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Xavier Magazine | July 28, 2017

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Goodwill Hunter

Mary Schoen clicks the control on her slide projector and a new slide drops into place. “These are going to be a little darker,” she says, rising to close a set of vertical blinds against the soft, early spring sunshine. In the new shadows, a vague image emerges on the light-blue wall—blasted concrete and twisted, steel reinforcement rods, all that’s left of Baghdad’s Ameriya bomb shelter.

Iraqi officials claim 408 people died there when the shelter was hit during the 1991 Gulf War. The government turned the shelter into a museum, lining its walls with shots of the charred human shapes pulled out in the aftermath. Some of the victims remain in the shelter in the form of three-dimensional stains, literally incinerated into the floor.

“This is what war looks like,” she says. “My whole life’s purpose is to put a face on this.” The faces of war are ones Schoen knows well. The tiny, dark-haired, 48-year-old has seen many of them in the 19 years since she first committed herself to serving others by traveling internationally to document human rights abuses and to put faces on a faceless world. Like many University alumni who volunteer  for service and mission programs, she found motivation in the desire to help people.

Passionate, determined and feisty, with a seemingly indomitable will and energy to match, Schoen has followed that calling to Central American jungles and desolate Palestinian refugee camps. She knows something of Iraq as well: She made two trips to Baghdad early this year, the most recent ending early on March 17, just before President George Bush drew his final line in the sand against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The combined impact of these experiences has led her to lead a life educating those who will listen about the devastation of war. But it has also given her an intimate perspective on the ever-shrinking world and the people who live in it.

“We’ve got to learn to respect people,” she says. “We’ve got to realize we’re one human family.”

The projector clicks again and again, and the images segue from the grim remains of the dead to the sometimes hopeful, often resigned faces of the living. Schoen first traveled to Iraq in January despite facing U.N. sanctions. She spent three weeks in Baghdad and the surrounding countryside as part of a peace team assembled by Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based activist organization that’s had a presence in Iraq since 1996. In the markets, cafés and mosques, she got a firsthand look at life under Hussein. Her impressions of the capital—once one of the most Westernized in the region, she says—are vivid.

The sanctions did not hurt Saddam Hussein, she says, or  others in the upper class, who still maintained the majority of the wealth. While the poor had nothing to lose to begin with, it was the Iraqi well-educated and once prosperous middle class that bore the brunt of sanctions, disintegrating into abject poverty. Many were forced to sell virtually all of their possessions and work long hours at menial jobs to support their families. In one instance, Schoen hailed a cab driven by a physicist. He was one of the lucky ones. The overall unemployment rate hovered around 70 percent, with about the same percentage of the population dependent upon government rations.

There were hints, she says, that many Iraqis didn’t like Hussein, whose human rights atrocities are well-documented—gassing his own people, torture chambers, mass graves. Still, she says, many of the people she talked to preferred an Iraqi leader of any kind to Western occupation and influence. They also shared the view held by many in the Middle East that American actions were really an effort to seize oil, gain a strategic position in the region and attack Islam.

Despite those sentiments, Schoen says she felt welcome in Baghdad. “It kind of dumbfounded me,” she says. “But in the Middle East in general they’ve never had a representative government. So they really separate governments and people. They say ‘Well, your government’s one thing and you’re another.’ ”

Externally, Schoen’s activities took her all over Baghdad, to Karbala, which is southwest of the capital, and even on a flight through the no-fly zone to Basra. Internally, among the activists, she played several roles.

“She quickly proved herself to be the best facilitator in the group,” says Bret Davis, an Indiana activist present during Schoen’s first visit. “We really relied on her to keep our decision-making processes in motion. And she’s a lot of fun. Being in a war zone, it’s really important to laugh and try to have as much fun as possible to maintain your sanity. She was always a spark in the group—telling jokes or stories.”

It’s not hard to imagine Schoen telling stories in a Baghdad hotel. She’s a good storyteller. And today, as she clicks the projector from slide to slide, she recounts the story of each face—the young widow, the poet, the children in cancer wards, the young boy and his even-younger sister who asked for food and then insisted on sharing. By the time of her second visit to Baghdad in March, war was drawing nearer and the faces had changed. People were more somber and there was more begging on the streets.

Predictably, her efforts have won her admirers as well as detractors. Benjamin Urmston, S.J., director of the University’s peace and justice programs, places her among the foremost social and peace activists he’s met in terms of courage, determination and persistence. Rosie Miller, a member of the University’s theology faculty and a longtime Schoen friend, says she “in some ways embodies the Jesuit tradition, which embodies the gospel.”

In her philosophy, fear—both personal and between peoples—exists only to be removed. And she’s convinced that fear lies at the heart of much of the misunderstanding in the world, and that diplomacy, not war, is the answer.

The journey to this view—pockmarked as it is with detours into the worlds of death squads and bomb craters—began in Escanaba, Mich., where Schoen was raised in a “moderately strong Catholic tradition.” Interested in world issues from childhood, she majored in sociology at Western Michigan University with an eye toward making a difference. After graduating in 1976, she took a job as a social worker at an Episcopal community in inner-city Detroit.

“My life as I remember it kind of snowballed after I got out of college,” she says, “and it never stopped.”

Schoen’s snowball gained momentum in 1983 when she moved to Cincinnati to join the New Jerusalem Community, a lay Catholic group. She eventually took a job with a social services agency, but other forces soon altered her direction. The 1980s were a time of upheaval in Central America, and the New Jerusalem community became involved with the flood of refugees entering the United States.

“At one point, one of the refugees challenged me to go to Central America and really see what was going on,” Schoen recalls. That was all it took. Schoen packed a few belongings and headed for Nicaragua, which at that time was in the throes of U.S.-backed war and sanctions.

When she returned to Cincinnati and her job at the agency, her outlook was irrevocably changed.

“I sat at my desk for five days and could not make peace with what I saw in Nicaragua. On the fifth day, I resigned and asked the community if they would send me back to Central America.”

Her approach soon shifted from observer to activist, and her motivation from merely seeing to effecting large-scale change.

“Her intent is to bring about a change of consciousness,” Miller says. “That can happen at both the personal level and systematic level. I think she’s after both of those levels.”

Schoen eventually spent four years in Central America—a year studying languages in Guatemala, another year in Honduras where she worked with Catholic Relief Services in a refugee camp for Salvadorans, and finally back to Nicaragua to document what was happening there. Indeed, she made so many trips that the chronology is murky even to her. “There was one day when I woke up in the dark and couldn’t remember where I was,” she says.

She made periodic trips back to the States to speak, give slide presentations and tell stories about people. Ironically, she found that these trips often left her depressed. With all of the material distractions here, she found many Americans becoming complacent, especially when compared to the daily life-and-death realities of Central America. In one particularly memorable instance, Schoen was staying by herself in a house in Bocana de Paiwas when Contras attacked the tiny village. One family, aware that she was alone, sent two of their children to keep her company. She says such acts of thoughtfulness were common.

“It was all very humbling,” she recalls. “That’s where I really learned what Christianity was really about—what the authentic gospel message is, which is love one another, love God, take care of one another, watch over one another. In Central America, they didn’t have an option to have faith. God wasn’t optional because they had nothing else to hold onto.

“Sometimes they ended up comforting us because we would be despairing. But in some ways, those were the best years of my life because I didn’t have the trimmings of the U.S. culture. I traveled with a backpack packed with a journal, a Bible, a book, a change of clothes, a camera and a tape recorder. It was wonderful.”

Not everyone, of course, agrees with Schoen’s political perspectives or views on foreign policy. Her actions, though, are admirable, and they’ve captured the attention of a number of people, including Urmston, who brought the young activist to speak at the University and eventually hired her as the associate director of the peace and justice programs. His view of her has remained constant over the years.

“Sometimes people think if you’re working for peace, you’re kind of passive, you’re kind of meek, you’re letting people walk all over you,” he says. “Well, nobody every walked all over Mary. And she’s a spiritual person, too. She has, I think, a deep faith and deep spiritual roots. There’s depth to her commitment.”

Schoen spent two years with the peace and justice programs, during which she made a trip to Israel to monitor the effects of the Gulf War on the Palestinian situation. In 1993, she transferred to campus ministry. In an ironic twist, it was around this time, ostensibly safe on American soil, that she suffered her own personal atrocity, being raped in her Norwood apartment. In the moments following the assault, however, Schoen pulled herself together, called the police and enlisted a neighbor to help run down her attacker.

“I caught him,” she says. “Just as we were cornering him, the police pulled up.”

Drawing on her faith, her natural spunk and the lessons of the Central Americans, Schoen “refused to let anything like that have a negative impact on my life, and it didn’t. It actually strengthened who I was. It gave me a lot more resolve, made me a little feistier.”

After completing a master’s degree in theology at the University in 1995, Schoen resigned to start her own business in holistic health and spirituality. But within several months she faced another challenge: doctors discovered a brain tumor. She ultimately chose medication over surgery, and after a period of adjustment, spent the next six years building clientele for her company, now known as The Creative Breath Institute. Last year, she even took the giant step of buying a condominium.

“It was hard,” she says. “I’ve never owned anything.” But just as life was settling into a pattern, the shadow of war arose in the Middle East, and Schoen felt a familiar call. Late in the year she hooked up with a Voices in the Wilderness peace team, which was monitoring the effects of sanctions on the Iraqi people.

“I don’t believe anything I hear about most places—I go,” she says. “I didn’t know much about Iraq. So I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to go see for myself what’s going on.’ ”

Eventually the clicking ceases, and the slide carousel stops turning—at least for this morning. Since returning to the States, the slides and the stories they tell have commanded much of Schoen’s time. She’s juggled her schedule to shoehorn in as many speaking engagements as possible. She watches only enough TV news to find out what’s being said, then turns to the Internet for a broader view. She says the American press—like the Iraqi press—puts too much spin on the facts. And she’s adamant that Americans need facts.

“The problems facing us are not about Iraq,” she says. “To understand our place in the world, we have to go from being good U.S. citizens to being good world citizens. That’s going to be a long haul.”

She pauses. “I’m in for the long haul.”

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