Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Whitworth College honors Catholic Relief Services Iraq staffer
by Scott Cooper, for the Inland Register
(From the Oct. 23, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)
Former CRS staffer Tom Perko visits with Anna Schowengerdt, now working with Catholic Relief Services in Iraq. Schowengerdt was in Spokane recently to receive an award from her alma mater, Whitworth College. (IR photo)
Among all the daily information and images received about U.S. involvement in Iraq, Anna Schowengerdt finds it notable that she hasn’t seen the face of a single Iraqi civilian on television since her return from Iraq to the United States.
Schowengerdt’s observations about providing relief in a war-torn country were made Sept. 29 at Whitworth College in Spokane. She graduated from Whitworth in 1993 and now heads Catholic Relief Services’ programs in Basra, in southern Iraq.
CRS is the U.S. bishops’ overseas development and emergency relief agency. In the Spokane Diocese, CRS benefits from the World Missions Collection, which was taken up the weekend of Oct. 18–19, and from Lenten donations to “Operation Rice Bowl.”
Schowengerdt was in Spokane to receive Whitworth’s 2003 Recent Alumna Award. She took the opportunity to give a perspective on life and work in Iraq, a perspective independent of media and government sources.
She arrived in Iraq last spring to lead CRS relief and development efforts there. In that time she has gained an appreciation and respect for the resilience and hospitality of the Iraqi people, as well as for the monumental task of working toward a healed and reconciled civil society there.
CRS’ work in Iraq is focused on the southern third, called the “lower south,” of the country, an area populated largely by Shi’ite Muslims. The Shi’ites were oppressed and persecuted by the Sunni and secular Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein. Schowengerdt says CRS hopes to rebuild not just the “bricks and mortar” of infrastructure, but also the psychological and emotional health of a society exposed to three decades of war and repression.
According to Schowengerdt, the Coalition forces’ precision bombing campaign in the lower south had been, in fact, very precise, doing very little damage to civilian structures. The civilian infrastructure suffers, however, from a lack of government investment and maintenance over the past 30 to 40 years, particularly since the U.S.-led U.N. sanctions following the first Gulf War. Bringing the electrical, water and sanitation systems even back to their pre-sanction level will require complete reinvestment, she said.
She talked about the enormously high crime rate in Iraq, traceable to the lack of police and the relative freedom now to continue long-standing family feuds. In addition, there is easy access to weapons; she said hand grenades are available in the local market for $1 each, right next to the watermelons.
As for Catholic Relief Services, Schowengerdt stressed their collaboration with Caritas Iraq, the local Catholic Charities agency. CRS always tries to work with and through the local Caritas agency. As an American organization, CRS also tries to maintain a low profile in Iraq.
She oversees a staff of 30 local people, about half of whom are Muslims. The others are Christians belonging to the regional Chaldean Rite Catholic Church. Because non-governmental organizations were banned under the Hussein regime, CRS has had to invest time and effort in preliminary work such as team- and trust-building among the new staff. The healing and reconciliation needed throughout Iraqi society is evident among her own staffers, she said. Under the Hussein government, she said, people were taught not to trust one another. For that reason, civil society such as local neighborhood associations never had a chance.
Along with Save the Children, CRS is responsible for relief and development projects in 50 communities in the lower south. They hope to initiate four to five projects in each community by the time their mandate expires in May of next year.
One of the first projects they undertook in one community was to remove the garbage from the streets. Before the war in March, garbage service ended and refuse quickly piled up. Schowengerdt’s office organized and paid for local services to remove the garbage. Another community asked for a community sewing center where women could earn extra money and make clothing for their families. A third asked for a soccer field so that children could have a safe place to play that was free of landmines.
Some of her agency’s funding is governmental, through USAID. But because some is private, through CRS, she has flexibility in how she can respond to needs.
Overall, CRS’ goal in the lower south is to increase citizen involvement in local government and to help local communities discern their most pressing needs, to prioritize those needs and to take steps to govern themselves. Any attempt at local authority had been viewed as a threat by the former Iraqi government. As a result, people still are reluctant to organize. Some are not yet convinced that the Ba’ath party is truly gone. Criticism of the old regime remains muted.
Schowengerdt stressed the very real life-saving work going on right now to combat the serious malnutrition and public health issues that charitable organizations found when they arrived in the spring. She encouraged people to learn as much as they could about Iraq, to develop solidarity with and commitment to the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people, she said, need our prayers.
Daily life in Iraq is more unstable and desperate than the American news media report, she said. She urged the audience to seek out alternative media sources, such as the BBC, for a more balanced view. While the Iraqis she knows are grateful to the U.S. for getting rid of the Hussein government, there is resentment toward the United States government, she said. In order to gain credibility in the eyes of the people, United States efforts must be part of an international body.
(Information about Catholic Relief Services can be found on the CRS web site.)