experience organizing and coordinating camps; however, they are meeting head-on the challenge they see God has entrusted to them.
The Rays hope the refugees will someday be able to return to their homes, but in northeast Iraq, as elsewhere, there are no guarantees. The Rays will continue their efforts to meet needs--shelter, job opportunities and community. They want those in the camps to feel like they have a home and to provide a sense of self-sufficiency for the day they return home or move elsewhere. Though the future is uncertain, the Rays feel the certainty that comes from heeding the Lord's call.
"We're in this 110 percent," Dawn says. "Our biggest prayer everyday is, 'Lord, let us be an extension of you in this place.' We're in a spiritually dark place with great needs, but we can be that light."
Billy says, "We won't scoot our tails and run if something bad happens because these are our friends here. The Lord led us here. Jesus said, 'My sheep hear my voice,' and I believe that with my whole heart and soul. We've put our lives on the line because of that. This story in Iraq is His story, not mine. There's more to this story yet to come. He's living through us, and it is the most riveting adventure you could imagine."