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Aid workers Jessica and Jeremy Courtney on the fallout from Trump’s Syria moves

Syrians who were displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria wait to receive tents and aid supplies at the Bardarash refugee camp north of Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

(RNS) — Jessica and Jeremy Courtney co-founded Preemptive Love Coalition in 2007, after moving to Iraq at the height of the war. The organization began by providing medical care and surgeries for children and training for local medical staff. When the Islamic State group launched its 2014 Iraq offensive, the Courtneys faced the difficult decision of returning to the U.S. or staying in Iraq. They chose to stay and the organization expanded to provide emergency aid in Iraq and Syria.

Preemptive Love now serves in Iraq, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Iran, Libya, Korea, Mexico and the U.S., providing services from emergency aid to agricultural development and small-business building. Though they’ve expanded to serve globally, the Courtneys themselves still live in Iraq and many of the people they personally work with and serve are refugees from northeastern Syria.

The events of the last week, as Turkey has begun bombing cities in northeastern Syria after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops earlier this month, has directly impacted many of the families Preemptive Love has been working with for years.

Religion News Service spoke with the Courtneys on Friday (Oct. 18) as they were en route to speak at a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while traveling in the U.S. for the release of Jeremy’s recent book, “Love Anyway.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I know things are changing fast, but can you describe the situation on the ground in northeastern Syria as you are hearing about it from your team and the families you’ve been working with there?

Jessica: The families who are fleeing right now are families we’ve been working with throughout the duration of the war in Syria. It’s not something that just started last week.

We first started our jobs program in a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq, filled mainly with families from the northeastern area of Syria. So a lot of these families have become really dear friends. They are the people who knit and crochet the items we sell in our shop. Some of our longest, most sustainable businesses have been started (by these families). And the money from those businesses has flowed back into northeastern Syria to help sustain families they left behind.

Smoke and dust billow from targets in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, caused by bombardment by Turkish forces, on Oct. 15, 2019, seen from southeastern Turkey. Turkish artillery pounded suspected Syrian Kurdish positions near the town in northeast Syria amid reports that Kurdish fighters had retaken the town as Turkey pressed ahead with a military incursion that has drawn widespread condemnation. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Now these cities in northeastern Syria are being bombed. It’s directly, again impacting (them) — our friends, that we’ve been working with for so long. They’re calling us and saying, “Is there anything you can do to help? Because I can’t get ahold of my brother. I can’t get ahold of my parents. I can’t get ahold of my nieces and nephews. They had to flee in the bombing and now we have no idea where they are.”

Some of our business owners had actually moved back and taken their businesses with them — like packed up their fabric and their sewing machine and gone back home to these Kurdish areas and now we don’t have contact with them.

They were refugees, they did what the world wanted them to do. They went back home, they tried to rebuild and then we just opened the gates for more terror to come back again into their lives after they were trying to rebuild.


RELATED: Christian aid groups vow to stay to help after US sudden withdrawal from Syria


What is Preemptive Love doing right now for those who are fleeing?

Jessica: We’re having to go back to the beginning, where it’s just distributing food and blankets and medical care to people as they’re fleeing. It’s not happening in a way where you can just set up a refugee camp and wait for people to come to you. People are hiding in schools, abandoned properties, abandoned warehouses. So, we’re meeting them on the road to make sure they have the bare minimum supplies they need to be able to keep moving. We’re keeping the truck full of supplies and tents and every day going wherever the people are fleeing, setting up our tents, doing medical care in that place, and then tearing them down and going to the next place.

Why do you think the Christian backlash has been so strong against Trump on this decision — even among some of his staunchest evangelical supporters?

Jeremy: Perhaps the most predominant concern is the idea that Christians in the region are our first and foremost priority and the Kurds were our boots on the ground partners, around which many Republicans organized, for the express purpose of protecting ourselves and Christians in the region from ISIS.

Jeremy Courtney. Photo courtesy of Preemptive Love

And wrapped up in that, I think, there’s also an anti-Arab dynamic at play.

When we lionize the Kurds and praise the Kurds, one of the reasons we do that is because America still has a fundamentally anti-Arab bias. That’s why we say things like the Kurds are “moderate Muslims” or whatever. It’s a way of saying not-quite Persian, not-quite Arab. They are our kind of people, which is an unhelpful reading. 

There’s a very small Christian contingent left in this swath of land that’s at issue right now. Should we care about such a small minority? Yes, we should absolutely care about them.

But we should do so appropriate to the context. The majority of people who have been killed and will be killed are all Muslims. And we should care about them as such — not merely as a fence (for) the Christians. They are people whose lives matter.

You are in the States right now. What are you advocating for while you are here?

Jessica: I think we have a responsibility now. When we open the door for destruction, we have a responsibility to come back in and rebuild. What we as a country allowed to happen — when all we had to do was say “no” — created this massive humanitarian crisis that we’re in and now we have to find a way to provide safety for those people.

Jessica Courtney. Photo courtesy of Preemptive Love

If you ask the Kurds what they want and what they fought the last seven years for, it was to have their own protected territory — a place on earth that is theirs.

And we took that.

We swept the rug out from under them with a “yes” that allowed another country to go to war with them.

If Turkey gets their way and to take all of that land — literally just “This is ours now, you go somewhere else” — we have to figure out what that somewhere else is for those people. It’s not just something our government needs to make happen, it’s something we have a responsibility as individuals to do.

Jeremy: Our votes caused this as the United States. Whether you voted for or against, at the end of the day we’re all one nation, and so our American votes 100% gave the Kurds over — surrendered the Kurdish civilian population over to carnage, to destruction — and we need to take a collective American responsibility for what we’ve done. I’ll just say very tactically, we are providing food for those who are on the run for their lives. We are providing medical care and we need as much institutional and individual support as we can get. All of it is urgently needed.

Jessica: Well, we can’t stop there is what I’m trying to say. Yes, they need food right now, but over the next 12 to 18 months, they need houses and schools. They need to be able to rebuild their businesses.

These are people who had their lives figured out. They weren’t living in poverty. They had homes and cars and businesses and it was literally taken from them just (last) week. How do we take the responsibility for that to help them get back on their feet?

Syrian women who were displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria line up to receive aid and food supplies at the Bardarash refugee camp north of Mosul, Iraq, on Oct. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

You are on your way to speak at a church. What is your message to Christians?

Jessica: What I would want to see churches do is make a decision to stand with the marginalized regardless of what the political parties are saying they’re going to do. And so when they choose to vote, how can they vote in a way that’s going to lead to reconciliation and the marginalized being treated as human beings and not as just collateral damage.

And politically what are you hoping for and advocating for right now in terms of the immediate situation?

Jeremy: We have been left with no good options. I don’t want the Turkish economy destroyed — to see Turkish civilians punished for strongman arrogance.

We gave up the one point of leverage we had in the region, which was our boots on the ground. So, I don’t know. There are no good policy options now. It’s too late. We need creative lawmakers to still do whatever they can, but you cannot put this toothpaste back in the tube. And that’s even a horrible metaphor. It’s lives. We cannot get back the lives we’ve lost.

About the author

Roxanne Stone

Roxanne Stone is the managing editor for Religion News Service. She has worked for more than 15 years in publishing with a focus on the intersection of faith and culture. She formerly served as editor in chief for Barna Group, editorial director for RELEVANT Media Group, as well as at Christianity Today and Group Publishing. Roxanne lives in New York City.

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