Driving into the Iraqi sunset, my team and I sped across the desert, being stopped regularly by curious checkpoint police and Iraqi army who were confused to see unarmed Americans traveling in a taxi instead of the standard issue up-armored SUV convoy. We were en route to host the first-ever surgical training group to work in Tikrit, the infamous city of the deposed dictator, Saddam Hussein.
We didn’t even have to enter the hospital to see the need. Fathers in regal turbans and mothers shrouded in black belied the dignity of their dress and frantically swarmed our team as we approached, sick children in tow.
Sadly, this greeting—hundreds of parents waiting in line to see the team of American doctors—has become commonplace for us and our partners everywhere we go across the country. Iraq’s swelling backlog of children suffering from congenital heart (and other birth) defects constitutes a nationwide crisis, and the country’s lack of trained medical personnel to serve these children has become one of my great fixations, leading me to found an organization dedicated to fighting the “brain drain” of Iraq by helping train a new generation of local doctors and nurses who can save the lives of their littlest compatriots.
We waded through the sea of parents, behind a huge steel gate that looked as though it has been transplanted from the nearby prison, and into a dingy hospital screening room where families could be seen privately. Our partner, Dr. Kirk Milhoan, screened child after child, relaying various findings and suggestions to his Iraqi counterpart:
“This child will probably live longer if we do nothing for her.”
“Ah, an excellent candidate for a procedure.”
“Needs a few more years before we could do anything.”
The doctor’s initial intention to see 15 families before dinner that evening quickly became 20—then, by midnight, it was 25. “Please, just one more” kept winning out until finally the Iraqi doctor said, “Really, this is the last family. They traveled a long way and waited all day to see you.”
The family carried their son, Ibrahim, into the room, and laid him on the table. The boy’s shallow breathing and blue skin made it obvious that he was very sick.
“Tell the family to bring their son in first-thing tomorrow. He needs an immediate operation,” Dr. Kirk said.
Ibrahim had an extremely life-threatening heart problem that, left untreated, the doctors believed would kill him within the next few days. His family knew it was urgent, and they traveled to Tikrit after hearing rumors of a visiting American heart team.
The family carried their son, Ibrahim, into the room, and laid him on the table. The boy's shallow breathing and blue skin made it obvious that he was very sick.
If you’ve followed the news over the last seven years, you’ve probably heard of Tikrit. In addition to being Saddam Hussein’s hometown, it is located within the harrowing ‘Sunni triangle,’ a region which, during the war, was notorious for insurgent violence and sectarianism. In a predictable cycle, the perceived hatred in this region, has kept domestic and international aid organizations, researchers, investors, artists, and religious leaders at bay.
It has even proven difficult to find a fellow Iraqi willing to travel with me to Tikrit. For two years, I tried and failed to visit the region. Religious clerics, fellow aid workers, soldiers and politicians have all denied my requests. And so the cycle continues. Most of the people I asked to help me had never been there. But they perceived it to be dangerous, so they kept me away (which, in turn, kept aid money, doctors, and potential partnerships away as well).
But now I’ve spent time in Tikrit with Ibrahim and his family, and because of that I know the city differently. I know Ibrahim’s father, who loves his son with the same depth of love with which I love my two kids. I know his mother and aunt, and many other women who claim to weep from fear when they learn they are pregnant because of the growing number of babies in the region reportedly born with heart and other birth defects. I know doctors who work extraordinary hours to care for the city’s ever-growing health needs.
And so I grapple daily with this reality: violence unmakes the world.
Because of this, I’ve spent the last five years living in Iraq as a civilian, trying to promote a different way to live. Instead of nurturing a life of preemptive strikes, in which I hurt you before you can hurt me; or preemptive defense, in which I fortify myself against you before you can hurt me, I’m trying to live out of preemptive love. I admit that it may be debatable as foreign policy, but my experience in Iraq, through bombings and fatwas calling for our death, is that it is a wonderful way to live as an individual, a family, and a community.
Because we all know that violence unmakes the world. But, what often goes unreported is the many ways in which preemptive love unmakes violence. Preemptive love actually remakes the world through healing.
I know this because I’ve seen it happen over and over again throughout Iraq through the work of our partners at Living Light International, For Hearts & Souls, and the International Children’s Heart Foundation.
And I saw it again in the last-minute lifesaving operation of Ibrahim. Here was a team of highly-educated American doctors who spent their vacation in the city of their alleged “enemies” —the city that arguably lost the most from Saddam Hussein’s ouster—to save lives. If they hadn’t cursed their caution and jumped headlong into the mess with preemptive love, Ibrahim would have almost certainly died.
During the procedure as we waited outside the operating room, his uncle teared up and spoke from a place of deep gratitude: “We’ve basically been living in the hospital for the last two months—we were so afraid he would die.... Thank you!”
Yes, violence unmakes the world. But preemptive love unmakes violence... and makes enemies into friends.
Jeremy Courtney is executive director of Preemptive Love Coalition, an international development organization that works across Iraq to eradicate the backlog of children waiting in line for lifesaving heart surgeries. Jeremy is author of Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time . You can connect with Jeremy on Twitter (@JCourt) and Facebook (TheJCourt).