From her home in Franklin County, Pa., 18-year-old Rosa prepared last month to depart for the city of Sinjar in northern Iraq and remain there indefinitely.
Sinjar is still considered a war zone. Kurds and their allies retook it in November from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Many of its homes need rebuilding before the former residents can return.
Rosa, who asked that her real name not be used due to security concerns, is a volunteer with Plain Compassion Crisis Response. Amish and conservative Mennonites started PCCR in 2014 to respond to needs in Iraq.
This isn’t her first time in Iraq. At 17, she went with PCCR to teach English in a school, making multiple trips between Iraq and Pennsylvania to visit her family. After ISIS was driven out of Sinjar, she went with a PCCR team to do some cleaning and restoration work on houses in the city.
“At first I went because I wanted to see what it was all about,” she said in a telephone interview. “When I went over there, everything just hit me at once — the children, the people and their friendliness. I just fell in love with it. I kept going back for the relationships I had there. It’s better for me there than it is here because the work is more fulfilling.”
PCCR has had volunteers of many ages, but several in Sinjar are teenagers or in their 20s. While the organization’s initial minimum age in war zones was 18, volunteers as young as 16 are now serving. Those as young as 14 have been permitted to visit if accompanied at all times by an older family member.
“We send boys and girls over there who have never been on an airplane,” said field director Ramon Stoltzfus of Franklin County, Pa.
Short-term volunteers go for three weeks to work on homes in Sinjar.
“We’re focusing on getting people moved into their homes,” Stoltzfus said. “We’re trying to make something better for them than the conditions they have. They’re living in refugee camps, and the conditions are bad — not livable, actually.”
While volunteers work, they are not far from artillery fire and even chemical mortar shells.
“One of our team leaders . . . got a little too close to where the gas flows and got a little sick, but he’s OK,” Stoltzfus said. “When they hear the explosion, that’s a good thing, because they know it didn’t get ’em.”
One of the group’s worst fears is that their female volunteers could be captured by ISIS fighters.
“I’m sure they know we’re there and we have girls,” Stoltzfus said. “That’s a challenge, to live with that.”
Rosa said she wants to start a center for women returning from ISIS captivity.
“They’ve been abused, and they have a lot of trauma,” she said.
She’s not afraid for herself.
“I believe that if God wants me to be over there, he’ll protect me,” she said. “Sometimes you go and you hear the bombs in the distance, and yeah, you do get a little afraid, but God’s strength is stronger, and I’ve realized there are things here in the States that I’m more afraid of than over there. It just seems like God’s strength is bigger over there.”
Stoltzfus said more than half of the short-term volunteers want to extend their stay or return.
“We joke that there’s this bug that bites people like a disease that makes them want to stay there,” he said. “There’s something about the devastation that grips people.”
‘Paramilitary’ for peace
PCCR administrative director Merle Weaver of Ephrata, Pa., said he had long had a desire to “go into the unreached world somewhere” but felt God telling him to wait.
In 2006, the story of the Amish school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pa., was broadcast around the world. Some friends of Weaver’s had connections with authorities in Iraq, who were impressed by the forgiveness shown by the families of the children who were killed.
“They said, ‘Do you know any Amish who can come over here and teach us about forgiveness?’ ” Weaver said.
While some visiting happened, there was little interest in a long-term mission partnership until 2014, when ISIS made global headlines with its terrorism.
“I was actually very disappointed, because I thought, ‘If no one goes on a nice sunny day, who’s going to go when ISIS is there?’ ” Weaver said. “I was wrong.”
The plight of the Yazidi people — a religious minority group — under siege in the Sinjar Mountains in August 2014 inspired Weaver and others to form PCCR.
“We really have a vision to respond very quickly, like rapid response to international disasters,” he said. “Fast action and going to zones that have been beyond the reach of traditional Mennonite volunteer efforts — front-line-type things.”
Weaver said he didn’t want to minimize the work done by other aid organizations, but the fastest way to respond was to start a new one. He described PCCR as “like a paramilitary” but with peaceful goals.
Volunteers streamed in. Weaver said he stopped counting after 100.
“I feel like our young people, especially our young men, are looking for something to give their lives to,” he said. “Young people want something to live and die for. That’s one reason the Anabaptist movement exploded in the 1500s — because it was something to live and die for. And I believe that’s happening again, in a way, in the Middle East, and the Lord is using ISIS to do it.”
A burden for souls
While the volunteers can’t completely rebuild the destroyed homes, work like cleaning and replacing doors and windows gives the residents something better than a refugee camp to come home to.
“When we first went to the refugee camp, they couldn’t figure out why we came,” Weaver said. “Yazidi have a complex that nobody in the world loves them or cares about them.”
But now, relationships have been formed.
“What was love was coming to their funerals,” he said. “After we went to their funerals, they said, ‘Now we know that you love us. We now have friends in the world; we know someone cares about us.’ ”
Work continues in Iraq, with some volunteers in a refugee camp and others working on home repairs.
While most of the volunteers have been from Amish and conservative Mennonite backgrounds, people from other Christian traditions have participated as well.
“The only requirement [for volunteers] is to be born-again believers,” Stoltzfus said. “I don’t think anybody would be able to do [this work] without having a burden for souls. It’s very harsh over there; it isn’t a vacation.”