Published in the Ventura County Star

Fear is violence.

It may not always bring physical wounds but inflicts harm just the same by paralyzing and isolating people, said Leah Wells, a Santa Paula teacher whose impending peace mission to Iraq makes her something of an expert in the matter.

The 26-year-old pacifist said that if she allowed her journey to be detoured by the possibility of U.S. bombing, war and political coups — fears real enough that trip organizers are talking to the about half-dozen participants about the risks — she’d be on the wrong side of the battle.

“Fear is the worst form of violence. It makes us step back from who we really are,” she said. “Life is inherently dangerous. Cave people knew that. You do what you do. You trust in the goodness of people.”

On Thursday, Wells will take her trust and convictions on a journey aimed at studying how Iraq’s schools have been affected by war threats and 12 years of economic embargoes.

She’ll go to Chicago, then to Jordan and finally, in a 15-hour drive, to Baghdad for about eight days in Iraq. The roundabout route is dictated by a travel sanction that means Wells and others in her group could face U.S. penalties including prison and fines — a possibility she alludes to briefly before moving on to another topic.

The brevity may be linked to what she calls baby steps. She copes with her fears by looking at her trip as a series of moments to be taken one at a time. She’ll get on the plane, then deal with the next obstacle.

Ask what her parents think, and Wells said they’re proud but “very, very afraid for me.”

Ask again why she’s going.

“Because it’s the right thing to do … because I believe really strongly in nonviolence,” she said.

Wells, who grew up in a southern Illinois farming community, studied neuro-linguistics at Georgetown University. She got her start as peace educator about four years ago when she co-taught at a maximum-security juvenile prison near Washington, D.C. Now she works for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara, teaching Solutions to Violence classes at three Ventura County high schools.

At a continuation school in Santa Paula, students quote Gandhi and talk about ways to solve conflict in the world, school and home. The principal says Wells’ efforts were the reason there were no fights on campus last year.

Her class is unusual. The students together make up their rules and goals. When a boy reading aloud from a pacifist essay about the Gulf War asks when he should stop, she tells him to keep going as long as he wants. When she’s in Iraq, the students may take turns leading the class.

Wells said she does not advocate her opinions, but instead pushes the students to make their own conclusions. Some of the students think U.S. strikes against Iraq are defensible.

“If Iraq is helping out the terrorists, they should pay consequences,” said a boy in a “Save the Planet” T-shirt.

Another student thinks any bombing should be carefully planned to avoid civilian casualties. He calls Wells crazy for going to Iraq. She gets that a lot.

“I feel pretty sane,” she said. “I think the people talking about war are the crazy ones.”

She is traveling as part of a humanitarian group, Voices in the Wilderness. She joined it on a trip to Iraq last year. She saw poverty and suffering everywhere: Children playing next to canals of raw sewage; a mother watching her child die in a cancer ward that was woefully underequipped; markets displaying withered fruit so pitiful her next trip to a Ventura grocery store brought tears.

Wells has heard schools are hurting, too. She’s been told some families will send only one child to school because they can only afford one pencil and one notebook.

“I just want to see for myself,” she said.

Wells doesn’t think the media covers the plight of the Iraqi people, instead fixating on Saddam Hussein and politics. She wants to collect stories and help Americans understand the inhumane impact of sanctions and threats of war on the way everyday people live.

It’s not only a few of her students who disagree with her. She gets long, passionate e-mails from people who question her patriotism and understanding of the destruction perpetrated by Saddam. She answers them all, sometimes getting involved in long, intricate dialogues.

Wells doesn’t support Saddam or anything connected to him. She wants the people to choose their own leader through nonviolent revolution.

Suggest she’s idealistic, and she interprets it as a compliment. Ask about the feasibility of global peace, and she paraphrases words used by Martin Luther King Jr.:

“The arc of the universe is long,” she said, “but it bends toward justice.”