She has worked in Liberia, Uganda, Kenya and Somalia. She's handed out blankets to the cold, food for the hungry and medicine for the sick, all while surrounded by civil wars, famines and AIDS epidemics. Now she's in Baghdad, overseeing a $7 million humanitarian program and running a staff of 30 Iraqi men -- and she still smiles optimistically in the latest pictures she sent home.
Her name is Anna Schowengerdt, and on Friday she'll be back in Spokane as one of the recipients of Whitworth College's 2003 Recent Alumna Award. On Monday, she gives a lecture on Catholic Relief Service's work in war-torn Iraq, then she heads back to Baghdad.
It was while still a student at Whitworth that Schowengerdt got her first taste of humanitarian aid.
"I spent eight months on an independent study-abroad program in Kenya and found myself in a remote corner of the Kenya-Somalia border, just as the 1992 Somali refugee influx began," Schowengerdt writes in an e-mail from Iraq. "I was 'volunteered' by the UNHCR program there to help organize food and blankets for 100,000 refugees who arrived in one day. I immediately knew that the emotional high of responding to a humanitarian emergency would stay with me forever."
Schowengerdt graduated from Whitworth in 1993 with a degree in International Studies. From there, she went on to study at the University of Denver, where she graduated with a master's degree in International Politics and Development.
In 1998, she joined Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and after being stationed in Liberia, where she tracked the impact of a 15,000-metric-ton food program, she moved on to Kenya in 2000.
"I managed 19 programs in emergency food distribution, agriculture, education, HIV/AIDS, micro-finance, peace-building, post-conflict psychosocial recovery and emergency preparedness," writes Schowengerdt. "Four months ago, I left Uganda to become the head of CRS in Iraq, where I've established the agency's first presence in the country and now oversee a $7 million program to increase citizen participation in the new government, promote inner-community cooperation and reconciliation, and rehabilitate community-level infrastructure."
She's doing all this while the bullets are flying and car bombs are exploding. More troops are being killed now that the "major hostilities" are officially over than when the war was officially underway.
Tad Wisenor, director of Alumni and Parent Relations at Whitworth, says Schowengerdt is the perfect recipient of the 2003 Recent Alumna Award.
"She embodies the mission of the college, and she has been able to combine her faith with living out her goals in life," says Wisenor. "She is not billing herself as an expert on Iraq -- that is not her area. She is here to talk about Catholic Relief Services and the role that agency plays in war-torn countries like Iraq."
CRS was briefly operational in Iraq following the Gulf War in 1991, and the agency joined Caritas Iraq in 1999 in response to the United Nations sanctions imposed on the country.
"Throughout the most recent war, CRS worked in Iraq and neighboring countries through its local partners to address the immediate human suffering," says Joe Carney, spokesperson for CRS, which is located in Baltimore. "CRS pledged $1 million in private funds for the initial emergency response and participated in an international appeal in support of the Iraqi population sponsored by Caritas Internationalis [an international confederation of Catholic charitable organizations]."
The lecture Schowengerdt will give on Monday is part of the Lives of Commitment Project Whitworth launched in 2001 with a $1.1 million grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. This five-year program aims to give college students a robust worldview, which then, ideally, becomes a part of their lifestyle after they graduate.
"We are very fortunate to have Schowengerdt as one of our graduates," says Wisenor. "Over the years, she has stayed in touch with the college. She has had incredible experiences, and by listening to her, we hope people will get a better understanding of relief organizations and what they can do in war-torn countries."