Having love for others had long been an important aspect in the lives of Jeremy and Jessica Courtney. But shortly after 9/11, it became real—it became their daily mission in life.
Jeremy and Jessica got married just a few short months prior to the day that forever changed the world, and when it happened, everything shifted. “Before that, I don’t remember ever hearing about Muslims or Islam,” Jessica explains. “But after that, I feel it’s all we heard. It seemed that people were saying we had to go get our enemy. But we were Christians and felt our mandate was to love our enemies, not hate them—and we didn’t even know who our enemies were.”
Armed with compassionate hearts and a desire to learn more, Jeremy and Jessica set out to learn who their “enemies” were, taking some friends up on the offer to travel to the Middle East. Instead of hatred and violence, a move to Turkey in 2004 revealed a friendly community. “We saw lovely, welcoming Muslim people who were so different than what we were hearing about them,” Jessica says. “With that, we felt like we had a decision to make...”
“WE COULD BE PART OF HATING OUR ENEMIES, OR WE COULD CHOOSE TO LOVE OUR ENEMIES. WE CHOSE TO LOVE.”
Not only did they choose to love, but they also decided to make another serious move—to Iraq—in 2007. “It opened our eyes to the needs of the country, to how we could be a part of the solution to conflict rather than perpetuating it,” Jessica adds.
They would soon be presented with an urgent way to positively help people in their newfound home. About six months after their move to Iraq, while sitting in a café, they were introduced to a little girl in serious need of heart surgery. Her uncle begged Jeremy and Jessica to help her get access to the care she needed—something he believed they could do as Americans, having greater access to money and doctors.
“We weren’t surgeons,” Jessica says. “But he was so compelling. He told us that if we tried and succeeded, we would change their lives forever. But if we failed, they would be in the same place they were right then. He just wanted us to try. That belief in us and that simple invitation to not worry about failing really opened the door for what we’re doing now.”
From that chance meeting in the random café came Preemptive Love, a nonprofit organization they established in 2008 that has grown into a global movement of peacemakers committed to unmaking violence by confronting fear with acts of love. Its mission: Despite any fear, to love anyway. It started off by helping children get life-saving heart surgeries, raising money to fly them to other countries for their much-needed procedures.
After a few years, Jeremy and Jessica realized that not only was that extremely expensive, but that it was doing nothing to help the health care system within Iraq. That’s when the approach shifted: They began partnering with foreign doctors and nurses who were willing to come to Iraq and train doctors and nurses there to create cardiac centers. “We had some centers doing really well, and we were continuing to bring in doctors and nurses,” Jessica says. “But then 2014 came, and ISIS bubbled up out of Mosul.”
The organization’s leaders were once again faced with a decision when they were approached about helping Iraq in a different way: to help those who fled Mosul. “We knew we were about acts of preemptive love, and the kind of preemptive love people needed then was in the provision of basic necessities such as clothing, shelter, and food,” Jessica explains.
After the rise of ISIS in 2014, Preemptive Love began showing up on the front lines of hard hit areas such as Haditha, Fallujah, and Mosul to provide food, water, medical care, and necessities for displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees. While meeting with these refugees, the organization began to discover more ways to help them rebuild their lives. “After a couple of months of providing those basic needs, they started asking us if we could help them start new jobs because they couldn’t go home,” Jessica says. “So we started a job creation program, which allowed us to partner with them to help them figure out what businesses they would like to create and start them. So often, people just need someone to come alongside them to do things like this.”
Preemptive Love has helped more than 300 new refugee-owned businesses get started, allowing for them to provide for their families’ basic needs. More than 90 percent of those companies are still in business today. A highlight of those numbers is the female-owned businesses, which were started as part of the launch of the Sisterhood Collective, which Jessica spearheaded. The Sisterhood Collective recognizes that there are many women with incredible skills and talents to produce items, but they don’t have access to any markets that could appreciate those skills and purchase the products.
“For the last five years in Iraq, and continuing in Syria, the economy has been really low because of the war,” Jessica explains. “Any extra money people have goes toward rebuilding. No one has extra money to buy those sorts of things. We saw a way to give women access to other markets that could purchase their items, which also gave many of our donors an opportunity to specifically help these women and have tangible items that would link them back to the women.”
Ninety percent of the female-owned businesses are still in operation today, giving women an opportunity to make money to take care of their children, send them to school, and pay for food they never thought they could buy. “It has been incredible to stand with women in their homes and hear them say they have no skills they can offer and then six months later see them running businesses that make money every day,” Jessica says.
Also started by the organization was the Agriculture Project, which enabled approximately 250 families to return to their farmland in rural Aleppo and start a farming cooperative that equips them with the items needed to sell crops again. Another program the organization started to help provide job training skills to refugees is the WorkWell Refugee Tech Hub. Half the population of Syria and Iraq are teenagers and young adults, and this segment of the population has lost years of education because of the ongoing crisis. WorkWell operates in four Iraq cities—Mosul, Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniah—and provides opportunities for young people to learn high-demand skills needed to establish careers. All sorts of topics are taught, from basic English to IT skills, and even coding and job training skills. In 2018 alone, more than 900 students graduated, no longer being looked at as just refugees but as entrepreneurs and career-driven individuals.
“The biggest privilege of my life is to witness people coming back to themselves and accomplishing things they didn’t think were possible,” Jessica says. “Each and every one of these programs is allowing deserving refugees to do that.”
Preemptive Love is still working to provide basic necessities and urgent care all over Iraq and in Syria, including medical help, relief shelters, meals, food packs, water, wells, hygiene kits, and clothing. And with nearly nine million people still displaced in Iraq and Syria—and some estimate up to 13 million people are still in need of humanitarian assistance—that aid won’t end anytime soon.
The organization is also doing all it can to eradicate the need for these programs by trying to get to the root of the problem. “The first thing we have to do to see the end of conflict is to stop the flow of violence,” Jessica says. “We do that by bringing people out of poverty created by conflict and help them rebuild their cities and re-establish their lives so they aren’t vulnerable for the next conflict that might come. But with that we must bring together different people with different ideas to listen to one another and champion each other in order to diffuse the conflict and unmake the violence.”
Preemptive Love has been championing that mission in Iraq and Syria for years, but now it’s working to bring that idea to the rest of the world with the Frontline program. Announced in late 2017, Frontline gives monthly donors the opportunity to help by giving more than money—by also gathering together on the frontline at home. “The frontlines are our jobs, our communities, and our neighborhoods,” said Toni Collier, Frontline Director for the USA. “We have drug wars, political wars, and emotional wars happening in our backyard. We want to create monthly gatherings with people who are different from one another and show that if we can love anyway, we can stop fear…”
“AND IF WE CAN HEAL FEAR, WE CAN END WARS.”
The program will be hosting a special event in November called the Frontline Feast, which will include people inviting others from all walks of life into their homes, all over the world, at the same time. “From there we want people to continue gathering together every month, and we will be challenging them all to get on board with loving anyway,” Toni says. “Get around the table with people who don’t look like you, who you may fear or misunderstand, and have a conversation. It can change your life. We believe this can change the very fabric of our world if we just take charge and say this is how we want to do life.”
And as Jeremy and Jessica learned in that little Iraqi café all those years ago, a willingness to try something new—simply being willing to reach out in the moment and try to love someone who truly needs it—can get you so much further than you ever thought possible, and change everything. “It’s our goal to build a diverse community of peacemakers who will actually reduce conflict around the world,” Jessica says. “We believe that if people can know people different from them, appreciate them for their differences, and work together for a common goal, conflict will be reduced. We want to equip people to be a force of peace so that we can unmake violence and hopefully see the day when this work won’t be needed.”