September 27, 2013 • 10:47:56 a.m.

Nobel Peace Prize nominee discusses life in war-torn nations, struggle for peace


Kathy Kelly (Provided photo)

SUGAR GROVE – Three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Kathy Kelly has a healthy track record of defiance.

As an international peace activist with the Chicago-based group Voices for Creative Nonviolence and the Afghan Peace Volunteers, Kelly has traveled the map of war-torn countries, visiting Afghanistan 12 times; living in Baghdad through the “Shock and Awe” bombings of 2003; defying economic sanctions to offer aid to ailing Iraqi families; and has been arrested nearly 60 times at home and abroad during her lifelong campaign against economic and military warfare.

Marking the United Nations’ International Day of Nonviolence, the pacifist peacemaker will visit Waubonsee Community College on Wednesday, Oct. 2, to give the presentation “The Further Invention of Nonviolence: Where You Stand Determines What You See” as part of a multicity tour that’s stopping at schools, centers and libraries across the country.

The presentation will be at 11 a.m. in the Academic and Professional Center on the north side of the WCC campus located at Route 47 and Waubonsee Drive in Sugar Grove.

Kane County Chronicle Features editor Kara Silva got to chat with Kelly about her early influences, living in war-torn countries and her lifelong struggle for peace.

Kara Silva: As an international peace activist, you’ve visited war-torn countries all over the world? What is your ultimate goal? And the goal of Voices for Creative Nonviolence?
Kathy Kelly:
Our goal is to challenge military and economic warfare. We challenged the economic sanctions against Iraq because over 500 children died, and the U.N. said repeatedly that the economic sanctions directly contributed toward the deaths of those children. We went to Iraq with medicines, children’s vitamins, antibiotics and medical supplies, and we distributed them as directly as we possibly could to families or religious orders that were running hospitals. ... We stayed in Iraq through the “Shock and Awe” bombing.

There were so many kidnappings and some colleagues of mine were kidnapped and one was killed. It was terrible. I can understand why the Iraqi government said, “We can’t give you visas to enter anymore; we can’t protect you.” So, hopefully one day it will be possible to return.

From time to time, we would [visit other countries] where war was being waged in order to say, “Look, we want nothing more than to just live alongside people who can’t escape and try to be a voice for them.” That’s what brought us to Lebanon … and the same idea was part of what had taken me to Nicaragua and Bosnia – particularly Sarajevo – before going to Iraq. Now we’ve been going to Afghanistan … quite a bit.

KS: While living in war-torn countries and sacrificing your own life for the sake of others, have there ever been any close calls or occurrences that you thought you may not get out of alive?
Well, when guns are flowing and sometimes once every 10 minutes you hear a huge explosion or glass shatters … or a tank with a missile goes right passed our window and kills journalists across the street, you don’t feel like you’ve got some exceptional shield. But to be honest, that’s not the prior question. You look at the children and wonder how are they feeling. ... The question becomes how to help mother and fathers sustain enough stamina to make it through these very, very difficult experiences.

KS: I read that you’ve been arrested about 60 times – is that right?
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s about right. Sometimes as soon as we’d be arrested we’d go right back and do what we’ve done before – again – because we kind of want to make the point that if it doesn’t rain on a Monday it can still rain on a Tuesday whether we’re in jail or not. ... I’m 60 years old, so I’ve had a lot of opportunity to be involved in campaigns.

KS: Is prison just part of being an activist or are there varying levels of fear that you’ve experienced any time you’re arrested?
I don’t know a whole lot about courage, but what I do know about courage is the ability to control your fears. And I think it would be unfortunate if somebody was unwilling to be part of campaigns they believe in or campaigning for things they believe are right solely for the reason that they might be in prison and they’re afraid of it.

KS: When did your journey in peace activism first begin? What was the catalyst that turned thinking into doing and taking action?
I think it was moving to the Uptown neighborhood when it was the poorest neighborhood in that part of Chicago. And I had neighbors who … lived in the back of buildings and would go to soup kitchens for meals. The government wanted me to pay taxes to pay for war when my neighbors didn’t have enough to pay for food. So, I became a war tax refuser. You can’t own anything if you’re a war tax refuser so you don’t have a lot that you own and that makes it easier to just pick up and go.

It’s kind of a chain reaction.

KS: Your roots are steeped in Catholicism. How much do your religious views affect the way you live your life?
I was really lucky when I was a kid. Probably my main role models really were nuns or religious women who shared everything they had in common and never tried to acquire personal wealth, who gave us practically free education; and we’re pretty sure they were serving people needier than us in other parts of the world. And they were cheerful about the whole thing. I wanted to be like those women in my life and they had a big influence on me.

KS: What is the one thing you are most proud to have accomplished or been a part of in your mission?
I’m very grateful that we were part of the Duvet Project – this is recent in Afghanistan. Last year 2,000 very heavy blankets were distributed to people who live in refugee camps and it was so cold in 2012 that 100 people froze to death ... . So, if it helped to save a child from dying of hypothermia or from freezing to death, I’m glad about that. And the people who made those duvets were seamstresses and I have met many of them, because they [told] us that they couldn’t feed their children. So, if we helped some of those women feed their families through the cold winter, I’m very glad of that, too. And the only way we were able to do it was through the generous kindness of the people in the U.S. and the United Kingdom and Australia who contributed [money] to pay for the materials and pay for the women’s wages and help with getting them distributed.

KS: It seems that doing what you do, you’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices in life, and haven’t been able to live a “normal” life, per se.
I don’t think I’m someone whose made a lot of sacrifices in life. I’ve had a really blessed and wonderful life – especially in terms of mentoring – and I live in accord with what I really believe in.


For more information about Voices for Creative Nonviolence, visit

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