Providing Iraqis a hand up

SUN JOURNAL

Help: For the emergency coordinator of Catholic Relief Services, work in Basra has meant moments of danger and enormous satisfaction.

March 19, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

On a recent rainy morning, Anna Schowengerdt sat in the lobby of the Wyndham Hotel in Baltimore and talked about returning home.

"I'm off in just a few hours," she said, a small suitcase by her feet. "I'll be glad to be back."

For Schowengerdt, emergency coordinator for the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, "home" is currently Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

Since June, the 33-year-old Colorado native has been stationed there as director of a $7 million Catholic Relief-led effort to rehabilitate Basra and surrounding villages - a destitute part of southern Iraq that suffered decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein's regime and remains the scene of occasional violence. At least four people died yesterday when a bomb exploded outside a Basra hotel.

Catholic Relief, which works in partnership with the Save the Children Foundation in Iraq, is financing the project with money from the U.S. Agency for International Development and $1 million of its own funds. As Schowengerdt explained on her brief trip back to Baltimore, the organization's mission is not to drop in, dole out aid and disappear. Instead, it is to build democracy at the grass-roots level.

"Before we leapt into projects, we moved slowly and worked hard to establish trust," she said. "We want to give people a voice and make them feel good about themselves."

For Schowengerdt and her 58 employees - 55 of them Iraqi citizens - this approach has so far been a success. In just nine months, the group has helped residents complete 92 projects ranging from the paving of roads to the restoration of water. Iraqis have paid for approximately 25 percent of each project, which Schowengerdt said has given them a sense of ownership and accomplishment.

"Iraqis are proud people - with good reason - but they were humiliated under Saddam Hussein," she says. "We've made them feel good about themselves for the first time and given them a choice. They can now say things like `We need this and we're ready to get it done.'"

When she arrived in June, the U.S. airstrikes had just ended. Basra was relatively peaceful.

It was not long, however, before things in the city of 3 million took a terrible turn.

Suffering from a lack of water, power and gasoline, residents began to riot. With temperatures soaring above 120 degrees, violence escalated. Several foreign relief workers were attacked; their co-workers fled.

"Things started to go downhill quickly and people just lost their minds," says Schowengerdt. "The Iraqis started asking why the occupying forces, or `miracle workers,' were not restoring their electricity, and they became really angry."

By mid-September, soon after the bombing of the U.N. and International Red Cross offices in Baghdad, no more than five relief workers remained in Basra.

"We laid the groundwork to leave," she says. "But it was just rioting, so we didn't freak out."

Instead, Schowengerdt and three male colleagues settled into a five-bedroom house surrounded by concrete walls. They set up an office across the street and began hiring and training residents with the help of Caritas Iraq, a Catholic relief organization. Because there were no banks in Basra, Schowengerdt carried large chunks of her $7 million budget in her pockets:

"About $50,000 at a time. I would just dish it out and ask for a fingerprinted receipt."

In November, several of her Iraqi co-workers were injured when a suicide bomber attacked the Italian police headquarters in Nasiriya.

"It's a reminder of the need for consistent adherence to security protocols," she said in an e-mail from Basra the day after a series of bombings in Iraq - one of them just a mile from her office. "It's also a reminder that this is a highly insecure environment."

Schowengerdt says she never ventures out after dark and spends most of her time in the one-block radius between her home and her office, a sometimes tedious lifestyle.

"It can be boring as heck," she says. "My social life is limited to watching DVDs with the other relief workers."

Schowengerdt's ability to see Basra's potential comes in part from her six years of experience with Catholic Relief Services, including two in Liberia and three in Uganda. A 1996 graduate of the University of Denver, where she earned a master's degree in international politics, she also spent two years working for the Washington, D.C.-based Refugee Policy Group.

"She's a trouper," says Chris Tucker, Catholic Relief Services' regional director for the Middle East. "She had the courage to go to Iraq and hit the ground running, and she's had the stamina and grit not to be afraid."

What Schowengerdt seems most frightened of, for the moment, is a recent decision by the Bush administration to cut $45 million in funding for Catholic Relief Services and several other nongovernmental, nonprofit groups participating in the Community Action Program in Iraq. The decision could force Schowengerdt to shut down the Iraq project two months early.

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