A young boy in Mosul named Mustafa* // Photo by Matt Willingham
This week I’m doing a special feature on one of my all time favourite charities — focusing on one of their current efforts in Mosul, Iraq. I connected with Preemptive Love Coalition senior field editor, Matt Willingham, about what’s going on, what we can do to help, how he’s been affected by it all, living in Iraq, and other important issues that PLC is currently assisting with.
Normally I post interviews on separate pages, but I’d like this one to be loud and clear. It will also be linked on my ‘Charity’ page for easy access later.
Emily Koopman: What exactly is going on in Mosul at the moment?
Matt Willingham: Iraqi forces are battling to remove ISIS militants from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and ISIS’s de facto ‘capital’ in Iraq. As of this writing, ISIS only controls about one third of the city, but they are putting up a fierce fight. At the moment, Iraqi forces are battling street by street through Old Mosul, the most densely populated portion of the city and also one of the most historically and culturally rich city centers in the region.
Koopman: What are some ways that people in North America can help (aside from donating to PLC)?
Willingham: Crave understanding. Do whatever you can to understand people who think and look and feel and believe differently from you. Money is great, and we’d welcome your donations, but I’m convinced the most valuable currency of the world is understanding. What’s more valuable than the ability to really ‘get’ someone else, even if you don’t agree with them? Why are things are the way they are in Iraq? Why do movements like Black Lives Matter exist? I think I’m seeing from your site bio that you’re Canadian, but as an American I am compelled to ask, why is the United States so utterly divided and, in some places, even on the brink of civil conflict? It’s easy to throw out pithy, simplistic answers. Resist that temptation! Go visit a mosque, sit, and listen. Spend time with people of another political party or nationality or another ethnic or racial or religious group and ask questions.
Why does this matter for Mosul? Because, at their core, conflicts like the one unfolding in Iraq and Syria are rooted in misunderstanding and an unwillingness to listen and consider others—they are a lack of creativity, imagination, and vulnerability. I love the old Alexie quote, “When you resort to violence to prove a point, you’ve just experienced a profound failure of imagination.”
Put simply—and if I may be so bold—the best thing you can do for Iraqis and Syrians is not just send money or prayers to improve them but to work hard to improve yourself.
PLC’s food delivery team inside west Mosul city limits // Photo by Matt Willingham
Koopman: You live in Iraq for your work with PLC, have you seen many of these things first hand? Have you been affected by it at all?
Willingham: Yes, we’ve seen a lot of horrible stuff these past few years. Chemical attacks on civilians, dead bodies in the streets, mass graves, mortar fire and air strikes on our aid deliveries, ISIS fighters rolling up on our aid convoy, heard the stories of former ISIS sex slaves and what they experienced…yes, it affects us. I’m grateful we have such a strong community of truly astounding, audaciously loving people here in Iraq. I also have a great therapist and a few really supportive counselors—many of us find counseling really important.
My wife sometimes asks me, “When should we stop? When will it be too much for us to handle?” My response to her has been, “Our hearts have to be broken first if they’re ever going to be fixed.” We aren’t masochists, but we’ve seen how the heartbreak can lead to a more loving and understanding posture, even to a group like ISIS, who is to be pitied above all others.
That said, we’re not so naive as to believe we’re going to walk away from this totally whole or unscathed. It’s really too late for that, just as it’s too late for our Iraqi and Syrian friends here. But the trauma doesn’t mean we are doomed to be malfunctioning, only partial members of society. We’ve got to believe hope and healing are possible for us, because if it isn’t possible for us, how can it ever be possible for the Iraqi and Syrian people we love so much?
Koopman: What are some other areas in emergency that PLC is currently assisting with?
Willingham: We’re actively working across Iraq in places like Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit, Kurdistan, and of course Mosul, then we’re also ramping up work across Syria as well. We were working around Aleppo at the height of that conflict and have since moved to working around other conflict zones across northern Syria. Most of our work is delivering emergency food rations or helping people jump start jobs so they can get back to some form of stability (make some money, get kids back in school, live with dignity and purpose, etc.).
*Matt’s notes from talking with Mustafa:
“Why do you want to know my name? Are you a journalist?”
Me: “No, I’m with an organization that brought food for people here.”
“Oh, ok. Well I’m Mustafa. I’m not really from here. ISIS is still in my part of Mosul.”
“Are you working? What is this cart you push around for? Where is your family?”
“My father doesn’t have work, so I look through destroyed buildings for spare pieces of wire and spare parts to sell at the market. Most days, I make enough to buy tomatoes or cucumbers. Some of my family are dead, some are still under ISIS.”
Mustafa and I chatted a few more minutes before he pushed his cart away to the next bombed-out building. He was hoping he’d find and sell enough spare parts to eventually buy nuts or even some meat.