Local woman on the front lines - Kate Smart draws from her international experiences
Maybe Kate Smart gets pieces of her humanity from her mother, Jerrie Bell.
Bell is the former director of the Callaway County Coalition Against Rape and Domestic Violence who has also worked with SERVE, Inc. and the Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition. Married to John Bell of Ovid Bell Press, she also is a former state advocate for the Missouri Victim Assistance Network.
Smart also shares her passion for people with her brother, Sam, who is currently in Costa Rica to study international human rights. Her father, Dean Smart, and step-mother, Sue, have been incredibly supportive, she said.
Or maybe the passion is all Smart. The 37-year-old woman works for Nonviolent Peaceforce, an international organization encouraging dialogue among parties in armed conflict with the goal of protecting civilians.
"We all deserve to live in a place without violence," she told members of the Fulton Rotary Club on Wednesday.
Her work counts
Smart returned to Fulton — her hometown — last Saturday after spending time in Beirut, Lebanon, and a post near Mosul, Iraq. The city was declared "liberated" a week ago from the Islamic State, but many of its residents were not around to celebrate. News reports put the civilian death toll as high as 40,000 in the past nine months.
"I was in Mosul recently; that has been a really tough thing to see," Smart said before choking up at the memories associated with that scene.
She apologized for her tears, then went on.
"It is really bewildering to witness what is happening," she said.
But the strength of the people there was astounding.
"They were so grateful we were there," she said. "We were present to be with the people as they were leaving. They had so much appreciation and were so gracious, despite having been locked down in their own cities."
Smart said her work with Nonviolent Peaceforce (nonviolentpeaceforce.org) has shaped her world view.
"I grew up in Fulton and worked at CARDV and Westminster College," she said. "I was working with mental health and conflict resolution and mediation, and I focused on interpersonal conflict. I decided I wanted to step out and work internationally. I took the leap and joined an organization called Nonviolent Peaceforce that is involved in five conflicts right now."
The small, international organization is an unarmed civilian protection force seeking to work side-by-side with local communities to foster lasting peace.
"It seems kind of exotic in a way, but at the end of the day, what comes out of it is people," Smart said. "We go into situations where there is armed conflict and work for the civilians' protection."
Physical force is not used and weapons are not welcome in meetings and negotiations.
"We build relationships with both sides and engage with all populations in a conflict," Smart said, adding helping civilians develop skills to peacefully protect themselves also is a goal.
"It's dangerous," she added. "You're in the middle of it, and you have no weapons. No armed escort. We just go in as ourselves. We don't take sides."
Some of the relationships built through this organization take years to develop, Smart added. To her, that doesn't matter.
"It works," she said. "It truly works."
Workers with the Peaceforce know their roles, according to Smart.
"We're not the saviors; we're there to help and offer whatever skills we have to the people there. They know their country better than we do," she said. "We only want civilians to be safe. We are able to talk to all these people and we don't owe anybody anything. We don't work for anyone else's agenda."
The organization is headquartered in France, with other offices in St. Paul, Minnesota; and Belgium; the Philippines; South Sudan and Myanmar.
"We have a mix of international and local staff," Smart said. "I have been primarily in a Muslim context for the last few years, and what I have gained is a different perspective. I think about who we are as people and our own shared humanity."
She also has to deal with perceptions of Americans by people in Muslim countries.
"A woman in a marketplace asked me, 'Why do you (Americans) hate me?' I said, 'I don't hate you. I'm here,'" Smart recalled.
Just before returning home, Smart said she was talking to a friend who sent a message back to America.
"He said, 'You tell people we're human, too,'" Smart said. "We're all human. What we see (on the news) is a mere fraction of what's happening."
Smart said she is on vacation for a while, and looks forward to seeing her brother when he comes home to Fulton for a visit this weekend. She said there are great takeaways from having a job like hers.
"At the end of the day, we're all people," she said. " Knowing people from different places and realizing we just want to have families and live our lives."
Introducing Smart at the function was Rotarian and attorney Bob Sterner, who said selfless people from Callaway County have contributed important things to the world.
"The community in which we live sends our sons and daughters out to do great things in the world," he added.