The Hopeful Business of Peacemaking
Reformer Jessica Courtney of Preemptive Love Coalition reflects on the challenges of COVID-19, the hope she sees growing within war-torn communities and the power of innovation to create peace.
Written by Joanna Schaus
Photos by Charlene Winfred and Erin Wilson
Bio: Jessica Courtney founded Preemptive Love in 2007 with her husband Jeremy. Today she oversees a team of nearly one hundred men and women working to end war around the world as Preemptive Love’s Chief Program Officer. Jessica’s passion for fairness and justice has always propelled her toward the vulnerable, forgotten people of the world—and it’s what led her to move her family to Iraq in the middle of a war. From the earliest days, when Preemptive Love gave lifesaving care to children with birth defects, Jessica stood with families through every step—serving as translator, advocate, and guide. As Preemptive Love expanded its work to end war, Jessica continued leading the way forward. In 2016, she launched Preemptive Love’s Sisterhood Collective, helping refugees become business owners and bringing their handmade soap, candles, and more to the global market. The next year, she launched a tech company inside Preemptive Love, which revolutionizes the ways refugees work. Today, people who have lost everything to war are able to stand on their own and provide sustainable income for their families. Jessica has an ability to see beyond the way things are. To see possibility where others see only devastation. To see promise and potential where others see only obstacles and fear. She has leveraged this ability to affect transformation in the lives of thousands in war-torn communities.Today, Jessica lives in Iraq with her husband and two children.
Photo by Charlene Winfred
Q: How has COVID-19 impacted the work Preemptive Love is engaging in?
From the start of the pandemic those who were already vulnerable became more vulnerable. They didn’t have to just worry about their safety, they had to worry about losing the jobs they finally might have found in the places where they live. They had to try to protect themselves and their children in places where you can’t isolate, and where you don’t always have water and electricity. The pandemic hurt those who were most vulnerable. Those who did not have resources to begin with had to solve more problems than those who had access to resources. In the most vulnerable places, people found themselves dealing with a new threat against their families with no ability to protect themselves from it.
Q: What are some of the things that Preemptive Love Coalition is doing to help bring aid to those who do not have access to resources?
We started by first making sure that every family we knew was eating. One of the first things that happened in the refugee camps was they closed the gates to the camps because they wanted to keep the virus out. When they closed the gates, that meant people couldn’t get out to go to work, they couldn’t afford food for their families. For the past year, we’ve been providing food to communities in refugee camps and outside of refugee camps, just making sure that wasn’t an extra thing they needed to worry about.
We’ve also continued with all of our programs helping families with their businesses. We have a program that we call One-to-One Job Creation. We work one-on-one with families to help them start businesses of their own, and it’s such a powerful thing for people in the midst of feeling like they don’t have control of anything, to have support to be able to provide for their family.
One really beautiful thing we see happening with the businesses we help start is that the business owners are very quick to be generous to their neighbors. These owners feel the generosity from others and have a desire to pay it forward. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a guy named Muhammad who just started a small grocery store in his camp. His is the only grocery store for about two blocks in this massive refugee camp with over 5000 families. He’s choosing to help provide for his neighbors through his business and it is such a beautiful thing to witness.
Here in Iraq, due to the pandemic and the war with ISIS, the currency has recently been devalued. Muhammad told us he can’t buy as many things for his shop now because the money value isn’t as strong as it was before. I asked him, ”Did you raise your prices so you can keep buying the same amount that you bought before?”, and he said, “No, I can’t raise prices on the families because they’re my friends and they can’t afford it.” Even though the pandemic did impact our work, we’re continuing to do the things we’ve always done: to ask questions, to listen really well, and then to partner with people to help their communities and support them with the needs they are seeing in their own communities.
Photo by Charlene Winfred
Q: What has changed in the social, cultural, or the religious landscape in Iraq, since we last spoke in October of 2019?
Last time we talked, I think the war in Iraq was still active and ongoing, and things have drastically changed since then. When we last talked I don’t even think we were allowed inside of Mosul yet. One big change is that the city has become a city again.
We’re working with families, helping them learn computer skills, coding, and online marketing and how to take advantage of the Internet to start online businesses through our WorkWell program to develop the tech workforce here in Iraq.
We’re seeing businesses springing up all over as we get to partner with people to start new businesses. Today, you wouldn’t even recognize it as the same place it’s changed so dramatically. We see the same with our programs in Aleppo and outside of Damascus in Syria. The days of war are further away, and they’re not in the clear yet but we’ve gone through the process of running food kitchens, to providing food on a monthly basis for these families, to the families now being able to care for themselves.
We’ve moved from mobile clinics to opening a standing clinic because things are just starting to stabilize more. This isn’t true for all of the places we work in. In some of the places in Syria, we’re starting to see that stability come up where communities are able to work better together and to support one another. That’s been a pretty drastic shift.
When it comes to religion. I don’t think a lot has shifted here, I think the same love and generosity we saw between religious people during a war with ISIS, we’re seeing today where, one side doesn’t prefer to have something over the other side, where cities and churches and mosques are very aware that if someone’s going to bring in a donation, then they want to share it equally among everyone because they don’t want to create any animosity. They know what happens when animosity is created and when you don’t work together in partnership with one another. We continue to see this idea of trying to work together even though everything may not make perfect sense and everything may not be completely smoothed over.
I was talking with a guy just last week who works in one of our tech hubs. He’s actually a trained nurse, and the government needed him to work in a hospital so he got called back to Mosul.
When he got the call, the government said he had to take a taxi out to Sinjar hospital. When he got in the taxi to begin his journey, the taxi driver said, “Please do not kill me.” The taxi driver assumed that because their people had been living in conflict with one another, this man would desire to bring harm to him. This man answered the taxi driver, “I have to trust you to not harm me the same way that you’re trusting me to not harm you. And if we commit together to not harm one another then we’ll both get to our destination safely.” It’s those kinds of stories. The stories we are hearing over and over again in places where neighbor has turned against neighbor and people do not know who to trust or how to move forward. The only way to move forward is to just make that decision to take your steps towards one another instead of away from one another. And it’s really hard. The decisions people have to make are really impossible, but they’re choosing to make those decisions and choosing to keep moving forward in hopes that things will be better.
Photo by Erin Wilson
Q: What do you see in the Iraqi church that gives you hope right now?
When I think of worshipers in Iraq, it doesn’t matter if they’re in the church or if they’re in the mosque. I find there’s this passion for community that people have for one another. The Iraqi church was more loving and more self-giving than the American church in the days of ISIS. We noticed that the American church would give money to the Iraqi church, and only want the church in Iraq to use the finances for church members. However, the church in Iraq would graciously take the money and invest it back into their community saying, “we will take care of everyone here.” We also saw mosques opening their doors to Christians, Muslims, and everyone in Iraq. It’s beautiful to see that the church in Iraq doesn’t subscribe to the idea that one religion should be preferred over another. We see Christians helping to build mosques in their communities, we see Muslims helping to build churches in their communities, and we see this love on our team as we have immense diversity working to wage peace. I think it is profoundly important in a place where your religion is inscribed on your identity card for people to choose that that’s actually not going to be the thing that divides us. We’re going to make the decisions by who’s most in need, and who needs our care.
It’s incredible seeing the church reach out and be truly welcoming to the community around them. To be loving, to be a place of refuge to those around them, no matter where they come from and no matter how they showed up. In the US, we haven’t experienced real persecution like that in a really long time. When you haven’t had your home torn down, you haven’t been locked up, you haven’t been persecuted for what you believe, it’s easier to hold people at arm’s length. I think there’s something that happens in communities that have been torn apart by conflicts, that have been torn apart by war. You stop focusing on what makes you different, and you start focusing on what makes you the same. You start building those bridges, and you begin to open your hands in welcome.
Q: How has Preemptive Love expanded or changed its approach to peacemaking either recently, or in the last few years?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily a change or if our growth has just made it possible, but we’ve noticed that every program participant who chooses to partner with us, naturally comes out of the program as a peacemaker. People enter into our programs expecting to partner with us just to start a business. And out of that relationship and starting a business, they also grow into peacemakers in their communities.
We’ve been able to expand our program outside of the Middle East to Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia. In that expansion, it’s been so moving just seeing those new program participants telling their stories and having conversations back with program participants in the Middle East. It’s so incredible to see people latch onto this identity of being a peacemaker. That idea is also crossing over back into the US with our donor community. We do not see people just waiting around talking about what it means to make peace in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. Instead, each individual is taking on the identity of peacemaker and trying to understand what they can do to make peace in their community. And by those individuals personally taking on that responsibility, we start to see more peaceful communities.
Photo by Erin Wilson
Q: What are some goals you’re hoping to achieve? Could you give us an update on those different programs you mentioned?
Everything is growing massively right now. It’s incredible how much people trust us with their money to give and to support the work that’s happening. We value that people who are participating in our programs have decided to trust us with their lives in partnering with us. We get to see how we can use the stories of our programs to benefit people globally.
I was talking with one of our program officers in Iraq who leads a lot of our food deliveries, after he spoke with a colleague in Venezuela. This colleague was sharing about the poverty in Venezuela and how children were trying to go out and shoot pigeons just so that they could have something to eat. The program officer came into my office and asked if we could re-do our budget. I asked him what was not working with our current budget and he said, “Well, I think the families that we’re serving here are eating more often than the families that we’re serving there” (in Venezuela). It was beautiful to hear him care so deeply because sometimes when you’re living in this space and you’re amidst the trauma of so many people, it’s hard to see outside of where you are. It’s even more difficult to stop and consider the larger stories of what’s happening in the world.
One of our key programs, Sisterhood, is growing immensely. Just in the last year, we were able to open up a maker space in a Syrian camp here in Iraq. The women who are coming to that space are able to own their own businesses and sell into international markets. We have found this space has been such a helpful place for these women, because it’s a place where they can get away from everything. We provide childcare for them, and they have all the supplies and tools they need for their own businesses. Already this year we’ve been able to ship two large shipments back to the U.S. when normally we would only do two a year, and we’re looking to ship even more products this year. More and more people are buying these artisans’ products, and the women are able to care for their families. It’s really beautiful to witness.
We are starting jobs now in Venezuela, and we have them going in Iraq and Syria, which is really exciting. We’ve now been in some communities in these places long enough that we’re able to work alongside people to partner with them to start businesses.
Our tech workforce development program is growing by leaps and bounds. We have five campuses in Iraq, one in Mexico, and we are hoping to open one in Colombia in the next quarter. It’s so exciting, because these programs can take people from not speaking any English or using a computer to being able to communicate in English well and being able to use basic computer skills. When we first started working on these tech programs in Mexico at the beginning of 2019, I was meeting with some young men from Cuba. I asked them, “Do you use Facebook on your computer?” They literally had no idea what I was talking about and they didn’t know how to turn on a computer. I was trying to ask them if they’d be interested in a course that would allow them to work on their phone and they had no idea that there was a possibility for that to happen. These men had never used a smart phone.
One drastic change that occurred during COVID-19 was the move to online business. Many of our students went to work for companies where they weren’t specifically working in a tech space to do coding. But because they had online marketing skills and knew how to set up websites, they were able to help move their businesses online. By doing their sales online, the businesses can stay open during lockdowns. There are so many amazing things happening, and we can’t wait to see the impact.
Q: How do you navigate the risk that comes with peacemaking?
When we talk about the risks of peacemaking we really have to balance that with how we prioritize safety. I believe it is our job as individuals, as family members, as parents, as siblings, as friends, to keep ourselves safe. However, I also believe that if we’re only keeping ourselves safe, we’re not actually making anyone safer. We live in a community, not just in our cities, but a global community and we’re all dependent on one another. If we’re more focused on our own safety than we are on the safety of others, we actually don’t become very safe in the long run. From that perspective, any risk you take to step across enemy lines, to walk across the street to say hi to someone you don’t know, is a risk worth taking. In the US, we have forgotten that we belong to each other, we forgot our job to be the peacemakers. Instead, we often choose to be the name callers and judges.
When we take on identities that divide rather than taking on the identity of peacemaker, we start to contribute to violence. Every moment where I have felt at risk, and have chosen to step in willingly to know the person across from me, I’ve actually made it out okay. We have so many stories of success after a lot of years living in a war zone. It’s amazing what happens when you don’t come into a fight with your fists up. You’re either there to fight, or you’re there to make peace.
A couple of years ago, right when we started opening our programs in Mosul, I was having lunch with a woman and she asked, “You’re American. What are you doing here?” I’ll never forget that, because I always felt like I belonged here, and it was maybe one of the first times I felt like I wasn’t welcome. I just looked at her and I understood the deep history and I said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that because of America, your life has been really hard. I know that because of America you have been in a war zone, since you were born. And I’m so sorry. I wish that I could change that for you. And so I’m here now, because I want to be a part of making Mosul a better place.” She responded, “I never knew an American could apologize.” That day, I learned it wasn’t about the fact that I was American. It mattered that there was a human being sitting in front of me traumatized. She just needed someone to care about her pain. To take that moment to listen, to understand, and to apologize.
Photo by Erin Wilson
Q: What are some ways that you navigate that emotional risk and the trauma of war in these communities?
I think the only way to navigate trauma is by seeing yourself as a conduit. I can help to relieve the pain of that trauma, but I can’t personally take it on. I have to go to God, who is the only one who can truly be a healer, truly be the best listener, truly be the one to come in and disrupt the lasting effect of trauma for people. I have no power to bring true healing to people. I’m so privileged because I get to walk with people who have suffered and to see the rest of their story unfold. And being able to walk with people to see the rest of their story so many times over and over and over again, and to know them for five, 10 years, or more and to see the change in people’s lives, it gives me hope. Those people are not stuck in their pain, in their trauma, forever. You start to understand there’s always hope that something new will happen. There’s always hope that the story is going to go on, and so I try to remind myself of that.
Joanna is a traveling humanitarian photographer & storyteller capturing the stories of those she meets. She grew up in the Middle East in Afghanistan and Turkey for the majority of her childhood and early teen years. Currently, she travels frequently dedicating time to documenting her experiences through her lens and advocating for others to do the same.