By Julie Muhlstein Herald columnist
You rush to catch a flight, get settled on the plane and experience a sense of relief once you’re in the air. Many of us know that feeling. Imagine, though, that the place you’re leaving is Mali.
That’s the West African nation where the French are battling Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida.
Carol Schillios, of Edmonds, returned Jan. 14 from a two-week stay in Mali, where she works to help women escape extreme poverty.
“For the flight out, I had to have an escort to the airport,” Schillios, 60, said Friday. “I was the only white person at the airport, everyone else had already evacuated. It was an Air France flight to Paris, so I was worried about some kind of attack on the plane.
“On the Internet, I wrote to everyone back home to say I’m packing and have my ticket — and the minute those wheels are up, I am ordering a martini,” she said.
It was a trip like no other for a woman who has traveled to the former French colony many times in the past decade.
Schillios is co-founder of a school for women in Mali’s capital city of Bamako. The school, which graduated its first students in 2006, teaches traditional arts and other skills to women who would otherwise be forced into begging or the sex trade.
The artisans’ creations are sold in a fair-trade shop in Edmonds, the Fabric of Life Boutique. Staffed by volunteers, the shop’s proceeds fund the nonprofit Fabric of Life Foundation, which supports anti-poverty efforts in Mali, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Vietnam.
If the Fabric of Life Boutique sounds familiar, you may recall Schillios’ fundraising feat in 2009. She spent 113 nights camped on the rooftop of her Edmonds shop to raise donations for the Mali school and other causes.
“We were asking for a dollar from a million people. I thought I’d be up there 30 days, but I ended up being there three months,” she said. The effort raised about $100,000, and Schillios joked that “the wind blew off one of the zeroes.”
Schillios founded the school with a woman in Mali, Kaaba Coulibaly. She stayed in her friend’s home during her recent visit there.
Mali is in the midst of a crisis. The democratically elected president was ousted by a military-led coup last March. That action, according to The New York Times, was in response to government handling of an uprising by nomadic Tuareg rebels in Mali’s northern desert.
Those rebels have now been pushed out by Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaida. And earlier this month, France sent in troops to retake the north from the Islamic militants.
“The al-Qaida factions came into a perfect vacuum,” Schillios said. “They imposed Sharia law. There is no music. Women must be covered, and they are stoning and raping women.”
Schillios said food aid is no longer coming, and thousands in the north have fled Mali for refugee camps elsewhere.
“When I went on Dec. 31, my purpose was to make sure the school was secure, and to merge it with a local (Malian) association,” Schillios said. The aim was to keep the school from being targeted due to its ties to the West.
Within days of her arrival in Bamako, Schillios was hearing gunfire. On the advice of her friend’s husband, she spent the rest of the visit hiding out at their home. “He let Kaaba go back to work, but asked me to stay out of sight,” she said.
Her friend’s husband warned that a student demonstration which occurred while she was there “could easily escalate and be taken over by al-Qaida cells,” Schillios said.
On Jan. 18, a few days after Schillios’ homecoming, the U.S. State Department updated its travel warning for Mali. Noting the presence of al-Qaida in northern Mali, the department warned Americans against “all travel to Mali” because of fighting, the loss of government control, “and continuing threats of attacks and kidnappings of westerners.”
The school is still functioning with her friend Kaaba Coulibaly in charge. Bamako has stabilized with most of the fighting north of the capital.
A Seattle native, Schillios lived in Europe as a girl. That time fostered her global concerns. From age 12 until young adulthood, she lived in Switzerland, where the Boeing Co. had transferred her father. She attended an international school there.
Before creating her foundation, she spent her career working with credit unions, and served as director of the International Credit Union Foundation. “It’s the power of people to pool their resources,” she said.
With Mali in her heart, she seeks out news of the conflict. She hopes for better days in the country.
“African culture is collaborative. We wanted to build on that people-helping-people philosophy,” Schillios said. “When there’s stability economically, there’s peace.”
Was it too risky to travel to Mali?
“When I signed up to go, it was safe. I was not going to allow a situation like this to stop good work,” Schillios said. “I subscribe to what Eleanor Roosevelt said: Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Fabric of Life Boutique, which supports anti-poverty efforts for women in Mali and other countries, is located at 523 Main St., Edmonds. Information: 425-563-3925. To learn more about the shop and the nonprofit organization: www.fabricoflife.org.