Ithaca, N.Y. — An Ithaca man who works at the local rescue mission is planning to join a trip to northern Iraq to help refugees fleeing from ISIS.

Local chaplain Mike Foster, 34, said in an interview that he is currently raising money for the trip, which is being organized by the World Missions Alliance.

Foster and the WMA group of about 10 others hope to go to the Kurdistan region of Iraq in early November to help some of the thousands of refugees whose lives have been upended by the brutal reign of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Red shows the area controlled by ISIS.
Mike Foster. Photo courtesy of  his GoFundMe page.

David Haines, one of many humanitarian workers who have descended on the region, was taken hostage in 2013 and executed by ISIS. The video of Haines’ beheading was released Saturday, CNN reported.

Formerly a part of Al-Qaeda, ISIS is a radical Sunni organization that controls a swath of territory in both Syria and Iraq. President Barack Obama recently announced an extended military campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, which has also captured and executed two American journalists.

Foster and the other WMA volunteers would reach northern Iraq through Turkey and assist some of the thousands of people who have flooded Kurdistan with “no food, no water, and no hope,” Foster said.

CBS reports:

“Throughout northern Iraq and Syria, the scourge of ISIS, the Islamic State, has forced thousands and thousands into a life without homes, jobs and family. While they face an uncertain future, churches are helping fill that void with help and hope.

Many of the churches in Erbil opened their doors, literally, to the many Christian refugees fleeing the advance of ISIS. They said they feel it’s part of the Church’s calling to provide refuge for families like these.

And MSNBC in August:

“Destabilized by a catastrophic civil war across its border in Syria, facing a genocidal threat to minorities at the hands of Sunni militants and divided by sectarian tensions within, Iraq is now home to about 1.6 million refugees and asylum-seekers, according to United Nations estimates. Nearly 1 million of those refugees are internally displaced Iraqis, many fleeing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Foster said the volunteers will be bringing supplies — including food and water — and helping to distribute them among the refugees.

“We’ll be available to talk about spiritual guidance for anyone who wants to talk about that … it’s a Christian organization but it’s in no way forced,” Foster said of the WMA.

The trip costs about $3,000, including $1,600 for expenses while there and $1,400 in travel costs.

“When we return I will share with you how you and I together sowed the seeds of the Gospel in Northern Iraq,” Foster writes in his GoFundMe page, which has raised almost $300 of its $3,000 goal. (The GoFundMe page emphasizes Foster’s religious mission more than the did in his interview with The Voice.)

Foster said the WMA has connections with Turkey that will ensure the volunteers’ safe passage into northern Iraq.

Foster admitted he is worried about his personal safety.

“It’s not a safe place,” he said. “The guy running the trip told me we have one rule: nobody dies, and nobody’s ever died. But it’s an unsafe area.”

Foster, a chaplain at the homeless shelter, said he has felt compelled to help. A recovered alcoholic who spent 15 years of his life “at the bottom of the bottle,” Foster said he has seen such despair and darkness that he needs to try giving others hope.

“I felt it weighing on my heart every day seeing what’s going on,” Foster said. “There’s a very deep need to go to where people have no hope and show them that there is hope.”

Foster said his friends have told him not to go.

He was surprised, however, by the response of his mother, who he expected to tell him to avoid the conflict-torn region.

“She said, ‘If that’s what you think God is calling you to do, that’s what you need to do,’” Foster recalled.

“I’ve got to live my spiritual convictions, or else it’s just empty words.”


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.