Christian Aid Workers Jessica and Jeremy Courtney on the Fallout From Trump’s Syria Policy

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Source: Religion News Service