On December 3, World Magazine ran a story questioning Preemptive Love’s work in northeast Syria. The allegations made in their story are false. Below is our full response.
Editor’s Note: This page was originally published December 4 and updated December 6 to add a summary of four key facts World got wrong in their article and to partially obscure GPS coordinates in screenshots we provided World (unblurred) for security reasons. This page will continue to be updated as more information comes to light.
4 Key Facts World Got Wrong
1. World wrongly accuses us of exaggerating the amount of aid.
At no point did we misrepresent either the amount of aid we delivered or places we’ve worked in northeast Syria—or anywhere else, for that matter.
In a handful of posts several weeks ago, we incorrectly said there were 44,400 displaced people staying in 37 schools. We did not claim to have given food or medical care to this many people, as World wrongly asserts in their article and in followup tweets.
This can be seen in a screenshot of one of our posts that World itself shared. In the post from October 30, we clearly (and correctly) state that we delivered medical care to ~6,000 people.
We correctly reported the number of locations where we’ve worked. We gave World a detailed list of these locations, as they requested.
Our attempts to clarify these points to World have gone unacknowledged.
As of November 21, we have provided 1,800 ready-to-eat food packs (each meant to feed a family for up to a week) and 7,000 medical consultations. We are currently distributing another 1,200 family food packs. Our mobile clinics continue to treat people. We’re also providing 4,000 bed rolls and 2,500 winter survival kits.
2. World inaccurately portrays an alleged “investigation” into our work in Syria and a statement made by a local “NGO committee.”
Preemptive Love is not under investigation for our work in northeast Syria.
In direct, face-to-face conversation with Preemptive Love staff in Syria, the official who signed the statement mentioned by World has confirmed to us that we are in good standing and that we have fully addressed the error we made estimating the number of displaced individuals.
3. World wrongly claims emails to us were “unanswered.”
We communicated with World on November 17, December 2, and December 3.
On November 21, World informed us via Twitter that they were “emailing a doc with some ques [sic] today.” No such email was received.
We were not informed they were going to write about us—and we did not receive questions for their story—until the afternoon of November 27, the day before Thanksgiving. Upon returning from the Thanksgiving holiday on December 2, we acknowledged their email and promised to respond to their questions as soon as possible. We did so the following day, December 3.
4. World makes a number of other wrong or misleading allegations, which they gave us no opportunity to address before running their story.
World accused us of over-representing our involvement in western Mosul in 2017 (untrue), charging the families of children for heart surgeries we provided (misleading), and photographing heart surgery patients in violation of child protection policies (untrue).
At no point in any communication did they raise any of these allegations or offer any opportunity to respond.
Background to World’s Story
We’ve grown and learned a lot over the years. We’ve made mistakes. When we do, we want to know about them—so we can acknowledge them, learn from them, make amends, and become better.
So when a journalist from World Magazine tweeted publicly on November 20 that we were being investigated for “false claims” about our work in northeast Syria, we mobilized our staff and local partners to learn more.
We already knew we had gotten some things wrong in our early reporting on the crisis in northeast Syria, because we had already acknowledged these mistakes publicly—before any claims of an investigation or allegations of “fake numbers” had reached us. One mistake in particular, which features heavily in a story World ran on December 3, was that we incorrectly reported the number of people sheltering at 37 schools in northeast Syria.
As we noted in our Failure Report published November 16, the mistake was the result of a miscalculation. Our US comms staff thought the data we were given indicated the number of families per shelter when, in fact, it reported the number of individuals per shelter. As a result, the number we arrived at and publicly communicated (44,400) was too high.
The moment we realized our mistake, we corrected it—and acknowledged our failure in the most visible way possible.
World raised a number of other allegations, however—which they gave us no opportunity to address. In addition, World falsely claimed that we were unresponsive to their inquiries.
Timeline of Our Communication With World
Below is a timeline of our interactions with World Magazine leading up to their story, cross-referenced with our own work to communicate and correct our mistakes:
- Nov 7: We begin compiling information for a Failure Report publicizing mistakes we made in our early messaging, as well as a food distribution that went wrong.
- Nov 14: We receive our first inquiry from World senior editor Mindy Belz, via email to our CEO and by direct message on Twitter, asking to be connected to someone on the ground in Syria and stating that the local humanitarian office does not have Preemptive Love on its list. Neither of the contact methods she used follow the guidelines we list for journalists to submit press inquiries. Because our CEO was traveling at the time and Twitter doesn’t notify you of messages from someone you don’t follow, the initial inquiries were not seen right away via our official @preemptivelove account.
- Nov 16: We publish our Failure Report on our blog and social media channels. Our CEO publishes it to his personal Instagram and Twitter feeds.
- Nov 17: Belz emails our CEO again; our CEO responds to her original message on Twitter: “Hey, Mindy! So glad you’re there! I’ve been traveling and I’m just getting caught up. You’re right that they wouldn’t have us on their list under our own sole registration. We have not registered as a stand-alone organization with Rojava due to our ongoing registration process with Damascus. We’ve always worked with and through local partners (hand-in-hand, seconding our staff) so we don’t jeopardize our efforts to stay in Syria long-term and in order to build up local institutions who will outlast us.”
- Nov 20: Mindy Belz publicly tweets that Preemptive Love is under investigation for false claims in Syria. Minutes later, Belz responds to our CEO’s DM from three days earlier, accusing us of orchestrating a “charade.”
- Nov 21: Belz messages again via Twitter, promising to email a document with follow-up questions that same day. No such email is received by anyone at Preemptive Love.
- Nov 27: Belz emails the afternoon before Thanksgiving, accusing Preemptive Love of “fake numbers” and “trading at the expense of the humanitarian situation.” She asks three questions, all related to our work in northeast Syria, and requests a response over the Thanksgiving holiday.
- Dec 2: We respond to Belz’s email as soon as our US staff returns to work, contradicting World’s claim their emails were “unanswered.” We promise to provide a detailed response to their questions as soon as possible. Belz replies two hours later, acknowledging our email to her.
- Dec 3: We email World again, providing the responses we promised the day before. Our answers are not included or acknowledged in their article.
Because we knew we were likely to be misrepresented by World, we published our full response to their questions online the day we sent it to them. You can read those responses below, or at the original link that we gave World.
Our Full Response
The primary claims made by World are:
1. That there is “no evidence of a Preemptive Love team on the ground” in northeast Syria.
2. That we deliberately inflated numbers to exaggerate the need.
3. That we did not demonstrate the degree of transparency that others operating in Syria have.
None of these claims are true.
We are on the ground.
World appealed to ignorance to suggest we must not be on the ground in northeastern Syria because unnamed sources said they hadn’t seen evidence of our presence—in an area more than 19,000 square miles.
We gave World a list of 37 locations, as requested, where Preemptive Love staff and partners provided food and medical care through November 21.
We provided GPS coordinates extracted from the metadata of videos that Preemptive Love staff have made onsite at one of the schools where our team provided medical care, and at the Al Hawl refugee camp.
In the time that World alleges we were nowhere to be found, we worked with our partners to distribute 1,800 ready-to-eat food packages and provide 7,000 medical consultations. In addition, prior to World’s story, we had committed another 1,200 food packages, 4,000 bed rolls, and 2,500 winter survival kits.
Citing an unnamed individual, World suggested that we lied about feeding people at the 37 shelters—though their anonymous source conceded that we “may have given some ready-made rations.”
We have consistently communicated that we are distributing ready-to-eat food packages (as opposed to serving cooked meals in northeast Syria). Each package is designed to feed a family for up to a week. This is the language we used on our fundraising page for this campaign from the beginning.
In addition to helping families displaced by the Turkish offensive, we have provided millions of hot meals in multiple locations across Syria since 2016 (Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Deir ez-Zor). We have rehabilitated dozens of bombed-out homes in Aleppo. We’ve provided tens of thousands of medical consultations. We’ve restored hundreds of farming families to their lands.
We’re still here. We can document—and have documented—all of this work.
We acknowledged the mistake with our numbers before World made its accusations.
As noted in the timeline above, we began working on our Failure Report well before World first contacted us. We published our Failure Report well before we had any idea of the accusations they would make.
What we did not realize at the time was that not everyone who needed to see our Failure Report would see it right away. We may be a “media-savvy aid organization” in World’s eyes, but we sometimes overestimate the speed at which content travels.
When we learned that our Failure Report had not yet reached officials and other aid organizations in Syria, we immediately took steps to correct that. As we informed World—but they chose not to report—we shared the Failure Report we had published weeks earlier with the Humanitarian Affairs Offices (HAO) in Hasakah and Amuda, Syria, as well as with the NES (North East Syria) NGO Forum. Preemptive Love staff and partners working in Syria have met personally with Khalid Ibrahim, a member of one of the NGO coordinating bodies in northeast Syria and one of the primary sources for World’s story. It is not just our staff in Iraq who have communicated with him, as World suggests.
Khalid confirmed to us that there is no investigation, that when he received a copy of our Failure Report, he concluded that there was no longer any cause for concern—noting that a lot of aid organizations and UN bodies periodically get their numbers wrong. We have agreed to work directly with Khalid going forward to ensure that the numbers we report quantifying the need in northeast Syria are as accurate as possible.
To be clear, while we were mistaken about the number of people sheltering in 37 locations, we accurately reported the number of people we served with medical care and food.
We have demonstrated substantial transparency, but we will not jeopardize the safety of our staff and partners.
Despite claiming their emails went unanswered, we provided World a detailed list of the 37 locations where we were operating in October and early November. We provided precise GPS coordinates of places where Preemptive Love international staff and local partners have worked.
This is a level of detail we don’t always share, given the security situation in Syria. But as we explained in our response to World, we do not publicly name our partners, because the risk doing so would pose to their security and ours—as well as our ability to operate freely in the most volatile parts of Syria and Iraq—is too high.
Nor are we the only ones to follow this practice, as confirmed to us this week by the NGO Forum Coordinator for northeast Syria. The reasons for not publicly disclosing our partners—which we shared with World—are straightforward enough.
In a country as fractured and as militarily and politically complex as Syria, it is a matter of life and death. We work with people from all sides of the conflict in Syria. We work with people of opposing ideologies, political affiliations, and sectarian identities.
Let’s say we name our partners as World demanded. Imagine, then, that our work takes us into one part of Syria where some of our partners are automatically viewed as the enemy, because they’re from the “wrong” part of the country or affiliated with the “wrong” people. All it takes is one quick Google search at one security checkpoint—and the lives of our staff and local partners are in immediate danger.
This is not a hypothetical situation for us. This is the reality we have navigated since we first began working in Syria. If we name our partners, then it substantially increases the risk to our staff and theirs working in some of the most volatile places.
Reaching beyond Syria, World’s article claims that our “overzealous publicity” has a history of failing to “match actual aid work on the ground,” citing a few examples they believe make this point.
Again, World published these allegations without ever asking us to comment on them.
Quoting anonymous employees of other aid organizations, World claims that we “overrepresented” our work in western Mosul in 2017, “taking credit as the sole aid source.”
We did not claim to be the only ones providing aid in and around Mosul. However, according to multiple Iraqi government and military officials with whom we coordinated to gain access—and as we reported at the time—we believe we were the first aid organization to operate inside western Mosul. Not “near” Mosul. Not “on the outskirts of” Mosul. In Mosul. Before ISIS was driven out.
Our team delivered aid in neighborhoods while ISIS tried to triangulate our position with mortar fire. Our trucks distributed food while US-led Coalition airstrikes fell, sometimes a block or two away.
Members of our team, current and former, risked their lives on numerous occasions to reach farther than some aid groups were understandably willing to go. We were not the only ones to help—and thankfully so, because the people of Mosul needed every ounce of aid they received during the war with ISIS. But we came in on the heels of the Iraqi military, often delivering aid while the bombs were still falling.
World makes two allegations about the pediatric heart surgeries we helped provide during our first several years: (1) that we required each family to pay $2,500 toward their child’s surgery, while simultaneously soliciting these funds from donors—in effect, raising the same money twice without either party knowing it—and (2) that we took photos in violation of child protection policies.
We did invite each family to contribute toward the cost of their child’s surgery—and for good reason. We wanted them to be part of the solution. We wanted to honor their dignity and agency. If we restarted our heart surgery program today, we would do it the same way. None of these parents were helpless to save their kids.
We also knew these families well. We knew their living conditions, their income. We decided together with them how much they would contribute. In a country like Iraq, the main barrier to these kids getting the care they needed was not poverty, but a lack of medical infrastructure.
Some parents with significant wealth contributed more than $2,500 toward their child’s heart surgery. Others with less income paid substantially less. Families were able to pay their agreed-upon share in small, interest-free installments, if they wished. We did not turn families away based on income or ability to pay.
Critically, we were consistently open about our model for providing heart surgeries, with both our donors and the families we served. We did not raise the same money twice. Families contributed part of the cost of their child’s surgery, and donors covered the rest.
This model enabled us to provide more lifesaving heart surgeries than we otherwise could have, because it stretched our donors’ money even further.
As for the claim that our photos violated child protection policies, this is false. We always asked permission before filming or taking photos. On numerous occasions, we stopped filming or photographing if a parent changed their mind. We didn’t require children to be photographed as a condition of receiving care. These are our friends.
For years, we’ve worked with an awareness that the people we serve are also part of our audience. They see how they are represented in our materials, and they repeatedly tell us how proud they are of the way we tell their story. That is a sacred trust to us.
The US-Mexico Border
World’s article concludes by suggesting that we shifted our focus to the US-Mexico border on Giving Tuesday to avoid scrutiny of our work in Syria. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are getting ready to launch our year-end giving campaign, and Syria features prominently in it.
We began working on the US-Mexico border this past spring—initially with asylum seekers in El Paso, and then in Ciudad Juarez after the US implemented its “Remain in Mexico” policy. Our plans to highlight Juarez for Giving Tuesday were finalized on September 1, well before the current crisis in northeast Syria began.
We are humble enough to admit our mistakes, including the ones no one else might see. We welcome questions from our donors and journalists—because we want to be held accountable.
We are proud of our work in Syria. In Iraq. On the US-Mexico border. We are proud of what our donors have made possible. We are proud of our local staff and partners who bring this work to life. We are proud of our international staff who have pressed into the hard places to help others.
Given the evidence we have shared here, validating our work on the ground in northeast Syria and addressing World’s other allegations, we hope they will do the right thing and issue a retraction to their story.
Onward. To end war. To build the more beautiful world. Together.
For inquiries, contact Ben Irwin, Director of Communications & PR at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top photo: One of our mobile medical clinics serving displaced families near Hasakah, Syria on October 30, 2019 (Photo by Erin Wilson/Preemptive Love Coalition)
Answers We Sent World on December 3
“The Hasakah [Syria] regional office of humanitarian organizations has issued a formal complaint against [Preemptive Love] for publishing ‘fake numbers’ and ‘trading at the expense of the humanitarian situation.'”
—email dated November 27, 2019
You may be aware by now that neither the humanitarian affairs offices (HAO) in Hasakah or Amuda, Syria, nor the NES NGO Forum have issued any such complaint against Preemptive Love. Nor are they conducting an investigation into our work in northeast Syria, as you publicly alleged on Twitter on November 20.
They did raise entirely valid concerns about some mistakes we made in our messaging about the crisis in northeast Syria precipitated by the Turkish offensive. However, when we delivered a copy of the Failure Report to the HAOs in Hasakah and Amuda, acknowledging and correcting our mistakes, we were informed the matter had been dropped at both the provincial level in Hasakah and the regional level in Amuda, and that there was no further cause for concern.
Regarding the allegation of “fake numbers,” we trust you realize this is a misrepresentation of what took place, attributing malicious intent to an honest mistake. We acknowledged our error in a Failure Report that we began working on November 7, seven days before you first contacted us.
As we shared in this report, we had mistakenly based our calculation on the number of families per shelter, rather than the number of individuals. There were, in fact, an average of 200 individuals at each shelter, not 200 families, as our comms team mistakenly thought when preparing an update. In an effort to approximate the number of displaced individuals, we multiplied 200 by 6 (the average household size in Syria) and then by 37 (the number of shelters), arriving at the number 44,400.
This is a standard formula that the UN and many organizations use to calculate the number of individuals when “head of household” data is all that is available. But in this case, we should not have multiplied by a factor of 6, because the number we had was already the number of individuals, not heads of household. The actual number of people sheltering at these locations as of October 30 was closer to 7,400.
As soon as we realized our mistake, we removed the number from our posts and issued a correction. Rather than burying the correction, we shared it in the most visible way possible—on our blog and social media channels. Our CEO Jeremy Courtney shared it on his personal Instagram and Twitter feeds as well.
“Trading at the expense of the humanitarian situation”
On November 20, in your second message via Twitter—and after we had replied to your first message—you leapt to describe our work in Syria as a “charade.” As you can probably understand, making such a serious accusation so quickly and before doing due diligence would give almost anyone pause before engaging further. It suggests you had already decided what the story should be, before the facts are clear.
The following morning, November 21, you indicated you would send followup questions by email that very day. No such email was received by anyone at Preemptive Love.
Six days later—the afternoon before Thanksgiving—you sent an email suggesting we are “trading at the expense of the humanitarian situation” and requesting a response while our entire US staff was away for the holiday, with their families.
We would like to take the opportunity to shed additional light on our work in northeast Syria from October to November 2019. To date, this work has included:
- 3,000 family food packages—1,800 of which have already been distributed, and 1,200 more to be distributed shortly
- 7,000 medical consultations made by two mobile clinics
- 4,000 bed rolls (2 per family) and 2,500 winter survival kits to be distributed shortly
That’s in addition to millions of hot meals served across Syria since we began working there in late 2016, dozens of bombed-out homes repaired in Aleppo, hundreds of farmers return to their lands, and tens of thousands of medical consultations provided through our mobile clinics and portable hospital.
We’ve continued to maintain our presence in Syria, even as global interest has waned. Our staff and local partners have survived sniper fire and suicide bombings—just like you have—in order to reach those in need. On what grounds do you think it’s fair for us to be accused of “trading at the expense of the humanitarian situation”?
We would also like to answer the specific questions you raised in your November 27 email.
“Who are the ‘local partners’ Jeremy [Courtney] has referenced that you are working with in northeast Syria?”
Since the early days of our presence in Syria, we have openly shared that we work with and through local partners. We design, implement, and monitor programming together, with Preemptive Love staff working alongside partners whenever possible.
But we do not publicly name our partners, out of the highest concern for their security and ours—and for our ability to operate freely in the most volatile parts of Syria and Iraq.
As confirmed to us recently by the NGO Forum Coordinator for northeast Syria, this is a standard, necessary practice followed by other aid groups, including at least one organization that World has covered favorably in recent weeks.
In a country as fractured and as militarily and politically complex as Syria, this is a matter of life and death. We work with people from all sides of the conflict in Syria. We work with people of opposing ideologies, political affiliations, and sectarian identities.
Let’s say we name our partners as you insist. Imagine, then, that our work takes us into one part of Syria where some of our partners are automatically viewed as the enemy, because they’re from the “wrong” part of the country or affiliated with the “wrong” people. All it takes is one quick Google search at one security checkpoint—and lives of our staff and local partners are in immediate danger.
This is not a hypothetical situation for us. This is the reality we have navigated since we first began working in Syria. If we name our partners to satisfy your demands, then you have substantially increased the risk to our staff and partners serving in some of the most volatile places in Syria.
If, despite the risk to our collective security, you insist that we start revealing our local partners—at the very least, we trust you will apply the same standard across the board, to all organizations you report on, and not play favorites.
“Where are the 37 schools located where you are serving, and what is the correct number of people being served?”
To be clear, we did not misrepresent the number of people we have served. We mistakenly reported the total number of people taking shelter at these 37 locations—a mistake we have since corrected.
Here are the locations where we worked with our partners to provide ready-to-eat food packages in October and early November:
- Al Nashwa al-Gharbiyya
- Aabd al-Aziz al-Rashed
- Jreir al-Mushref
- Fatima al-Zahraa
- Shaaban al-Jaban
- Al Mathna
- Ahmad Yasine
- Al Andalus
- Port Said
- Tal Tamr centres and shelters
- Seif al Dawle shelter
- Tal Ahmar center (Shahida Fian)
- Tal Nasri center
- Tal Hafyan shelter (Tal Nasri)
Here are the locations where we worked with our partners to provide food and medical care in October and early November:
- Aziziya district (Hasakah)
- Mahmoud Darwish school
- Halima al saadia school
- Ismaiil Toucan school
- Salhiya district (Hasakah):
- Shams al-Din shelter
- Marwan Yousef shelter
- Aazawi shelter
- Khashman district (Hasakah):
- The new school of Khashman
- Villages from Hasakah to Qamishli:
- Said Ali
- Ef Kira
- Naim al Lajji
- Sefyan al Hyan
- Hamed al-Ali
- Khashman al-Mouhaddatha
- Al Nashwa al-Sharqiya
- Walid Nawfal
- Abou Aswad al-Dalli
- Abi Aabida al-Jarrah
- Al Madina al-Riyadiyya
- Al Sakan al-Shababi
See above for the number of people who are receiving food packages, medical consultations, bed rolls, and winter survival kits.
Since you raised the possibility that we are orchestrating a “charade” in your Twitter message on November 20, it’s worth noting that we can prove exactly where we work in north and eastern Syria (and all Syria, for that matter) by extracting GPS coordinates from the metadata of videos we’ve made while on location.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: We have edited the images below since sharing them with World to partially blur the exact GPS coordinates, out of concern for our team’s security. World received un-blurred copies showing our exact coordinates.]
“Do you have ongoing work at Al-Hawl camp?”
In April 2019, we delivered a hospitainer (a shipping container outfitted as a customizable, portable medical clinic) that’s being used by another organization as a surgical unit and pre-op room for the field hospital at Al Hawl. We funded the structure; they are funding its operation.
We’re also funding a mobile clinic, doctors, and medicine to provide care to foreign wives and children of ISIS fighters, although the deteriorating security situation has limited our access in recent weeks. When the doctors we’re employing are unable to access this part of the camp, they are serving in the nearby field hospital. The mobile clinic has been deployed to shelters across north and eastern Syria. (It is one of the two mobile clinics currently serving the 37 locations mentioned above.)
Preemptive Love international program and communication staff have repeatedly been onsite to monitor and evaluate programming in Al Hawl, and to explore ways of establishing an ongoing presence there. The deteriorating security situation has forced us to revisit our timetable for realizing our full programming vision in Al Hawl. In the meantime, the doctors we are funding are continuing to provide care at the field hospital. The statement we made on November 6 remains accurate: “We’re working on how to meet the needs of residents. We’re pursuing ways to provide crucial medical care and food, and to provide care for the youngest and most impressionable, these children of ISIS families.”
We are proud of our work in Syria. We are proud of what our donors have made possible. We are proud of our local staff and partners who bring this work to life. We are proud of our international staff who have pressed into the hard places to help others.
We are happy to answer any other questions you may have.