A Historic Gathering of Former Iran Peace Corps Volunteers
By Guest Contributor on Monday, August 15th, 2011
“Wouldn’t it be great to gather a few Iran RPCV’s in Portland to celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary?”
This was how the recent Peace Corps Iran reunion, held in Portland, Oregon August 5-7 was conceived. As a Portlander, I thought it would make a great companion activity to the Iranian Festival held every year on the first weekend of August, outdoors on the Portland State University campus.
What happened last weekend was nothing short of astounding. About 220 Iran Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) journeyed from all across the US and as far away as Australia to reconnect, reminisce, and revitalize. With spouses, staff, and interested friends, there were 300 on hand for Saturday evening’s Persian banquet.
Peace Corps functioned in Iran from 1962-1976. During that time, 1,748 volunteers served in educational, agricultural, and other programs. Within three years of Peace Corps’ leaving, Iran was engulfed in a revolution, followed by the hostage crisis and then its long horrifying war with Iraq. With no lasting contact network, Iran RPCVs felt isolated from each other and cut off from their experiences in the country they still loved. As it turned out, although no longer in touch, they had not forgotten, and the emotional ties were still powerful.
As plans got underway last winter, Doug Schermer and Genna Wangsness quickly joined the team. We developed a vision, began fundraising, found facilities at PSU, and worked with caterers. More Iran RPCVs came on board. The steering committee eventually included Roger Wangsness, Jeff Curtis, Mike Spurlock, and Nancy Black Sagafi-Nejad. Many others helped in ways large and small.
Events for the three days were planned to inform about present day Iran, with a view toward empowering attendees to discover what they can do to help Americans better understand Iran. Participants were encouraged to “find their voices and tell their stories.” They were asked to go just a little farther beyond what they are already doing to share their experience and knowledge of Iran.
On Friday, workshops, panels, and documentary films covered topics like “Environmental Issues in Iran,” “Travel to Iran,” and “Finding the Peace in Peace Corps.” A continuous slideshow of PCVs’ photos played in the background. Oral history interviews were conducted. Shrieks of joy echoed in the crowded conference center as old friends found each other for the first time in 40 or 45 years.
Saturday’s events centered around the 12th Annual Iranian Festival, sponsored by our local Iranian American community. Persian music, entertainment, food, and informational booths are the focus. This year, RPCVs danced, socialized, hosted a Peace Corps recruiting table, and continued to reconnect.
A silent auction Saturday evening raised about $2,300 for Friends of Iran. Next, the Persian Banquet featured a vast array of favorite Persian foods, followed by a memorial to the 100 or so Iran RPCVs who have so far been identified as having passed away either during or after Peace Corps service, three of whom were singled out for special recognition. The memorial was followed by a superlative performance of classical Persian music by Maestro Hossein Salehi and two of his advanced students, Ms Parisa Rabii and Mr. Seena Maleki. Keynote speaker Ambassador John Limbert highlighted the evening with remarks about his Peace Corps experience and observations about the current situation between the US and Iranian governments. Ambassador Limbert was a hostage during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81.
On Sunday morning, we enjoyed a Persian breakfast, followed by an organizational meeting of Friends of Iran. While Friends of Iran has existed since 2002, it has not been active, so jumpstarting that group was a major goal. The Friends will support activities that preserve the history of Peace Corps Iran while moving forward with Peace Corps Third Goal activities that help Americans to better understand Iran.
This event could not have happened without support from two major sponsors, Portland’s American Iranian Friendship Council (AIFC) and PSU’s International Studies Department. We also received a grant from Columbia River Peace Corps Association enabling us to accomplish early printing and mailing projects.
The weekend was emotional and profoundly moving for many. Here are a few comments:
- “Our Peace Corps/Iran Reunion and the Portland Iranian Festival in the park was an overwhelming experience for me — one that I’m still reacting to. It brought back memories (and clarification of diverse ideas) from one of the best three years in my life – my time living, working and traveling in Iran 40 years ago.”
- “Though I know I will, I do not want to come back down to earth any time soon. Remaining at about three meters altitude while thinking of all the friends here and over there, I can deal with this great feeling.”
- “For me it was a delight to be with so many others who also love Iran and think back upon their Peace Corps experience as transformative.”
- “The reunion brought back my feeling of idealism that I felt then.”
- “Serving in the Peace Corps was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I am amazed how often I think of it and how many of my own ideas and values originated during that time.”
This 50th Anniversary Peace Corps reunion was a success beyond even the planners’ expectations. The RPCVs who came revisited something that had been a powerful and long-neglected part of their lives. The pervasive emotion was joy and fun, with pain, loss, and nostalgia mixed in. And the desire to find realistic hope. In seeing what each other have done with our lives, it was clear that Peace Corps changes us, and that one’s Peace Corps country lodges in the heart forever. We came together to explore that attachment and expand it into everyday action.
Many thanks to Jackie Spurlock for this report and all her efforts in organizing this stellar event!
Multiply this Iran gathering times all of the reunions slated for September 22-25 in Washington, DC during NPCA’s Peace Corps 50th anniversary celebration… and you’ll get a sense of the energy and emotion that’s in store. Find if your country has event scheduled by checking the official calendar at http://events.peacecorps50.org/