i had the great privilege of spending 10 days in Iraq recently. After a year of being invited by my friend Jeremy Courtney, who leads Preemptive Love Coalition, i finally said yes. After a year of being afraid, i chose love over fear. This blog is my best attempt to explain why i went, and to communicate the things i learned and saw and felt along the way.
If the next President wants to build walls, i want to know what’s on the other side of those walls. i want to care about the people who live there, the folks whose faces and days look different from mine. i’ve heard about the Middle East my whole life but i’ve never been there. i’ve heard about refugees, but i’ve never met one. We become numb to the headlines because we have no context for it, because it feels so far away.
i want those things to change. i’m excited to go see and feel and learn.
Because it’s one thing to make a shirt that says “Love is still the most powerful force on the planet.” It’s another thing to live as if we actually believe those words.
i used to get excited about meeting influential people and invites to speak at cool events. i’m less and less interested in those things. If i’m gonna make a living talking about love and hope, about helping people and living a compassionate life, then i want to know what those things look like when they cost something, when there’s fear involved.
What do love and hope look like in the context of people who’ve seen and lost more than we can imagine?
How do i feel? i feel afraid. But i also feel alive. This trip feels important. People keep asking why i’m going and what i’ll be doing. i don’t honestly know. But on one of the hardest nights a few months back, in a year marked by rejection and not knowing how to let go, these words came to me:
“Your love still works.”
Maybe this is also about that.
i stared at this map for most of the flight from Istanbul.
Perspective is a powerful thing. These are real places. Real people live and die in these places. Sons and daughters and sisters and brothers. Aleppo is a real place. To see it on the map, that meant it was just outside my window, south beyond the darkness.
My friend Don Miller was the one who introduced me to the idea that context dictates how much we’re able to care about something. i suppose i’m here in search of context. So i can remind myself that these are real places, that real people really live here. Growing up, and in some ways until tonight, Iraq translated to “war” and “terror.” Saddam Hussein followed by ISIS.
But there’s more to it than that. Iraq is the people on my flight. It’s the shuttle bus driver who told me where to go to meet my friend. It’s the man who asked to see my passport when we got to the hotel a little while ago. He’s downstairs keeping us safe. These are real places. Real people really live here.
We visited a Syrian refugee camp this morning. Preemptive Love is helping women start businesses there. One example is giving someone a sewing machine and taking them to buy fabric so they can begin making and selling clothes. Jessica and her team were checking in on a few of the ladies to see what progress they’ve made.
Everyone was speaking Arabic or Kurdish, so of course i could only understand what was translated into English. So i did what i do best, asked to hold the baby.
This is the Syrian refugee camp we visited today. i’m hesitant to post this video because it’s missing the best part, the part where we were invited into people’s homes, the part where we talked about the businesses they’re starting, the part where they have close to nothing but insisted on serving us tea. One woman gave me a bracelet that she knitted. i asked if i could pay her for it. The answer was no.
Driving into this camp, what you see is overwhelming.
1200 families live here.
1200 families who left their homes in search of safety and a better life.
And this is what they’ve found.
Maybe not forever, hopefully not forever, but this is their reality for now.
i heard the story of one woman whose young daughter got sick and died on their journey from Syria. The little girl’s picture was on the wall. i sat beneath that picture holding her baby brother. The mother, her husband is in Greece. i asked why the family wasn’t together. They said the journey was too dangerous. The couple thought that if he could get to Greece, they could reunite soon after. Greece would be a better life. Now she’s told it will take three years. Can you imagine?
There is so much need among these people, but i saw hope as well. These folks are still breathing, still raising children, still loving. i saw so much dignity today. It was such an honor to sit inside these homes. Truly. Some things get lost in the word “refugee.” We all know that word by now. It feels important to remember that a refugee is a person. Every person has a story and every story matters. If we claim to care about people, then we have to care about refugees.
i’m so thankful for the work Preemptive Love is doing, making these women feel seen and heard and cared for. My friend Jessica asked the same question over and over as we met with women throughout the camp: “What do you want?” It’s a powerful question. It implies that things can change. It implies dignity and a future.
This little girl, her father was killed by ISIS. She is part of a group of 60, all family, who fled from Sinjar, west of Mosul. Jessica told me that 19 of them left in one car the size of a Camry. Other family members were killed. They now live in tents and shipping containers and an abandoned unfinished house.
We spent three hours with these folks today, had lunch and tea with them (and then had tea again). Mostly we just sat and talked and laughed. While theirs is undeniably a sad story, it’s now a hopeful one as well. Jessica has spent the last two years building relationships with them. It started with meeting needs, because they arrived with nothing. Preemptive Love provided food and stoves and carpets and mattresses. But this isn’t simply charity. Their lives have been transformed by sheep and soap.
They were given 36 sheep, and that number has multiplied to 140. (There are two rams. The two rams have been busy.) The sheep are a source of milk and food, both for them to eat and to sell. In addition, and this is the game changer, the women in this group have started making soap – Sisterhood Soap!! – and the soap sales are allowing them to meet their own needs. They’re now saving money and living with the hope that once it’s safe, they’ll be able to return home to Sinjar.
To watch a powerful video that tells more of the story, and to order this life-changing soap, click here.
This is a shipping container. But it sure felt like a Home today. We spent almost three hours here, just sitting and eating and drinking tea, just being together. These people have been through Hell and yet somehow there is joy on their faces.
At one point, one of the men started talking and he talked for a while. i asked Jeremy what he was saying.
“He’s telling Jessica that she’s the reason they’re still alive.”
To learn more of their story, read my previous post and click the link in my profile. And buy some soap because Preemptive Love’s Sisterhood Soap is allowing these folks to work and meet their own needs and to start saving money for a brighter future.
This woman is a saint. Iraq is her home. It has been for 10 years.
She’s raising two kids of her own here, thousands of miles from the Texas of her youth. Her husband is the face and voice of Preemptive Love.
He’s the one in the videos, the one communicating with influencers, the one raising money and looking at data and thinking about strategy. She works quietly behind the scenes: building relationships, creating jobs, loving people.
Everywhere we go, she knows everyone’s name. She knows the names of their children. She knows the stories, where they came from, what they’ve lost, and what they hope for now. You should know about Jessica Courtney.
You arrive and it’s hard to fathom that someone lives here. And then you learn that 60 people live here. And then you see the children. Everything in you screams, “No!! They deserve so much better!!”
But then at the same time, even in this wasteland, beauty and joy are showing up.
If you saw my earlier post, you know the little lamb is evidence of hope, evidence that the situation that you see here is improving. These people live here because ISIS took everything. ISIS took their homes. ISIS took their loved ones. But i’m so glad to be able to report that for the group i met today, hope is happening. This beautiful family won’t live in this broken tiny village forever. They are starting businesses and saving money.
ISIS is losing ground everyday.
In time, hopefully someday soon, the folks i met today will be able to return Home. In the meantime, please keep supporting Preemptive Love. They are transforming lives here in The Middle East. They are helping people start over.
Faces make things real. Faces remind us what’s at stake. When we hear things like “ISIS” and “refugees,” it’s easy to be numb if we don’t have any faces to give the stories context.
When i told people i was going to Iraq, the most common response was “WHY?”
If you say you’re going to Hawaii, no one asks why.
i couldn’t have known the exact answer at the time but this video is part of it. To see these faces. To learn these stories. To make it all real.
If you need some faces to remind you to care about what’s happening in the Middle East, then please remember these little girls. Kids deserve safety and shelter and food and clean water, but yesterday i was reminded that kids deserve to play as well.
Jeremy and Jessica’s daughter Emma brought nail polish for all the girls. It was so cool to see how happy it made them. This scene took place in an abandoned shipping container, but it was undeniable that dignity and beauty were there.
Why should you care about ISIS? Because these kids lost family members to ISIS. Because ISIS took their homes.
Why should you care about The Middle East? Because these innocent kids call it Home, and these kids deserve the same safety and laughter as my nephews back in Florida.
Glad i didn’t fly home today. These people have my heart.
i can see the ocean from my bedroom in Florida.
i spent two years in New York and a summer in Laurel Canyon.
i’ve been to Paris and London.
i’ve driven south along the coast from Coolangatta to Sydney, explored a dozen coves along the way.
i’ve surfed perfect waves in Hawaii and Puerto Rico and Costa Rica.
If you were to ask me right now, where’s my favorite place on the planet, i would show you this picture.
Maybe there are no bad places, just places folks tend not to go. Fear not the trash. Fear not the wild dogs. Fear not the stories you grew up with, bombs and death and awful things.
This is not a wasteland.
These people are not less than you. These people, they are diamonds. They’ve seen Hell but they’re still standing. Paused and poised and headed Home.
If you bring them your heart, you’ll get to use your heart.
They’ll trade you love for love.
This is my favorite place.
We visited the refugee camp again today. Jessica was back at it, asking the women who live in these homes how Preemptive Love can help them start businesses, so that they can start earning money and meeting their own needs. Many of them have experience sewing. They’re able to create beautiful things. They just need some help getting back on their feet. So Preemptive Love provides a sewing machine and takes each woman to the market to choose fabric.
i love that this isn’t simply charity. They don’t just drop off a sewing machine and say “good luck.” Jessica Courtney and her team step into these homes, they sit down for tea, they learn each family’s story. It’s been a beautiful privilege to be a fly on the wall for some of the life-changing conversations.
Preemptive Love road trip adventure mission with Jeremy Courtney and Matt Willingham. This is the closest i’ve been to Batman, Jason Bourne, James Bond, etc. These dudes are superheroes. They work around the clock with passion, bravery and creativity.
It’s been amazing to have a front row seat for the last week, and i’m glad i get a few more days.
And suddenly it’s real. ISIS was here not long ago.
These kids live five miles from the heart of Mosul, where the war against ISIS is happening right now. Just a few weeks ago, their village of Telyara was under ISIS control. Today i had the great privilege of being along for the ride as Preemptive Love delivered food to 600 families, enough food to last a month.
i thought i was going to be really afraid today, but for some reason i wasn’t. Maybe something powerful happens when we meet others in their suffering, when we go to broken places. The idea that we’re all in it together, perhaps this is more powerful than fear. #LoveAnyway
i cried when i left. It was raining and i kept thinking about my new friends, how their temporary homes don’t do well in the rain. i cried because they deserve better. i cried because of ISIS. And i wished there were not so many thousands of miles between my home and this place that somehow felt like home. i cried because i didn’t know when i would get to come back, and because i don’t know where i belong. i cried because my friend Jeremy is incredible and i wish that i could do life with him consistently. i cried because my heart was heavy with questions, the kind we maybe don’t get answers to this side of Heaven.
But i also cried because this trip had moved some things around in me. This trip had caused some things to change. i’ve been to The Middle East. i’ve been to Iraq. i’ve sat and laughed with refugees, in humble homes beneath photographs of loved ones lost to ISIS. i’ve met folks who barely escaped. They shared their tea with me. They shared their food with me. They let me play with their children, they let me hold their babies. And these people were not less than me. These people were a gift.
i’ve been to the edge of Mosul, close enough to hear the guns, in the days after ISIS was driven out, on the day the food showed up. i’m so thankful for my friends who bring that food, my amazing friends who continue to see these people and continue to share their stories, my friends who live preemptive love.
To learn more about Preemptive Love Coalition, click here.
To order your own Sisterhood Soap, click here.
To read more of Jamie’s writing, check out his New York Times bestselling book, If You Feel Too Much.