While fighting in Syria continues, local leaders question the claims of a U.S.-based aid group
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UPDATE, JAN. 2: Preemptive Love Coalition provided an online response on Dec. 4 to this story, calling it “false” and asking WORLD to issue a retraction. In response, WORLD again contacted local officials to ask about PLC’s list of 37 locations where the group said it had provided assistance. That included “3,000 family food packages—1,800 of which have already been distributed, and 1,200 more to be distributed shortly.”
Khalid Ibrahim, director of the Office of Humanitarian Affairs in Hasakah, said in an email that Preemptive Love “did not serve in four centers of the aforementioned list,” and named those locations (Aabd al-Aziz al-Rashed; Port Said; Ef Kira; and Hamed al-Ali). Ibrahim said, “The number of families in the locations listed [by Preemptive Love] exceeds the number of rations distributed, while the distributions didn’t cover all families in the centers.”
Ibrahim provided WORLD a list he said he received from PLC’s local partners in mid-December, showing 532 rations distributed at 22 locations. Neither that list nor Ibrahim’s own findings agree with the numbers shared by Preemptive Love. Ibrahim defined a ration (or family food package) as sufficient to feed a family of four for five days.
AS GIVING TUESDAY launches an intense end-of-the-year fundraising season for nonprofits, a U.S. aid group working in Iraq and Syria has come under scrutiny and criticism by local officials who say its claims are fraudulent.
Texas-based Preemptive Love Coalition, a media-savvy aid organization founded in 2007, has posted repeat donor appeals on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube tracking with Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria starting in October. In one dramatic video clip, CEO and founder Jeremy Courtney said, “We just got word from our team on the ground in Syria that all our food is gone.”
Courtney said Turkey’s advance had created “the worst wave of displacement we’ve seen” and told viewers, “We need your help. We need to get more food and more medical care to the front lines urgently.”
In another video dated Oct. 28, Courtney asked for “emergency support,” saying, “The moves of the last two to three weeks have put us in a month-over-month-over-month crisis that we are likely not going to be able to find our way out of as a humanitarian organization and as a civilian population on the ground.”
Members of a local committee of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) coordinating aid for the region told me they saw the posts but had not seen evidence of a Preemptive Love team on the ground distributing food and other items. After the group last month posted on social media that its teams were serving “in 37 abandoned schools” sheltering “44,400 people,” the NGO committee launched an investigation, and on Nov. 20 issued a statement on the claims.
“We are sorry some organizations want to trade at the expense of the humanitarian situation, and publish fake numbers of people far from the truth and reality, especially by the organization Preemptive Love Coalition on their Facebook page,” read the statement, issued in Arabic.
Calling the online campaign “lies,” the NGO committee members said Preemptive Love had inflated the numbers of those in school shelters and created the impression no one else was providing aid. But locals are doing most of the distributions with support from several small, and mostly faith-based, international organizations.
As the Turkish military advanced across the border into Syria in October, the exodus of civilians from border towns and villages also began. By Nov. 12, when I sat down with local officials in the Syrian city of Hasakah, the seat of the Jazira region and the largest governorate, Turkish militias, armored tanks, and drone strikes had displaced more than 150,000 civilians. With nearly 15,000 forced across the border into Iraq also, some aid organizers told me the total numbers could be much higher.
The fighting also launched an exodus of major aid groups, including Doctors Without Borders. These groups found the situation too dangerous, plus did not know who would next control the region. Working with the Kurdish-led coalition in charge of the semi-autonomous self-administration zone of northeast Syria had become a liability: At any moment Syria’s Assad government, the Turks, or the Russians could take over. Aid workers might be labeled Kurdish sympathizers—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called some of northeast Syria’s leaders “wanted terrorists” and asked for the extradition of the top Kurdish military commander.
All that makes aid work in the region difficult and risky. Finding places to shelter, feed, and care for thousands of families fell to small NGOs and local volunteers. Schools were not “abandoned,” said aid coordinator Khalid Ibrahim, but local officials deliberately closed schools to convert them into shelters.
By mid-November, authorities had closed 68 schools across the Jazira region in order to shelter displaced people. Workers hauled desks and chairs into outside playgrounds, replacing the furniture with thin mattresses and blankets. Meals mostly had to be prepared elsewhere and delivered to schools.
Today the requisitioned schools number 110, serving approximately 25,000 displaced people, according to Ibrahim, who heads the Jazira Humanitarian Affairs office based in Hasakah and is a member of the NGO committee. The Preemptive Love numbers were “erroneous,” he told me. The Preemptive Love description of its aid work further created the impression that a coordinated effort was lacking.
While in Syria last month, I asked CEO Jeremy Courtney to connect me with local partners or staff on the ground to see and discuss Preemptive Love’s work in northeast Syria. He responded, “We have not registered as a stand alone organization,” and “we’ve always worked with and through local partners.” He did not supply contacts for the partners or locations, while other aid organizations did. Asked for more specifics on the work, Courtney did not respond. Subsequent questions sent by email to Courtney and Preemptive Love director of communications and PR Ben Irwin also went unanswered.
Meanwhile, Preemptive Love deleted or edited some of its social media posts about serving in northeast Syria. In a blog entry posted Nov. 16 to the group’s website and titled “Failure Report: Syria Edition,” Courtney appeared candid, telling supporters about “ways we failed recently in northeastern Syria, what we’ve done to correct these failures, and what we’re doing to learn from them.”
Courtney wrote: “We reported that 44,400 people were sheltering at the 37 schools where we are serving. This number turned out to be incorrect, because it was calculated based on what we originally thought was the average number of families at each location—which in fact turned out to be the average number of individuals at each one.”
Ibrahim told me on Nov. 30 that Preemptive Love staff in Iraq “after learning that we are investigating its numbers, contacted us and apologized.” He said, “We forgave them and asked them not to repeat what happened.”
Local authorities don’t know what figures Courtney and Preemptive Love used for their calculations (and Courtney did not respond to my specific requests for information). A daily log I examined of those living at each school never rises above a total of 25,000 individuals—though that number represents an enormous undertaking, to feed and care for so many on spontaneous war footing and without help from major aid organizations or governments.
Much of the food and supplies for the school shelters, along with bottled water, medicine, and other goods, have been trucked across the border from Iraq by the Kurdish-led Barzani Charity Foundation and by other groups that include Free Burma Rangers and Grand Rapids–based Partners Relief & Development. Other material and personnel to aid displaced people have been provided by Open Doors, Operation Mobilization, and the Danish group DanChurchAid, according to local pastors who also are coordinating aid efforts.
Ibrahim said many displaced families are living with friends or relatives, out in open desert, in abandoned homes, or in a newly constructed camp. During my reporting trip, I met many families in each of those categories and found them largely unreached by aid groups.
One local member of the NGO committee, who asked not to be identified because of ongoing risks of aid work in Syria, objected to Preemptive Love posting that “our teams are serving” in shelters. “It is not true they were feeding in the schools,” the committee member said. “They may have given some ready-made rations. They lied several other lies in their [blog] post.”
That sort of criticism is rare in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria, where displaced populations have been forced to depend on outside help for years, and local coordinators are protective of every resource. It follows other reports on Preemptive Love work, including in Iraq, where overzealous publicity didn’t match actual aid work on the ground.
Several aid group coordinators, who asked not to be identified due to the ongoing risk to operations in Iraq and Syria, said Preemptive Love overrepresented its involvement delivering relief to western Mosul during the 2016-17 military campaign to free the city from ISIS, taking credit as the sole aid source.
Kurdistan Save the Children, based in Iraqi Kurdistan and founded in 1991, said it ended a partnership with Preemptive Love in 2009 after learning of irregularities. Noaman A. Ali, KSC program manager, said each group was to pay $2,500 toward heart surgery procedures to cover expenses per patient. Ali said his group learned Preemptive Love was charging the patients while also soliciting funds from donors to cover the procedures. “Sometimes they were abusing the patients for fundraising,” Ali said. Preemptive Love staffers took photos during surgery in violation of child protection policies, he said. “Therefore we stopped working with them.”
Aid work in the region is difficult and potentially life-threatening, and more aid groups have left Iraq and Syria than have remained. Courtney with his wife Jessica founded Preemptive Love in 2007 in Iraq and reportedly have lived there along with their two children since that time.
Over its years of operation, Preemptive Love has seen dramatic leaps in revenue brought by a savvy media presence and celebrity tie-ins—from $481,000 in 2011 to $3 million in 2015 and $12 million in 2017, the latest year of available tax documents.
The jumps have come with support from well-known Christian groups like Willow Creek Community Church and from author Ann Voskamp. Singer-songwriter Nichole Nordeman announced this year she will donate proceeds from a new Christmas album to Preemptive Love.
Voskamp’s 2015 blog post about Preemptive Love work in Iraq, written at the height of the ISIS crisis there, raised more than $1 million in donations for the group in one week. But Voskamp ended her support two years later, citing concerns with actual work on the ground, and the blog post has been removed from Voskamp’s website.
Courtney is the group’s highest-paid salaried employee according to 2017 filings, at $148,000, with the second-highest salaried employee listed as director of digital Michael “Skip” Matheny at $132,000.
This year Preemptive Love produced a 30-minute film, “Love Anyway,” that splices news footage and commentary with aid work that now extends to Libya, North Korea, and the U.S.-Mexico border. Zondervan in September published a book under the same title by Courtney with a cross-section of endorsements from evangelical celebrities and others, including Jen Hatmaker, Shauna Niequist, and the director of an LGBT organization in Iraq.
The group’s Facebook page has 88,000 likes, and its Twitter account nearly 18,000 followers, largely drawn around graphic war scenes used to depict its work in Iraq and Syria. But since the concerns raised by locals in Syria led Preemptive Love to delete or edit social media posts, end-of-year giving appeals increasingly focus on work at the U.S. border.
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