About the Author
Jeremy Courtney is cofounder and executive director of the Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC), an international development organization based in Iraq that provides lifesaving heart surgeries to Iraqi children and training for local doctors and nurses, creating peace between communities at odds. Jeremy resides in Iraq with his wife, two children, and an indispensable team of dear friends.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Preemptive Love CHAPTER 1
Chai in an Iraqi Hotel
How many times have I sat behind the ominous blast walls in this Iraqi hotel? Will I really be protected if a car bomb goes off outside? (I would get that answer soon enough.) The gaudy orange decor was offensive at first, but I eventually resigned myself to it. It can be so difficult to see things for what they are, even more so to see what they could be.
I never had a room there at the hotel. Unlike most of the journalists and aid workers who frequented the hotel, I wasn’t on assignment. With our families expressing deep concern over the targeted killing of Christians in Iraq, Kurdish-Arab tensions on the rise, and the Sunni-Shia civil war in full effect, my wife, Jessica, and I felt compelled to take our beautiful baby girl and move to Iraq.
We lived in a house down the street from the hotel, in a neighborhood called Peace.
In the winter, when the neighborhood only had about three hours of electricity per day, our home was frigid and dark. But it taught us an invaluable lesson: we don’t need power to live in Peace.
Sure, we longed for power. It would have made everything easier! We even bought a small gasoline generator to run the lights and our computers, but using it was like announcing, “We have money, and you don’t!” So after a few can’t-live-without-it moments, we decided not to use it again.
The spring was pleasant, but by the summer our house had become a brick oven. Jessica was pregnant with our son while trying to care for our daughter. Most days she navigated life in Iraq with little or no water and electricity. Without a working knowledge of local languages or a car to get around the city, she felt like a prisoner. It was becoming increasingly clear that we had not chosen an easy path, and our marriage was suffering.
One thing that simultaneously made my life better and her life worse was the hotel up the road with its Hollywood classics on the lobby big screen, air-conditioning, and table-side tea service. The hotel served as an office for my work with war widows, but also as a place of retreat from the difficulties of life outside. It gave respite. It was an oasis, far away from some of the difficulties of life in Iraq. If my clothes smelled of burned coffee and other men’s cigarettes when I walked in the front door, Jessica knew where I’d been. And I could pretty much guarantee I wasn’t getting that “Honey, I’m home” hug. If there is one thing Jessica cannot abide, it is the feeling that everyone is not getting their fair share. And she certainly was not getting hers.
It was Jessica’s beauty and her utter lack of pretension that first drew me to her in college. But it was her passion for fairness that kept me close. Sure, I found it easy to mock (“Life’s not fair!”) as I awkwardly groped for attention and security with a woman who was utterly out of my league. But there is something completely enchanting about a woman who believes that life should be fair, not for her own sake, but for the sake of everyone else. Still, talk is cheap. Few women are serious enough about fairness and justice to run toward the broken, forgotten people of the world. That’s Jess. She doesn’t have a vapid bone in her body. And it was ultimately her character and conviction that compelled us to move to Iraq.
But conviction and naivety are good friends. We nearly destroyed our marriage trying to help everyone else. Like a Scud missile through the roof, our marriage came crashing down around us during a terrifying yelling match in 120-degree heat where I thought my life was ending. But things were about to turn around.
I imagine it took days for him to get up the nerve to approach me. He probably had to talk himself into it, given the changing perspectives on Americans in Iraq and our inability to speak each other’s language. He may have even rehearsed his speech a few times.
I had been visiting his hotel café for months. We were familiar with one another, even friendly. But on this particular day, he had a favor to ask. In and of itself, this was not unique. I was constantly asked to give money, sponsor a green card, or teach English. Most of the Iraqis I knew were very accustomed to being rejected for these things. There was not often a lot of push-back or sense of entitlement for many of the favors we were asked to bestow. But this guy was different. I remember him being fairly solemn—as if it really mattered and he wanted to get it right.
As he nervously asked for permission to present his request, I remember thinking . . .
Nothing. I don’t remember thinking anything. This was just another conversation for me. I had not been building up to this for days. I did not have anything riding on this conversation. I certainly did not know that his request would change my life forever.
“Can you help my cousin?” he said. “His daughter was born with a huge hole in her heart, and no one in all of Iraq can save her life. Can you help?”
If you are like me, you hear heroic stories and you wonder, What would I do in that situation? I’m sure I would wear the white hat and save the day.
My answer to his earnest appeal came quite easily.
“I can’t help you. I don’t know anything about that.”
I did not need any rehearsal time. My list of justifications was waiting at the gate to be unleashed.
? I’m not a doctor.
? I’ve never done that before.
? I don’t know anything about sending children abroad for treatment.
? I don’t have that kind of money.
? My organization does not handle situations like that.
At this response, my friend (he was obviously more a friend to me than I was to him) could have attacked my character, quoted how much money I had spent on coffee and tea over the past months, lambasted me for my hypocrisy, or come at me just for being an American. Instead, he did the exact opposite. Rather than condemn me, he praised me. Like Jessica and her conviction that the world should be fair, he was totally disarming.
He appealed to my obvious desire to make things right in the world and said, “Mr. Jeremy, you are an American, right? Clearly you didn’t move your family to Iraq to say no to people. You want to help people. You are a good Christian. You did not move here to say no. You moved here to say yes. Please say yes to my cousin, Mr. Jeremy.”
There was so much fear in my initial rejection of his need. I was so unsure of myself and where I stood in the world. I was not a leader in my organization, and my marriage demonstrated how lame a leader I was in my own home as well. I was so vulnerable to any number of attacks that he could have launched. He could have won the argument by laying waste to me and my attempt to hold his family’s suffering at arm’s length. But he was interested in more than scoring points for the home team. He saw a life in the balance—a little four-year-old girl whose mommy and daddy loved her very much. He did not care to be “right”—he cared about saving her life.
And his insight cut my hardening heart and made me alive again. I did move to Iraq to help people. I did not move to Iraq to say no. I was convinced that I could make a difference, and I intended to say yes as often as I could.
Jessica always says, “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.” He clearly believed the same thing. I reversed my answer. He disarmed me, and I said, “Yes!”
A few days later I was back in the hotel lobby to meet with the cousin and read the medical reports. I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t read a medical report to save my life. I didn’t have a background in social work. I was a complete novice.
As the cousin walked through the door of the café, my heart melted. He had brought his little girl with him—the best decision he could have made. When I saw her, I thought of my little brown-eyed girl, Emma. Was there anything I wouldn’t do to save her life? How many doors would I knock on? How long would I beg? To what degree would I debase myself to see her live?
I was a goner before the meeting ever began.
I stood up to greet the man—a kindhearted father a few years my senior. He was shorter than I; I think he had a mustache. He was gentle, respectful, and very guarded, as though a single misstep on his part could cost his daughter her life.
I realized how little I understood about the world, about power distribution, and about how it feels to be completely at the mercy of another.
It’s amazing how many thoughts can go through your mind in a few minutes. As I think back on that meeting, I have this image of myself begging on the street corner for money to pay for my daughter’s surgery. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything altruistic in my life. Everything I do is probably motivated by some sense of guilt or out of a desire to stave off my own demise. It is hard for me to ascertain whether I was compelled to help this dear man because I saw him in need or because I conjured up an image of myself in need.
We regularly tell one another to “put yourself in their place” or “walk a mile in their shoes.” I saw myself standing in his shoes, on the corner, begging for change with my little girl in my arms. I was terrified. But I don’t think I was terrified primarily for him. I think I was terrified for myself.
Whatever the case, I was moved by the idea that this little girl could die without someone who would take the risk and intervene. And I knew I would want someone to take a risk for me if I was the one holding my Emma in search of surgery.
The medical reports were unclear to me. The field of pediatric cardiology was nonexistent in Iraq as a subspecialty at that time. My impression was that she had a hole in her heart. That sounded bad enough to get my attention—it seemed reasonable enough to assume that major organs were not supposed to have extra holes in them. If the reports had been more technically accurate, they would have flown over my head altogether. But the idea of this little princess struggling to walk and play and breathe because of a life-threatening hole in her heart was enough to inspire me to jump in with both feet.
I had not named it yet—that passion and joy that caused me to suspend my questions and fears. My military friends had mantras like “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” and “Shoot first; ask questions later.” But I had watched Iraq destroy nearly all the people who allowed themselves to live in a constant state of suspicion or cynicism. So I adopted my own motto: “Love first; ask questions later.” Today I call it preemptive love.
Nothing had changed in my actual capacity to help this dear family. I still wasn’t a doctor. I still didn’t know anything about sending children abroad for treatment. I was wealthier than he was, but I still didn’t have enough money to pay for her surgery on my own. And my team was still focused on helping war widows—not medical treatment for children. What had changed was my heart. I moved from a policy of risk management and calculated charity to a way of life that seemed much more like the Jesus I had grown up hearing about on my nona’s lap as my nono preached from the Bible.
I promised to take the medical reports and knock on a few doors and make a few phone calls to friends. If I had one thing, it was a network of foreigners who might have access to better information than I. But I also made one more promise: I looked the father in the eyes and promised him that I would fail; I promised him that I was not going to be the one to turn up any results.
This may seem like a strange, even cruel thing to promise. But I had seen enough good intentions during my brief time in Iraq to know that good intentions are not enough. I had seen Americans swoop in and promise the moon and then fail to deliver. They always meant well. I wanted to help. But I did not want to be one more person to make promises that I could not keep. So I did the opposite.
He gave me the medical files and a CD of data in a manila envelope. I imagine he went home and celebrated with his family. This was the closest they had come yet to saving their daughter’s life. I hoped his family looked at him differently that night—with pride and with confidence that he could get the job done to protect and provide.
Deep down, I hoped that helping this little girl would cause Jessica to look at me again with pride and trust that I could protect and provide for our family. After the rush of emotions wore off, helping this little girl became a mostly perfunctory task for me. I still had Hollywood visions of lifesaving, and this did not fit the bill. I was younger and more naive than I am now, and I did not yet realize that paperwork saves lives. Police officers save lives. Firefighters save lives. Surgeons save lives. But people who push paper around? Well, I would do what was required of me, but I certainly did not see it as a task that was likely to make much of a difference.
As I made my inquiries of foreigners in the community who were experts in their fields, I started learning shocking details and claims about the legacy of birth defects in Iraq. Every major Iraqi community had a different story to account for the apparently high rate of birth defects. Still, their stories from north to south and across ethnic and religious lines had one thing in common: almost everyone interpreted their sick and malformed children through the lens of various violent acts that were done to them by “the evil other”—that sometimes-hard-to-define group of people who are, at their core, not like us. Almost all my interviews and encounters flatly ignored the more mundane factors and known causes that are common worldwide. Instead, most derived a cathartic sense of meaning for their child’s sickness by concluding it was a result of war and violence.
And this was not without good cause, as I would learn in coming months.
I had recently met a guy named Cody who worked for a different field office—the Halabja office—inside our broader relief and development organization. He was fresh off the plane from California. I remember thinking he was both daring and perhaps a bit of a pie-in-the-sky dreamer when I saw him walking around with a book of poetry in the language of the local greats.
Surely he can’t read that? Hmph. Show-off!
The details of what happened next are a little hazy. But we don’t always know the major junctions at which our lives will change. I must have been casually getting to know Cody and the work they did all the way out there in the Halabja office. Knowing Cody the way I do today, I can guess that he probably gave me some impassioned sermon about rehabilitating people still suffering from Saddam’s chemical bombardment in 1988.
Saddam’s chemical bombardment of Halabja in 1988? My mind trailed off as Cody talked. I could not recall that I had ever heard anything about it. It is only now in retrospect that I can understand how ignorant and offensive that is to my Kurdish friends. At the time, however, it simply wasn’t on my radar. Unlike many of my colleagues (including my wife, who studied the events in graduate school), it was not a factor that compelled me to feel compassion for the Kurds, nor did it cause me to move to Iraq in hopes of making a difference. I vaguely remember Jessica’s late-night retellings of Saddam’s atrocities as she would read her books or v...
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