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Mendoza dean travels through Middle East

Molly Madden | Thursday, September 24, 2009

While many Notre Dame students spent the summer relaxing or catching up with old friends, one University faculty member traveled to the Middle East to provide service to those in need.

Dean Carolyn Woo of the Mendoza School of Business spent 10 days traveling with representatives from Catholic Relief Services through Afghanistan and Pakistan. Woo, who is a board member for the organization, went to visit countries where the group currently has programs running.

Woo described the organization’s mission as providing relief and assistance to disadvantaged areas. The group is currently undertaking a number of rebuilding efforts in Pakistan stemming from the earthquake that ravaged the country a few years ago.

“Pakistan is still feeling the effects of the earthquake,” Woo said. “We are helping with housing and education for the people in the post-earthquake Pakistan.”

Catholic Relief Services’ present main objective in Afghanistan is agricultural.

“We are trying to help barren land become fruitful,” Woo said. “We are introducing wheat and fruit as replacements for the poppy.”

Woo said that her experience in these war-torn countries were heartrending as well as inspirational.

“You’re not used to the type of trauma that you see there,” she said. “But it’s also uplifting to see how people’s lives can be rebuilt. To see green shoots in rocky soil is so unbelievable.”

Woo said an especially moving experience was visiting the first school for the deaf in Afghanistan which was funded by Catholic Relief Services.

“The children were so engaged in their learning and so happy,” she said. “If this school did not exist, they would be cast away from society. The boys would be pulling carts, essentially doing a job meant for donkeys and the girls would be washing clothes or weaving.”

Being in Afghanistan, however, did not come without its dangers.

“The day I left Kabul, I woke up to the sound of seven rockets being shot at the airport, which was where I was going later that day,” Woo said. “Experiences like that give you a feeling of how temporary and precarious life can be. In those countries, you take a chance just walking down the street. I felt like a bond was created between myself and the people that live that way everyday.”

Woo said this bond has helped her look at Afghanis and Pakistanis in a different way.

“I don’t feel like they’re strangers anymore,” she said. “Just the other night I had a Pakistani staff member from the organization over to dinner at my home. None of my other guests had ever met a Pakistani before.”

Building relationships with the indigenous people of the countries where the organization is doing service, Woo said, is key to the success of the programs that are being implemented.

“Before we begin a project, we have conversations going with the village leaders for months beforehand,” she said. “We learn about the village infrastructure so that we don’t disrupt it and we get the priorities from the village leaders themselves.”

Creating relationships with the villagers before beginning a project allows the villagers to know that the organization has the same goal as them.

“Since these were Muslim countries, we hired mostly Muslims,” she said. “They were working for a Catholic agency but for the same purpose that we both believe in. It was delightful to work with them.”

Despite the cultural, national and religious differences, Woo said that once she was working with the Afghanis and Pakistanis, all differences melted away.

“Once you get there, you’re all the same,” she said. “You can’t make generalizations. You stop looking at them as an Afghani or a Pakistani; you lose sense of that. And are able to feel a sense of ease with people that you usually stay away from.”

While Woo says she is happy to be back in the United States, she wants the Notre Dame community to know about her trip and what she learned through her experiences.

“Have a heart big enough for the world,” she said. “In the end, living our faith calls for service to our brothers and sisters from all over the world and we need to respond to where there is need.”

Woo also believes that the work she and the Catholic Relief Services are doing is helping to build bridges on a much larger scale.

“I believe that our work builds peace,” Woo said. “If you can go into Afghanistan and Pakistan you need to respect their religion and culture. Don’t dictate to them and don’t shove your ideas down their throats. If you’re really there to help them and not to take over they are very thankful.”