What does it take to remake home? For those who fled war? For those who lost everything?
For Syria? For Iraq?
What does it take to go beyond half measures, beyond short-term solutions? To unravel the kind of violence that overwhelms and destroys?
What does it take to do better for refugees than a tent in a seemingly God-forsaken camp with no future, no opportunity?
To give them more of a choice than languishing here or risking their lives at sea in search of safety somewhere far from home?
There is one group of families we’ve walked with for the last four years. From their darkest days when ISIS marked them for death, to a future filled with hope and possibility.
Their story is a picture of how we can remake home for thousands of refugees just like them, across Syria and Iraq. This isn’t theory. It isn’t putting bandaids on the wounds of war. It isn’t pouring money down an endless pit of aid.
This works. This transforms lives. This heals the broken and the searching.
This is the story of our friends and the home they’ve made after war.
The Day the Mountain Wept
To the Yazidi people of northwestern Iraq, Sinjar Mountain is one of the “thin spaces” of the world. It’s a place where the distance between heaven and earth collapses.
The Yazidis believe this is where Noah’s ark came to rest after the flood. From the way the mountain juts sharply out of the surrounding landscape, you can see where they got this idea. Ancient Yazidi settlements dot the mountainside and the area around it. Shrines dedicated to seven angelic beings are said to provide comfort to troubled souls in times of hardship.
When ISIS swept into this part of Iraq in 2014, they were determined to kill or kidnap every last Yazidi. Families fled to the mountain, believing God would save them here. And many believe God did.
But not before Sozan’s daughter starved on the mountaintop.
Not before Marwa was forced to watch as ISIS murdered her parents and brother.
Not before the sun beat down mercilessly for days, families wilting under its unforgiving heat, while ISIS fighters waited hungrily below.
Even in the thin spaces, many wondered where God was that day.
Thousands died, either killed by ISIS or by the extreme heat and hunger. Those who escaped fled for miles. Some never to return.
Images: Sinjar Mountain, Yazidi mass grave. Photos by Matt Willingham / Preemptive Love Coalition.
The loss is even more devastating than you might imagine.
You see, these families didn’t just lose houses or villages or schools. To the Yazidis, Sinjar is sacred. It’s the only place they can truly practice and pass down their faith. To be cut off from their homeland is to be cut off from their identity. From their heritage.
When the Yazidis fled, they left everything.
When the Tea Runs Dry
We first met Sozan, Marwa, and their families in a muddy field on the other side of Iraq. They were living among disused shipping containers and weather-worn tents.
To say they had nothing is an understatement.
Two of our friends, Erin (who later joined our team) and Belen, arrived at the site carrying bags of food. When two of the women invited us to stay for tea, without thinking we said, “Yes, sure.”
In the Middle East, everything revolves around tea. If someone shows up at your home, stranger or friend, you offer tea. No matter how poor you are, even if you’re a refugee, you always have—and you always offer—tea. Even if politely refused, the offer is always made.
Tea is the currency of hospitality.
After accepting their invitation, we heard one of the women whisper to the other, with a hint of panic in her voice, “Which neighbor should we go to and ask for tea?”
Our hearts sunk.
They had no food. They had nothing. They didn’t even have tea.
This is why, in every package of food we distribute, there is always tea. The food we provide should do more than keep people from dying. It should help them live.
Tea carries the memory of home. Even if all the home we can remake for them in that moment is a single cup of tea, it is something. It’s a start.
So Belen quietly whispered to one of the women, “There’s tea in your bags.”
They picked up the bags, went inside, and made tea. They no longer had nothing. They were still a long, long way from having what they needed. But they were no longer alone or empty-handed.
It was a start.
Images: Jeremy Courtney, Jessica Courtney, and Erin Wilson with our Yazidi friends. Photos by Christine Anderson, Esther Havens.
Across the Threshold
In refugee camps, there’s often a staging area where aid groups hand out food, blankets, mattresses. The idea is that it’s more efficient to have people come to you, so you can distribute everything at once, rather than for you to go to each family, one at a time.
And it’s true. It is more efficient.
It’s also dehumanizing. It reduces the act of helping to a transaction. It keeps all the power in the hands of the giver and leaves recipients powerless to do anything but receive. They don’t even get the chance to tell you what they need or what they dream about or what they’re capable of.
In camps and settlements like the one where our friends live, we do something different.
We step across the threshold.
We sit down in people’s homes. We listen to their stories. We build relationships. We give out our phone numbers. We ask them what they need, where they want to go from here, who they want to become.
It’s less efficient. But we’re not just here to replace the things they lost. We’re here to help them reclaim their dignity and hope.
It did not take long for these Yazidi families to lodge themselves firmly in our hearts. Those first weeks and months, they would call our founder Jessica Courtney and other members of our team five or six times a day.
We brought food regularly. When winter came, we brought heaters and carpets to warm their makeshift, shipping container homes. When their children fell ill, we brought medicine and went with them to the hospital.
But we wanted to give more than things. We wanted to give them power over their lives again.
The power to remake home.
Reading Numbers, Rebuilding Lives
For our displaced friends, the power to remake home came next in the form of soap and sheep.
Soapmaking has a rich history in this part of the world. Our friends had a family legacy of making soap—but neither Sozan nor Marwa had ever tried their hands at this ancient craft.
Jessica saw the potential that existed in them—and the potential for soap to help them turn the corner. So she asked if they were interested in trying it. But there was a problem.
None of the women went to school as children. None of them knew how to read. Not even numbers.
Precise measurement is essential when making soap—not just for the quality of the finished product, but for safety reasons, too. Lye, one of the key ingredients, can damage your skin and eyes if not handled properly. You have to be able to measure accurately. You have to be able to read the temperature with precision.
Images: Making soap. Photos by Erin Wilson / Preemptive Love Coalition.
So Jessica visited again and again and taught them how to read numbers. She taught herself how to make soap, then showed them.
They have made tens of thousands of bars since then. Their skill and their craft are a wonder to behold.
Their soap has been sold all over the world and right here in Iraq. It’s made its way into the emergency hygiene kits we distribute, helping other displaced families just like them.
“Without this soap, we couldn’t have provided.”
This soap has paid for food, medicine, and more. It gave them enough to get by. But they don’t just want to get by. They want to thrive.
So we invested again. Yazidis are masters at tending livestock in harsh environments, and there was open land near their makeshift homes. So we brought dozens of sheep for Marwan and the other men and women to raise, providing nutritious yogurt and delicious cheese—as well as another source of income.
There have been setbacks, some of them heartbreaking. Two winters ago, a virus swept through the flock, killing many of their sheep. More recently—just as we were writing this story, in fact—one of the families had 10 pregnant sheep stolen. Someone targeted one of the families, broke into a pen where their sheep sleep at night, along with sheep owned by other families. They cut through fence and tent, and took only the one family’s sheep.
For a family that once owned 200 sheep—before they fled ISIS—it’s a painful reminder of how hard it is to remake home. The wounds of war cannot be mended in a moment. Money cannot replace everything that is lost. Yes, we can provide more sheep (and we will, if the stolen sheep are not recovered). But the sense of loss and violation—being targeted for violence, fresh wounds on top of earlier trauma—that does not fade easily.
Yet these families persist.
When their sheep were sick, they able to use the money the made from soap to buy medicine themselves and save the rest of the flock. Their flock has grown, and their ability to weather each new storm is stronger than it was.
It is one more step from dependence to dignity.
And they are still walking.
One of the men, Zido, recently used the money he’s earned to buy a truck and start yet another business, transporting goods with his new truck. Creating opportunity for himself—another step away from dependence.
None of these families are wealthy. They are still displaced. They still face painful setbacks, like the loss of sheep. They are still far from home—far from their heritage. And for now at least, the barriers to returning seem insurmountable. Their communities are still destroyed. There are no basic services like electricity or water. And despite claims of victory over ISIS, the situation back home is anything but safe.
Slowly, however, they are making a new home for themselves. Right where they are.
Images: Gozê at her new home. A feast served inside Marwa and Zido’s home. Photos by Matt Willingham, Ben Irwin / Preemptive Love Coalition
Thanks in part to the income they’ve earned tending sheep and making soap, our friends recently moved from the shipping containers where they lived for years into rented homes nearby. They live close enough—just across the muddy road, actually—to the fields where we first met, where their sheep now graze.
It isn’t the home they lost. But it becomes more like home every day. They have what they need. They can provide for themselves.
They used to talk about how they had no one, how they knew no one. How alone they felt.
“Now we are amazing people,” Marwan tells us with pride.
Remaking Home for the Next Generation, Too
This journey of transformation does not end with the parents who fled ISIS. It’s continuing for their children.
Recently, two of Marwan’s children graduated from one of our WorkWell campuses in Iraq. They were able to learn IT skills they’ll be able to use to work anytime, from anywhere. In a country where war and displacement have strained an already weak job market, they’ll be able to access the global digital marketplace beyond Iraq and earn a living for themselves and their families in a whole new way.
Ancient crafts like soapmaking and hi-tech skills like coding are combining to give these families a future.
Because remaking home is never just one thing. The wounds of war are not mended in a moment.
But it can start with one thing. It can start with one moment. With one decision to show up—and then to stay.
This journey of transformation—our friends’ journey from death to life—is only possible because a community people chose to walk with them. To stand with them until they could stand for themselves.
It is only possible because of those who give monthly, who keep showing up when the headlines turn elsewhere, when the big aid groups move on to other crises, when the world’s compassion fades.
There are thousands more families who need us—you—to walk this journey with them.
This is what can happen—what is happening in Iraq, in Syria—when we show up together, month after month. When we give, month after month. We can dig in and stay.
We can see the journey through. We can help families reclaim dignity and hope.