Evacuation

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Global evacuation — and friends and communities left behind see more

    Photos from Nepal, Timor  Lesté, Guinea, and Jamaica

    Along with the dozens of stories we’ve shared from Peace Corps Volunteers evacuated from around the world, here are snapshots from more Volunteers. They capture the friendships and communities left behind. And they capture the heartbreak of leaving.


     

    Nepal | Eddie De La Fuente

    When Peace Corps announced the global evacuation, we were actually en route to visit our permanent sites a month early. I, and many of the other agriculture volunteers, never made it to our sites given the distance; I had just finished two all-day bus trips and was still another day-and-a-half away when we got the order to get back to Kathmandu ASAP. 

    We gathered at the Nepal Peace Corps headquarters and effectively had a close of service conference after only two months in the country, and only about four to five days away from being able to swear in as full Volunteers. 

    The Nepal Peace Corps staff was very compassionate though all of this; our Country Director and her partner even brought their brand new puppy and American candy to help comfort us. 

    We are, in my opinion, an extraordinarily cohesive and supportive group of people and I believe that these sentiments — as well as our continued, steady communication and mutual support — is truly exemplified in these photos. 

    Nepal welcomed us so readily and so fully that we were all absolutely heartbroken when we were told we were going home. I even had the good fortune to sit next to a gentleman on the final flight from Qatar to Nepal that served as an language instructor for Peace Corps back in the ‘70s!        

     

    This photo of the gentleman greeting was actually from our first night in Nepal. He was far from the only person that was unabashedly eager to meet us and get to know us — and for us to know them.

     

    Nepal farewell: Training to become Volunteers, Rachel Ramsey, left, and Elyse Paré had to evacuate instead.

     

     


    Timor Lesté | Andre De Mello

    Andre De Mello arrived in Timor-Lesté in late 2019 in the country’s tenth group of Peace Corps volunteers. After training, he settled in with a host family and started teaching. But his two-year commitment was not to be. Read more about his story here.

     

    “This picture was taken after Sunday mass in the Grotto located by the church in Railaco. The person to my left, wearing the white-dotted blue shirt, is my host brother Adi Carvalho.  The person to my right is the son of the Chefe de Suco (sort of like a community leader).”

     


    Guinea | Colt Bradley

    Home: Mooresville, North Carolina

    He served as a Volunteer in Kankan, Guinea, where he taught math and chemistry and served as the head of the Peace Corps Guinea Media Team.

     

     Walk on: Colt Bradley heading home during the dry season in Guinea, West Africa.

     

    Transport for Volunteer Colt Bradley and other visitors to the islands from Conakry.

     


    Jamaica | Kate Rapp

     

     Students at Spring Garden Infant and Primary School, where Volunteer Kate Rapp worked with counterpart Lorraine Clarke.

     

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Founder of RPCVs Serving at Home chronicles work as a Volunteer — in North Macedonia and the U.S. see more

    The founder of RPCVs Serving at Home chronicles her work as a Volunteer — and launching a network to support communities across the United States.

    By Mia Richardson — as told to Cynthia Arata

     

    I had wanted to serve in the Peace Corps since high school. I was really interested in the Cold War, and while learning about that time in history, I learned about the creation of the Peace Corps during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Peace Corps fascinated me.

    Originally I thought about going straight to graduate school after graduating from college, but I decided to put that on pause to pursue my dream of serving in the Peace Corps. I wanted to experience working in another country because of my career path — foreign service. Although being a Peace Corps Volunteer is different than being a diplomat, I knew I could learn and represent my country.

    I was serving in North Macedonia in the Education sector. I was teaching English for students in second to ninth grade. I worked closely with another teacher focusing on improving English language instruction and student engagement.

    I was located in the northwest region of North Macedonia, a country in the Balkan Peninsula, which had previously been Macedonia. The renaming of the country happened early on during my service. Around the time I arrived, the naming dispute was a popular topic of discussion having to do with the history between Macedonia and Greece. It was interesting to listen to different perspectives on such a complicated issue and learn about the history of the region where I was to serve. In January 2019 Macedonia became North Macedonia.

    I lived quite close to the city of Tetovo in the small village of Zherovjan, which is home to less than 900 people. Albanians are the largest minority group in North Macedonia, and Zherovjan is an Albanian, mostly Muslim community. Because of where I was living, I was on a dual language track, learning Macedonian and Albanian.


     

    March 2020: The Evacuation 

    On Tuesday, March 10, I finished teaching in the morning. That same day, in the afternoon, it was announced that schools were going to be closed for two weeks. So things were in limbo on Wednesday. By Thursday Peace Corps determined that we were raised a security level, and staff told us to pack our bags. However, Volunteers were questioning it, not knowing exactly what was going on, not thinking we really needed to pack. But on Friday we were told to prepare to leave the country. Then Saturday, we were instructed to get to the capital. We only had a few hours to grab our things, explain what was going on to our communities, and get to Skopje, where all of us volunteers were consolidated.

    There was very little time to explain to my host family what was happening. I mainly didn’t want to scare them. At the time, volunteers thought the most likely scenario was that we would be put on an administrative hold. We assumed we would be able to return in a month or two.

    “Peace Corps says I have to leave because they don’t want me to be a burden here,” was how I framed it to my host family. But at that point, North Macedonia had not started shutting down, so my host family was totally confused. It was so hard. I had to ask them to take me to the capital immediately.

     

    As if that wasn’t painful enough, I did not have the chance to say anything to my students. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to tell them that I was leaving. I felt like I abandoned them without any explanation.

     

    As if that wasn’t painful enough, I did not have the chance to say anything to my students. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get to tell them that I was leaving. I felt like I abandoned them without any explanation.

    I am trying to figure out of there is something I can do to get in contact with my students. I have thought about recording a video of myself explaining and saying goodbye. But since school shut down the students have been distance learning rather than having class, so I don’t know yet how to send something that they will all see.

    I barely had the chance to communicate with my counterpart before leaving. She has two young children, and her husband works in another country, so she was preoccupied with trying to figure out what to do to keep her family safe — whether she and the kids would go or stay put. We only had a moment to just basically wish each other luck.

     
     

    North Macedonia: Unfinished Business

    Early on in my service, my counterpart and I applied for a Small Project Assistance grant to establish an English language resource closet at the school. The goal was to empower teachers to use more communicative activities in the classroom that make education more student-centered. We secured the grant, purchased resources for the school, and planned a training session for educators. The training, however, was scheduled to take place the week of the shutdown and the evacuation. I tried to see if there was a way to do the training online, but I didn’t have enough time to organize before I was pulled from my post. I feel good about getting new materials for the school so that some fun and creativity can be brought into the classroom, but there was no training for teachers on how to implement those materials. I really hope the work will go on. I hope my school will apply for another Volunteer, and students will advocate for continuing some of the work we started.

    At the beginning of the school year I started a spelling bee club for fifth- and sixth-grade students. The club met once per week for the entire school year. We hosted a qualifier spelling bee at our school to determine who would go to the regional spelling bee in Tetovo. The students worked so hard every week. And two students qualified! I was planning on going with them to the city at the end of March for the regional tournament. But that didn’t happen. It’s one of the things I am most sad about because I know how hard my students worked all year long.

    I had requested a shipment of new books for the school’s English language section in the library. Darien Book Aid, a nonprofit organization based in Connecticut that distributes books all over the world, emailed me right when I landed back in the U.S. asking me to confirm that I received the book shipment I requested. Thankfully the director of the school where I was teaching was able to pick them up from the post office.

    My secondary project was helping to coordinate a local Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) club. GLOW provides great development and leadership experiences for youth. Recruitment for GLOW was going to start in March, and a number of PCVs were working as mentors for clubs all over the country. So much hard work went into planning events for the GLOW clubs, but when all of us PCVs were sent home, we left the girls hanging.

    I felt that personally I was getting into the swing of things — I was finding my way. The timing of everything was difficult to accept.

     

    Back Home: Continuing Service 

    When I got back to the U.S. I felt a little bit lost. I committed myself to the full 27 months of service, and I just didn’t feel like I completed that. So as soon as I got back I started looking for things I could do to continue serving. While I was quarantined, I started volunteering with a coalition called Masks NOW to donate masks to essential businesses.

    I started an initiative called RPCVs Serving at Home with some other evacuated volunteers from North Macedonia. We rolled out the program to the rest of the RPCV community in April. The concept is three-fold: to connect the RPCV community, share volunteer opportunities in order to continue service, and reflect values of Peace Corps. We are determined to highlight the strength and impact of Peace Corps to our communities here in the U.S.

    Since we began collecting data in early April, by the end of June 63 volunteers representing 24 states and 22 Peace Corps posts had logged over 2,000 hours of volunteer service. Participating RPCVs have donated nearly 700 fabric face masks, served over 400 hours at local food banks, and at least 16 volunteers donated blood or organized a local blood drive. Our goal is to log 10,000 hours of service by September, so we are working hard to spread the word and get as many RPCVs involved as possible. We believe this shows how much we as the Peace Corps community can do, and although we have dedicated ourselves to work abroad, right now our country needs us here at home.

     

     

    Since being evacuated I have taken on an AmeriCorps VISTA position doing community outreach for the Youth Volunteer Corps in Kansas City. What I am doing is similar to my youth empowerment work with the GLOW club in North Macedonia. My mission is to create service and learning opportunities, so that through civic engagement and skill development, youth not only understand issues in their communities but also feel empowered to address those issues.

    Continuing to serve youth in my home community, helping to provide programs that I would have benefited from when I was growing up, has given me a sense of closure to my Peace Corps service.
     


    For more information about service opportunities check out RPCVs Serving at Home online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

    Cynthia Arata was serving as a Volunteer in Fiji when she was evacuated in March 2020. She lives in Napa, California. 

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Why are you going to the U.S.? colleagues asked. It’s worse there. see more

    Rwanda | Ana Santos

    Home: Atlanta, Georgia


    Ana Santos had been serving as a Volunteer teaching English since September 2018. After hearing about the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Rwanda, Santos started packing that Sunday, before getting the official evacuation order on Monday. And she began the emotionally taxing and logistically challenging process of saying goodbye.

    The government had banned large gatherings and had closed schools. Colleagues had returned to family homes; she couldn’t find many of her students. “I had to go to each of my teachers’ homes individually to greet them and tell them the news. They were as shocked and as upset as I was.”

     

    “Peace Corps is one of the best ideas the United States has ever had.”

     

    Santos coordinated with other nearby Volunteers to hire a bus for the long journey to the capital, Kigali. There they learned the Rwandan government would close the airport in 48 hours. Peace Corps arranged for a charter flight out. 

     

     

    “I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to serve and do my part to make the world a better place,” Santos says. “I was excited by the opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture, to work face-to-face with people who were change-makers in their community.” She had to leave, but she holds to this: “Peace Corps is one of the best ideas the United States has ever had.”

    —Tasha Prados

      


    Rwanda | Diana Bender-Bier

    Home: Washington, D.C. area

    Nishimye kubamenya is how you say “Nice to meet you” in Kinyarwanda, the language Diana Bender-Bier began learning in September 2019. She worked in the Southern Province, teaching English to 4th and 5th graders, training teachers, leading an English club. She lived in a larger market town and walked 40 minutes each day to a smaller village and the school where she taught. Her litany of plans: in April, for grades 5 to 12, a full day of classes with another Volunteer and nearby doctor about safe sex, teen pregnancy, risks of HIV/AIDS. In May, a carnival to educate about malaria. In June, a speaking competition for students. Plans to apply for a grant for science lab materials and playground resources. Fundraising for more desks, since in classes of 70 to 100 kids, many had to sit on the floor. 

     

     

    She says she left her heart there. There’s a moment when we’re talking about her community and she says, “Religion is very big here.” She means there, only she’s not thinking of herself in the Washington, D.C. area but still in Rwanda.

     

    “Most of my colleagues were very confused,” she says. “‘Why are you going there?’ they asked. ‘It’s worse there.’” And it was. 

     

    She got the email that she was being evacuated and had a couple days to say goodbye. Colleagues told her, Oh, she’s not coming back. “I kept saying, ‘No, I’m coming back. I’m coming back. It’s just temporary.’ Though I don’t know how long that is.”

    There was something eerie about evacuating Rwanda, she says — an echo of 25 years before, on the eve of civil war, when Peace Corps and others left and the genocide began. One of her colleagues lost both parents. “I felt connected to the genocide in a different way, given my Jewish heritage,” Bender-Bier says. As for her departure for the States, “Most of my colleagues were very confused,” she says. “‘Why are you going there?’ they asked. ‘It’s worse there.’” And it was. 

     

     

    In Rockville, Maryland, during quarantine she was at her mother’s house while her mother stayed in Florida. With rooms to spare, Bender-Bier provided a home for other evacuated Volunteers.

    —Steven Boyd Saum

     

      


    Rwanda | Levi Rokey

    Home: Washington, D.C. area

     

    Baggage of evacuation: Levi Rokey left his community in Rwanda for a hotel room in Washington, D.C. Now he’s working on contact tracing to help his community at home.

     

     

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    The work and people and place that Natalie Somerville left behind. see more

    Tonga | Natalie Somerville

    Home: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

     

    Photo: Mangrove forest, Tonga. Photo courtesy Natalie Somerville.

     

    Mālō ‘etau lava. Ko Navi au. Na’a ku nofo i Tonga. On the beautiful island of ‘Eua, where I was serving as a Volunteer, I’m known as Navi. When we were evacuated, here’s what I left behind: coconut trees, fresh papaya every day, a group of women who had just committed to practicing healthy lifestyles, my best friend and dog (Navi Kiti), and an adoring, patient partner, with deep love, whom I can’t wait to reunite with. I left behind a vegetable garden that was beginning to sprout, children who smile with their all, and people who laugh from their core. I left behind the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen, and a mat to lay down upon while I stare at the Milky Way. 

     

     

    I left behind the clearest night sky I’ve ever seen, and a mat to lay down upon while I stare at the Milky Way. 

     

    Here’s the unfinished business I’d like you to know about: Practicing healthy living with the Tongans is crucial because the biggest killers out there are preventable. Diabetes and heart disease can be lessened with movement and strengthening of the mind. I want to continue working with the people to extend their happy lives. There is also a group of artists who came to the island I lived on to do a workshop with my students. The importance of self-expression and creativity is food for the soul and crucial for well-being. I hope the Peace Corps keeps a strong connection between education and the arts. Mālō aupito, ‘ofa atu. Many thanks and love to you. 

     

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    A tiny village on a remote island — where a good day means having fish and a breeze. see more

    Fiji | Cynthia Arata

    Home: Napa, California

     

    Photo: Moala Island — one of the most remote islands that is part of Fiji. Photo by Cynthia Arata

     

    If you type “Moala Island” into Google, a number of misleading images will populate your search. Make no mistake: there is no tourism on Moala Island.

    Despite mislabeled photos online, there is no resort, no hotel, no Airbnb. In fact, there is no paved road. There is no grocery store, market, restaurant or bar. There is no bank, gas station or electricity. It is difficult to illustrate just how remote Moala is, and without visiting, it is unlikely that a person could imagine how pure and peaceful life is there. With extremely limited, infrequent transportation to and from the island, surely, few people will ever travel to Moala.

    For nearly six months, I lived on this pristine, 24-square mile tropical paradise in the islands of Fiji, a nation in the South Pacific comprising more than 300 islands and islets.

    Moala is part of the eastern archipelago of Fiji, called the Lau Province, which is made up of approximately 60 islands, half of which are inhabited. Moala is one of these inhabited islands with a total population of around 1,300 people. There are eight villages on the island, all which are situated along the calm shores of the Koro Sea. From the water’s edge, communities maintain a traditional subsistence livelihood of fishing and farming.

     

    The day that I took my oath was one of the proudest days of my life — a feeling of accomplishment unlike any other I have experienced.” Cynthia Arata on Moala. Photo by Shane Grace

     

    Nestled in one of Moala’s lush, fertile valleys is Cakova Village, a community of 153 people. In October 2019, after two months of cultural and language training on Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, I swore in as a Peace Corps volunteer, committing to spend two years serving in the Youth in Development sector. My placement was one of the most isolated sites in all of Peace Corps Fiji.

     

    Nestled in one of Moala’s lush, fertile valleys is Cakova Village, a community of 153 people. My placement was one of the most isolated sites in all of Peace Corps Fiji.

     

    My specific role was under the Community Youth Empowerment Project — a partnership between the Peace Corps, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Youth and Sports, which has goals of positive youth development, community engagement and capacity building.

    As a Community Youth Empowerment volunteer, I worked with the Youth Group and the Women’s Group in Cakova Village. My role involved helping to facilitate discussions with community members to identify needs, interests, and sustainable projects. Additionally, I worked as the librarian at Cakova’s primary school, focusing on literacy and library development.

    In Fiji, the term “youth” describes individuals between the ages of 18 and 35 who, essentially, provide the labor force in rural villages to carry out work such as construction, plumbing, and landscaping. The Youth Group in Cakova Village was highly motivated to accomplish community goals. Project ideas proposed by members were reconstruct footbridges, renovating the community hall and expanding the nursing station.

     

    The island and the world: schoolchildren on Moala. Photo by Cynthia Arata

     

    As a team, we were in the process of leveraging support for the Youth Group from the Ministry of Agriculture for farming tools, as well as the Ministry of Forestry for training on tree and mangrove planting for climate change mitigation.

    The Women’s Group had undertaken an economic opportunity plan to generate income in order to rebuild the village canteen, a small business run by the group where basic provisions such as rice, flour, and sugar are sold. A key way for women in Cakova to earn money is by cutting, cooking and drying wild pandanus, weaving the stocks into traditional mats and sending these Fijian handicrafts to merchants in Suva, Fiji’s capital, to be sold in the municipal market.

    A passion that I hoped to bring into my service is my love of reading. At the beginning of the year, the teachers at Cakova Village School expressed the need for a new library with more resources and services, a project I felt especially enthusiastic about. The existing library occupied a corner in the administration building, which was also the teachers’ lounge, battery room, and storage space. As such, the library provided a small, outdated book collection, only one computer, and little space for students to explore. Together, we began drafting the library development project, advocating for a new library building, books, shelving, worktables, laptop computers, and solar panels.

    In February, as a school staff, we submitted a grant application to the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives detailing a blueprint for an upgraded water station at the school. The project aligned with national development priorities, in particular, the implementation of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in Fiji’s schools, standards that are generally achieved with the help of non-governmental organizations non-profit organizations, and volunteers. The concept called for new sinks, faucets, soap dispensers, drinking fountains, drainage systems, and roofing in order to improve water efficiency, sanitary conditions and hygiene.

    Five months into my service in Fiji, a number of these projects with the Youth Group, Women’s Group, and primary school in Cakova Village were gaining traction. Though in the early project design stages, there was undeniable excitement and engagement around addressing these community needs.

     

     Weaver at work — one of the ways women in Cakova earn money for their community. Photo by Cynthia Arata

     

    Just as I had begun establishing my own rhythms and routines as a volunteer, the director of the Peace Corps sent an email to volunteers around the world saying that due to the global pandemic posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, she had made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend Peace Corps operations and evacuate all volunteers back to the United States.

    What was more shocking than the news of being evacuated, however, was receiving a second email from the country director in Fiji, determining that my Peace Corps service, along with thousands of other current volunteers in countries all over the world, was being ended by issuing the Close of Service— meaning I was no longer a volunteer.

    More messages followed with instructions to pack my bags, grab my passport, and say goodbye and thank you to my community. In a state of shock, my mind raced with questions and concerns — from my outstanding projects and reports to the threat of the virus. My main concern was how to communicate this order, suddenly passed down from the agency, to members of my community that might see me as abandoning them and all of our work together.

    Moreover, at that point, Fiji did not have any cases of COVID-19; and certainly, Moala Island is exceptionally isolated geographically with almost no incoming transit. Explaining to members of my community in Cakova that I was leaving, and why, was devastating and confusing for all of us. Questions of when I would return were impossible to answer for the village and for myself.

    Ironically, the first Core Expectation of a Peace Corps volunteer is to “prepare your personal and professional life to make a commitment to serve abroad for a full term of 27 months.” The day that I took my oath was one of the proudest days of my life — a feeling of accomplishment unlike any other I have experienced. I know in my heart that I was determined, no matter the challenges, to see through my commitment to Cakova Village, Peace Corps, and my country. However, this health crisis leaves Peace Corps volunteers and staff with no idea of when the agency will be able to resume operations. Furthermore, on the morning that I left Moala Island the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Fiji, a secondary concern as the South Pacific battles the end of this year’s cyclone season.

     

    For me, the hardest part, amid all of this not knowing, is hearing the voices of the village children asking me as I was leaving, “Madam, what about the library?”

     

    Although I had been keenly aware of how special my time in Moala was while I was there, now that I am back in the U.S., I have time to reflect more deeply on my experiences.

    Quarantined in Napa at my family’s home and bombarded not just with culture shock but also coronavirus chaos, I find refuge in my memories of the simplicity of life in Cakova, a place where a good day means having fish and a breeze. In Cakova, a day’s work is fishing on the reef or crabbing in the low tide, neighbors always have pots of warm food and tea to offer, and children swim in the village creek using mango pulp as body wash for their evening baths.

    Without electricity, internet access or cell service, I spent my evenings watering my garden, watching sunsets from my hammock, and reading books late into the night under the stars. And although the pace of things was slow, each day was full of more meaning, purpose, growth and learning about what quality of life means.

    For me, the hardest part, amid all of this not knowing, is hearing the voices of the village children asking me as I was leaving, “Madam, what about the library?”

     


    This article originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register under the title “Memories of Moala.” Read it here.

    It was also published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Olivia Chuang posted an article
    Quinton Eklund Overholser had dreamed of serving as a Volunteer in Myanmar for years. see more

    Nobody wanted it to happen this way. 
Evacuation stories and the unfinished business of Peace Corps Volunteers around the world.

    Schwedagon Pavilion, Yangon. Photo by Dharma from Sadao, Thailand
     

    Myanmar | Quinton Eklund Overholser

    Home: Elko, Nevada

    “Hours before our flight, at our Close of Service conference, my country director asked me how I was feeling,” Quinton Eklund Overholser says. “Only then did I muster a single word: heartbroken.”

    Overholser had dreamed of serving as a Volunteer in Myanmar since his first year of high school—before Peace Corps operated in Myanmar. A first-generation college student, he got his Peace Corps acceptance the day of his commencement ceremony at the University of Nevada at Reno.

     

    Head of 100 Households: Quinton Overholser with his host family. Photo courtesy Quinton Overholser.

     

    He loved every day in Myanmar: learning to read, write, and speak Myanma, and spending as much time as he could with the local family who hosted him. He went to meetings with his local father, the “Head of 100 Households” (mayor). He learned about Myanma music from his sister and played games with his brother. He was in training in Myanmar when the evacuation order came. The hardest part was leaving that family. 

    Though he was happy to reunite with family in Nevada,  returning home under quarantine felt like a defeat. Overholser is still committed to returning to Myanmar as a Volunteer. The question is if and when that will be possible.

    —Tasha Prados

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    “I hope and pray that they’re staying safe. We volunteers are grieving…missing friends and family.” see more

    Panama | Danielle Shulkin

    Home: Sharon, Massachusetts

    Photo: Mangrove reforestation, Los Santos, Panamá — the community where Volunteer Bailey Rosen served and took time to high-five with one of the students taking part. Photo by Eli Wittum

     

    Köbö kuin dere! Ti kä Mechi Sulia Kwatabü amne ti sribire Cuerpo de Paz ben. I served in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, in a mountainous part of an indigenous reservation. The language that I introduced myself in is Ngäbere, which has about 200,000 speakers throughout Panama and Costa Rica. I was a TELLS volunteer — Teaching English, Leadership, and Life Skills, helping teachers improve English language skills and teaching methodologies. I also worked with the guidance counselor at my school to do sexual health education and provide resources for parents.

    I had about one hour to pack and say goodbye. A leader of the comarca helped find someone with a car who drove me two hours out of the mountains to the main road — and picked up a few other Volunteers. When we tried to pay, he said, “That’s not my custom.” The night before I left, I had coffee with this man, and we were talking about the possibility of Peace Corps evacuating. He expressed how much the comarca enjoyed having the Peace Corps presence there — and how much they had helped.

    As far as what I left behind: material possessions — clothes, a french press, a solar panel, food I had bought when I was anticipating a long shelter-in-place. None of those things matter as much as the connections and the potential left unrealized. 

     

     

    The new school year had just begun. I had set up a meetings with the guidance counselor and the Padres de Familia — like a PTA. I had a new counterpart who was excited to start new extracurricular opportunities. And I worked as a special education teacher in New York City before joining Peace Corps; special ed is a big need in Panama. I was thinking about extending for a third year to help schools come up with ways to support all students — especially those who need extra help, whether they have a diagnosed disability or not.

    One thing that weighs on me is the people to whom I didn’t get to say goodbye. One family I got close to were kind of outsiders in the community. The husband was studying English at a university extension; he needed help. He had dropped out of school as a teenager and earned his diploma through night school. Now he was studying English with hopes of being an English teacher. We worked for hours in his home — made of zinc panels, held up by tree branches, with a dirt floor. His daughter would hold a flashlight over our work while he wrote essays. I often ended up eating dinner with them, and their daughter would braid my hair and watch videos on my phone. His wife made me a nakwa, the traditional dress in my community. They were the first people to bring me into their home and make me feel like I was doing something worthwhile. 

     

    I hope and pray that they’re staying safe. We volunteers are grieving, and missing friends and family so much.

     

    The day that I left, I ran to their house with a bag of food and random things to give to them. Both parents were at work. I left the bag with the daughters, but I never got to say goodbye.

    I hope and pray that they’re staying safe. We volunteers are grieving, and missing friends and family so much. A lot of us are hoping to come back one day, and we can sit on your porches and listen to La Patrona and drink the finca-grown coffee and watch the sunset and continue to work hombro a hombro, or shoulder to shoulder. Until that day, we will be here thinking of you and trying to move forward. So, que Dios les bendiga, y que le vaya bien.

     

    See more from Danielle's service

     


    Panama | Eli Wittum

    Home: Cleveland, North Carolina

    I served as a community environmental conservation extension agent in Panama 2016–18. I collaborated with host country nationals assessing environmental concerns, focused on the increasing deforestation of the Panama Canal watershed. I facilitated environmental trainings on reforestation and acquired a grant to implement new sustainable cook-stove alternatives, which will greatly reduce environmental and health concerns. 

     

    Schoolgirl in Bajo Corral, Los Santos, Panamá. The mural was painted years ago by Volunteers at a site where evacuated PCV Kiera Morrill served. Photo by Eli Wittum.
     

    Since summer 2018, I’ve carried the title of multimedia specialist for Peace Corps Panama. I document work being done by the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative and bring scientific information to audiences in a form they can understand. I capture the story of this work in photographs and videos. The visual medium has the power to illuminate both damage and progress in the environment, to speak to us intellectually and emotionally.

     

     Mangrove reforestation: Tito and work well done — more than 6,000 trees planted. Photo by Eli Wittum

     

    Working in poor rural communities, I have also photographed people young and old who had never possessed a picture of themselves. When I travel back to those places, I’ll bring a print — something I hope shows them in their dignity and grace and humanity.

    This is what I have left behind. It’s work that remains unfinished.


     Mother and child. Photo by Eli Wittum

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Don’t have shame, Anna Zauner's host family told her. But in leaving, she does. see more

    Guatemala | Anna Zauner

    Home: Skillman, New Jersey

    Photo: Dressed in traditional Mayan traje, as is custom for Sunday  Mass. Anna Zauner, left, with friend Jackelyn Saquic.

     

    We received the evacuation notice at 10 p.m., just hours after the Guatemalan government announced that all school would be canceled for 21 days. Forty-six minutes later I received the follow-up email with my departure date: Tuesday. A full day to say goodbyes and pack. 

    I started Monday by telling my host family and what friends I could find the news. I ran into some of my students along the trail to school and told one group of girls that I would be leaving. One of my work partners scheduled a meeting in the town center for me to tell colleagues. My return was uncertain. A follow-up email instructed us to give away all belongings we could not bring. 

    My colleague Patty Saquic hosted me for a last lunch in her home. Troubling news kept coming. Volunteers scheduled to leave that morning were on their way to the airport and had their buses turned back. No planes were leaving. The border with Mexico was scheduled to close at 8 p.m.

     

    As I was finishing lunch, I received an update: “Have all of your things packed and ready in an hour to go to your consolidation point.” I was 30 minutes from home with nothing packed.

     

     

     Class of first-year secondary school students preparing Jocón. They learned budgeting by saving up for weeks to purchase ingredients for the recipe. Photo by Anna Zauner

     

    As I was finishing lunch, I received an update: “Have all of your things packed and ready in an hour to go to your consolidation point.” I was 30 minutes from home with nothing packed. I ran through the town center to catch a bus. A friend flagged me down: Be careful, she said. Guatemalans were becoming hostile towards “tourists.” I shouldn’t be walking around alone.

    At home, I packed a few things, hoisted them into a tuk-tuk, headed for the nearest neighbor with a car.

    A flight was chartered for us, departing Tuesday 9 a.m. Then canceled; the plane had not been granted airspace. Negotiations with the government were still in progress. Wednesday, airspace was granted. To keep local police from stopping us, we headed for the airport with an embassy and police escort — multiple vehicles and 20 motorcycles, sirens blaring, lights flashing.

    Hours later we touched down in Miami. The entire plane erupted with applause for the hard work our post administration put into bring us home.

    As for home: What about the one I left behind?

    When I told my host family in Guatemala and tried to explain through tears that I was hoping to come back but unsure if I would be able to, they said to me, “No tenga pena.” Don’t have shame. “We will keep your room for you — this room is yours.”

    Though I do have shame — for the lack of proper goodbyes, for leaving the community I pledged to serve for two years. The students I was teaching have been spending their time at home, leaving quiet fútbol courts and classrooms bereft of laughter. I hope the lectures I gave on positive youth development through life skills will propel students forward. There was so much more that I did not get the chance to address: substance abuse, reproductive health, and mental health for starters.

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    We help out from the confines of our house and maintain a strong link to both the people and place see more

    Peru | Aidan Fife

    Home: Lancaster, Pennsylvania

     

    When Aidan Fife arrived in the Ancash region in December 2019, he was the third youth development Volunteer to serve as part of a six-year project, stretching over the course of three cohorts. “Kind of a new thing for Peace Corps,” he says.

    Though Peace Corps is not new in Peru. The program was established in 1962 and ran until 1974, when it was suspended because of political instability. Volunteers have been back since 2002.

    Fife’s aunt served in Paraguay in the 1980s. “She’s my number one inspiration,” he says. She lauded the three-volunteer sequence structure; it showed a more sophisticated Peace Corps engaged in development that would be sustainable.
     

     Mount Huascarán in the Ancash Region of Peru. Photo courtesy Wikimedia

     

    Fife was working in a town within view of twin-peaked Mount Huascarán in the western Andes. He studied Spanish and environmental science in college, and in Peru he began learning Quechua. You could get by without it, he says, but he wanted to integrate himself in the community, working with a school and a health center. He was teaching life skills and career orientation and sex education. 

     

    First, he brought out some art supplies for the four children in his host family — aged 18 months to 14 years. They were delighted. “Then I told them I’m leaving. That was hard.”

     

    He had less than eight hours to pack, say hurried goodbyes, get to the regional capital. First, he brought out some art supplies for the four children in his host family — aged 18 months to 14 years. They were delighted. “Then I told them I’m leaving. That was hard.”

    That night Peru closed its borders. Nearly all flights were canceled. That made evacuation tough. But Volunteers did get out. Weeks later, there were some 2,300 Americans who were still trying to leave.

    Fife is back at his parents’ home. When we spoke, he was in self-quarantine before worrying about what’s next. Evenings, he was on video chats with his host family in Peru. “That’s been nice,” he says, “because then they can meet my family here.” 

    —Steven Boyd Saum



    Peru | Madeline and Clint Kellner

    Home: Novato, California


    We were eight weeks into our second Peace Corps service as Response Volunteers in the Peruvian Amazon when we were evacuated. We served previously as Volunteers in Guatemala’s western highlands, 2016–18. In 2020, we were assigned to the nonprofit Minga Peru, dedicated to economic and social empowerment of indigenous women and the well-being of families and communities.

    Minga Peru brings vital health information and other important messages to more than 100,000 indigenous residents living in isolated communities along the Amazon through their radio program, “Bienvenida Salud.” To reinforce those messages, they run a project to train promotoras, local lay women health promoters. To share the nonprofit’s success with interested outsiders and to market locally-made artisanal products, they started an educative tourism program called Minga Tour. 

    Based in Iquitos, our charge was to work shoulder to shoulder with staff to strengthen and advance these programs. Madeline was focused on strengthening community radio and promotora leadership; Clint’s attention was directed at development and marketing of educational tourism. We were inspired by the successful inroads the nonprofit had already made and by the women leaders we met. 

     

    Promotoras — health promoters with Minga Peru. Photo courtesy Madeline and Clint Kellner

     

    What now? Back in Marin County, we followed the 14-day self-quarantine and then began shelter-in-place. There was no homecoming for us. We can feel the disappointment others are experiencing, with canceled weddings, stalled charitable fundraisers and memorial services for loved ones, postponed surgeries, and delayed trips. Also palpable is the fear, anxiety, and panic in the grocery store, on the streets and trails, and in the media. None of us has ever experienced a situation like this — with so little certainty, no definable end in sight, no assurances that this cannot happen again.

    What has brought us a renewed perspective in the midst of so much change? Since our return, we learned that Minga Peru now faces new critical challenges with funding shortfalls and a higher demand for services. The Peruvian Amazon is home to more than 1,000 rural communities, most in isolated riverine areas, with poor access to essential services. COVID-19 dramatically impacts this region already besieged by dengue fever, shortages of hospitals and medical professionals, and high rates of poverty and food insecurity. Tourism has stopped — cutting off an important source of revenue.

     

    What we cannot do in person in the Amazon, we do remotely in the United States.

     

    What we cannot do in person in the Amazon, we do remotely in the United States. We are contacting past and potential donors to help fund Minga’s emergency response plan, beefing up the radio program’s COVID-19 messages and advice, and providing essentials like soap, cleaning supplies, and vegetable plants for gardens.

    What helps: keeping the faces of the indigenous women and their families whom we met in our sights. That gives us the motivation we need. It also gives us focus outside ourselves. We don’t know what’s next and if we will be able to return to the Peruvian Amazon. In the meantime, we help out from the confines of our house and maintain a strong link to both the people and place.
     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Five country directors tell the stories of Peace Corps evacuation. see more

    When times are good, being a country director for Peace Corps may be the best job in foreign affairs. This has not been such a time.

    As told to Steven Boyd Saum


     

    Photo: Vyshyvanka Day, when schoolchildren don the traditional Ukrainian shirt — and here, pose as one. Photo by Kevin Lawson

     

    Kim Mansaray | Country Director, Mongolia

    JANUARY AND NEWS OF THE VIRUS came out in China. Mongolia says we’re not sending kids back to school. Our winter break became endless winter break. Then the virus exploded in China, and Mongolia went on hardcore lockdown — borders and flights.

    From time to time in Mongolia, there’s an outbreak of something, then a quarantine — fairly routine. That was on our minds: Watch how this plays out. The clincher was when flights from Seoul were canceled. I talked to the embassy and said, If people need to be medically evacuated, we’re not gonna be able to get them out.

    The farthest part of the country is normally a 40-hour bus ride. It took five days with help from embassy cars to caravan all Volunteers back in. And of course, because it’s Mongolia, there was a blizzard.

    Volunteers just a few months in were put on administrative hold. Then, in mid-March, Washington moved everybody to Close of Service. My Volunteers were giving me grief. I said, I get your frustration and your anger. But this is unchartered territory for Peace Corps.

     

    Should Volunteers return? Are we valued? How do we reset this for the country? They’ve heard communities say: “We want the volunteers back as soon as possible.”

     

    Mongolia on horseback. Photo by Antonio Mercatante

     

    Fast forward to June: Our staff in Mongolia have been out and about and in the countryside, visiting potential sites, picking up luggage that Volunteers left behind. And making honest assessments: Should Volunteers return? Are we valued? How do we reset this for the country? They’ve heard communities say: “We want the Volunteers back as soon as possible.” There’s a real connection. Volunteers are staying in touch with communities. Mongolia is incredibly wired; they use Facebook for everything. 

    Here, they see what’s happening in the U.S. Three, four days a week, people come in my office and ask: “What is going on?” Diplomatically I say, “Our democracy is right out there for you to see. It’s messy and it’s ugly, and it’s been tough.” But they know what the Volunteers have been doing in communities. That resonates here. Mongolia has an incredible commitment to not allowing community spread of COVID-19. They understand why the Volunteers left. And they’re uniformly asking, “When are they coming back?” 

     


    Ukraine: The winter walk to school. Photo by Kevin Lawson

     

    Michael Ketover | Country Director, Ukraine

    FRIDAY THE 13TH of March, still only three cases confirmed in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government acts quickly: bans foreigners from entering, effective in 48 hours; 170 border checkpoints closed. We go to alert stage. Overnight a nationwide lockdown is imposed. We activate standfast. Saturday morning, airports close. Time to evacuate.

    I was in Kryvyi Rih at a training with Volunteers and Ukrainian partners; took the 7-hour train back to Kyiv Saturday morning. Peace Corps in DC agrees on evacuation, finds a charter plane from Jordan, to arrive Monday. PC Ukraine, largest post globally, had 274 Volunteers serving; a large group completed service earlier that winter. Imagine doing this with the full 350 PCVs, I thought. We tell all Volunteers to get to Kyiv by Sunday night; they do. We get them to the airport — which is closed, skeleton staff. Still only seven cases in Ukraine. We wait. Flight delayed several times, then, about midnight, canceled. Hotels were closing. We found rooms in three; staff bought PCVs water and food, since restaurants were closing. 

    Tuesday’s charter: delayed then canceled. The company hadn’t arranged landing fee payment, secured a ground crew, etc. Wednesday: flight delayed several times, then canceled last minute. Despite support from the U.S. Embassy in Amman, the government of Jordan wouldn’t let the plane leave because of new COVID restrictions. Wednesday night I propose asking the U.S. military if we can fly Volunteers out on a military aircraft. And I talk to the CEO of a small startup airline in Ukraine interested in making its first flights to the States. 

    Thursday, 19 cases. We’re getting inquiries from congressional offices about concerned Volunteers’ parents: What’s going on? Thursday: delays, cancellation. Peace Corps HQ locates a different charter company from Spain. I insist on being put directly in touch with them. Thursday night 10:30 p.m., wheels up Madrid. We move PCVs in six different buses, with police and Regional Security Officer escort since it is now illegal to gather more than 10 people. At Kyiv airport, there’s a technical issue: They can’t issue or print boarding passes. So airport staff write them out by hand. Check-in took 10 hours. Friday morning, 6:20 a.m., plane departs. Kyiv to Madrid to Dulles to homes of record.

     

    The real unfinished business is Goal Two: deep relationships Volunteers have been establishing, person-to-person. Friendships and peace-building are the essence of Peace Corps — even more so in a place like Ukraine, a geopolitical epicenter.

     

    When I say we it’s the incredible PC local staff. Many had been through evacuation before, in 2014. I managed an evacuation in Papua New Guinea years ago but much less hectic and with only 22 PCVs. This time I was managing it from my Kyiv apartment — Friday I received notice that I had to self-quarantine because I had returned from Europe within the past two weeks. So I’m calling every Volunteer I could to say goodbye during that overnight check-in. During all this we’re posting on social media every day. This was time for gratitude: to counterparts and local staff, host families and government ministry partners, superstar volunteer wardens and our dear Volunteers. I encouraged the Volunteers to stay in touch with counterparts, work remotely if they could — on grant proposals, civic education with youth, English clubs on Zoom, anything; 100 evacuated PCVs have put in nearly 2,000 hours of virtual volunteering already.

    Staff here have restarted programs before. They are working hard even without PCVs in country to maintain meaningful contact with counterparts. They know how to do it. 

    As for unfinished business, there’s goal one for Peace Corps — work Volunteers do in teaching, youth and organizational development. That’s important, but the real unfinished business is Goal Two: deep relationships Volunteers have been establishing, person-to-person. Friendships and peace-building are the essence of Peace Corps — even more so in a place like Ukraine, a geopolitical epicenter. When I talk to counterparts, local staff , and Volunteers, I emphasize this. Counterparts love it: Work, yes, but also inviting Volunteers to birthday celebrations, funerals, and weddings, berry picking in the forest — that makes this experience unique and awesome. The Third Goal, that’s unfinished: making America less insular — helping Americans appreciate the realities of life in different places. Those three goals, equally important, are the beauty of our wonderful organization. 

     


    Ghana: Gathering for a baby-naming ceremony. Photo by Meg Holladay


    Gordon Brown | Country Director, Ghana

    IT HAD ALREADY BEEN A TOUGH YEAR for us in Ghana. In October, one of our Volunteers, Chidinma Ezeani, died after a tragic gas accident in her home. Thirty-nine Volunteers had to be relocated out of the northern part of the country because of security concerns across the border. Peace Corps Niger is closed because of security; Burkina Faso, too. 

    Then the virus: by March, regular emergency meetings at the embassy. Countries started closing, restricting airspace. It looked like Ghana was going to close — within the span of probably half a day. Sunday night, they said, Go in tomorrow and tell all 80 Volunteers to move. How fast can you do it? Now, our organizational culture in Peace Corps is not like the military: Here are your orders, execute. But in a moment like this, it has to be: Do this now — like now now. 

    My former boss used to say, “Being Peace Corps country director is the best job in foreign affairs.” I started as country director in Benin in 2015, then in Ghana in 2018. Along with the joy of the work also sometimes comes tragedy. So how do you be the best when times are the worst? Executing an evacuation takes massive logistical effort and focus. It was us all together — the Volunteers and the agency — that were able to make that happen. We had planes that were supposed to show up that didn’t. When we did get a plane — well, it had been a tough week for me personally, too. My wife had injured a muscle in her leg. So it’s 80 Volunteers, my wife in a wheelchair, our 3-year-old, our 7-year-old, all of our luggage — you can’t make up that level of difficulty. It was level 10.

     

    Then there’s this big question: How do we stay true to the original mission — the philosophical underpinnings — and make the modern iteration of the Peace Corps? It takes courage to stand up and say, “I believe in being committed to something.”

     

    As hard as this has been, here’s something that I think has become clear to a lot of the Volunteers: You don’t stop being a Volunteer just because you’re no longer at your site in a country. We’ve got the technology now that allows many Volunteers to be connected all the time. But that doesn’t change the fact that you need to be able to communicate with people in front of you. You need to be able to read people’s emotions and speak with them in a way that is that being empathetic to what they’re going through.

    We have to wrestle with what Peace Corps means in the modern world. How does it remain relevant? Ghana is the oldest Peace Corps operation in the world. It started in another era; 1961 was the year of Africa, when some 20 nations became independent. In 1960, the Prime Minister of England, Harold Macmillan gave a speech about “the wind of change” blowing through the continent.

    In Ghana, one question is: How do we keep Peace Corps from seeming like a piece of old furniture? It has always been there. Kwame Nkrumah is always a big hero. John F. Kennedy is a big hero. America and Ghana have always had a close relationship. But how do we renew excitement among the government and people of Ghana — to understand that these Volunteers who are capable and tech-savvy, involved and committed, have something to offer? It’s a welcome challenge. 

    For the agency this is a massive undertaking in terms of charting the way forward: what the focus areas are going to be, what the footprint is going to be — what sectors, sizes, countries? All of that is going to have to be decided on an individual basis. As I like to tell Volunteers: Any victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.

    Then there’s this big question: How do we stay true to the original mission — the philosophical underpinnings — and make the modern iteration of the Peace Corps? It takes courage to stand up and say, “I believe in being committed to something.”

     


     

    Morocco: Girls’ hiking expedition. Photo by Gio Giraldo 

     

    Sue Dwyer | Country Director, Morocco

    WHEN WE STARTED an in-service training there were maybe two cases in Morocco — a country of 35 million. But come Friday morning, March 13, I don’t like where this is going. They shut down flights to Italy, are talking about shutting down flights to France — our primary means of getting out. We cancel the last few days of training. We send Volunteers back to their sites, put them on standfast. 

    Saturday morning, I call the Deputy Chief of Mission at the embassy and tell him I think I have to get Volunteers out; if we have to med-evac someone, we’re in trouble. We’ve got 183 Volunteers and Morocco is the size of California. For some Volunteers it takes two days to get back to site; they get a day to pack, say goodbye. In Rabat I figure we’ll have three days for a program to wrap things up. The embassy says you’ve got until next Saturday … then Thursday … then Wednesday. OK, here we go. The Moroccan government keeps moving the time when we can fly. I realize, as this is happening, that I still have some muscles working from my humanitarian aid days; I evacuated NGOs out of Liberia in 1999 during the civil war. 

    A lot of Volunteers email me saying, “Please don’t send us home, we want to be here in solidarity with the Moroccans.” But they come. Some have problems getting back to Rabat — harassment on buses, people saying foreigners brought in COVID. So our Moroccan staff charter buses and send them out to consolidation points. 

     

    This has been traumatic for Moroccan communities that had their Volunteer stripped from them. For the Moroccan staff, for the American staff. But it’s also a time when all of us can reflect on what we’re doing well, what systems need to be strengthened. We get a chance to start fresh.

     

    At the airport we have a charter flight with maybe 225 seats for Volunteers only. They start calling: “My grandmother and my mother are here — and the airport’s closed.” So we say yes. Then: My parents, my aunt , my brother. So we have to finish what we started. Thursday at 2 a.m., the plane takes off. Second-year Volunteers knew they were being COS’d. First-year Volunteers were told they were on administrative hold. While they were flying that changed. They got off the plane, they got a different message. That was soul-crushing.

    Peace Corps Morocco is one of the oldest programs, and currently the only one in the Arab world. We’re the largest youth development program; it’s our sole area of focus. The evacuation was a huge earthquake with all the aftershocks. And it’s not just for Volunteers. We’ve got host families calling and saying, “I can’t reach my volunteer daughter, son” — because their number changed. “When we see what’s happening in the United States, we’re really worried. Are they OK?”

    This has been traumatic for Moroccan communities that had their Volunteer stripped from them. For the Moroccan staff, for the American staff. But it’s also a time when all of us can reflect on what we’re doing well, what systems need to be strengthened. We get a chance to start fresh. If we were to do training in a completely different way, what would that look like? So this is an important time for innovation and rethinking our models

     


    . 

    Paraguay: Scenes from an Instagram feed before evacuation

     

    Howard Lyon | Country Director, Paraguay

    WE KNEW THE VIRUS was on its way, burning across the world. It was going to hit Paraguay sooner or later. Infections had begun in Brazil. At the time we thought maybe we could ride out the storm. But the world was getting stormier. Then with the infections in the United States, we began getting inquiries from parents: “Where’s my daughter?” “What’s your plan?” I had traveled to the region called the Chaco — very isolated and hot, and there was the theory that the virus doesn’t like heat. That was my last trip to the field.

    By March 15 it was very serious. A strange morning, overcast, leaves beginning to fall; autumn was just beginning. Walking to our office I was the only person on the street — a major thoroughfare in Asunción. People were beginning to stay at home; the government was making noises about curfews. We started preparing for lockdown. This happens to be my second evacuation in two years; in 2018 we evacuated Nicaragua — though under very different circumstances. But it’s heartbreaking to take Volunteers from their communities. 

    Sunday night we got the call. We had a week to get 180 Volunteers out. Paraguay is an inland island, surrounded by Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. Politically it was isolated for years. You fly to North America through São Paulo, Buenos Aires, or Santiago, and then another connection. We got word that Panama, a central hub to get people to the U.S., was going to close. By Wednesday word was the airport in Asunción might close. We even had a group on a bus to the airport when our travel agency canceled our tickets. So we brought people back to their hotel. Saturday, we got a chartered flight, our last large group. Lockdown began the night before; we weren’t even allowed to leave our homes to say goodbye to them. So it’s all WhatsApp, and we’re calling, we’re saying goodbye in other ways.

     

    THREE MONTHS LATER, Latin America is being harder hit. Volunteers I speak to express gratitude to the country, sadness for leaving their communities here, but also gratitude for being close to their families in the U.S. during this time. In Paraguay, we were on strict lockdown the first month, and that helped. In Peru and Ecuador, it’s a terrible situation. Brazil is horrific. Here the population is about 
7 million. We’re around 1,300 cases now; there have been 12 fatalities. 

    Our staff have been talking to community members and counterparts. They want everybody back. But it’s going to be a different world. In Paraguay, kissing and hugging are a big part of the culture; so is sharing food, or drinking tereré out of the same gourd or straw. That will change. If the opportunity presents itself to return Volunteers, they will be well received by their communities. But we’re going to have to think about how you go in as the foreigner who has been in a country with such high infection rates.

    Another crucial factor: New and returning Volunteers alike have not only lived through an extraordinary world health catastrophe, but the recent murders of Black Americans, which are a consequence of centuries of racism, have brought another time of protest and a time of reckoning. All of us as individuals and as organizations have to look within ourselves and truly recognize that this situation — the mistreatment of people because of race — is the heritage of our country. We have to deal with it. It doesn’t mean everybody’s bad, doesn’t mean everybody’s good. It just means we’ve got to live together. 

     

    The purpose of the Peace Corps is to break down any kind of barrier to understanding each other. This is something everybody in the world is facing. This is not one region. This is not one country. This is not one class.

     

    When the Black Lives Matter movement began a few years ago, there were repercussions in the Peace Corps. Some wanted the agency to answer hard questions. This is now even stronger and more tragic. The economy and unemployment, the illness and who it affects most, and the reckoning with justice: It’s an extraordinary time. So our staff need to be compassionate and understanding. 

    I haven’t been to every country in the world, but I’ve seen a bunch. And I don’t know of any non-racist country, especially in this part of the world. Africa was colonized by Europeans who, to do what they did, dehumanized native populations. That curse has been with us ever since. In this part of the world, when we talk of Europeans — the Spanish and the Portuguese — this conquest was very violent. These nations were born in violence, but they’re trying to reckon with it.

    The purpose of the Peace Corps is to break down any kind of barrier to understanding each other. This is something everybody in the world is facing. This is not one region. This is not one country. This is not one class. Every one of us is facing uncertainties — and we’re social distancing, losing human contact. I hope compassion is what we learn out of all this. It’s not just, OK, lights are on again.

    As I said to the last group flying out, when I called and they put me on speakerphone: We truly love you guys. We love you Volunteers.

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thank you for reading: We try to bring you stories that matter to our community. We welcome any support you can give for the work we’re doing.

    • Joanne Roll
      Thank you for bringing the "other side" of the Peace Corps evacuation. We have read how difficult it was for each PCV to leave their host country, friends and projects. Now, we can appreciate...
      see more
      Thank you for bringing the "other side" of the Peace Corps evacuation. We have read how difficult it was for each PCV to leave their host country, friends and projects. Now, we can appreciate what a herculean effort was made by PC staff to evacuate all Volunteers, safely.
      1 month ago
    • Michael Burza I sincerely hope as many PCVs can return to their sites as possible.
      1 month ago
  • Steven Saum posted an article
    I banged on the door. Margarita came running. “Que pasó?” see more

    Ecuador | Becky Wandell

    Home: Portland, Oregon


    By 10:30 Sunday night, March 15, I had settled into bed and checked my phone. I scrolled past messages exploding: Start packing. We’re going home.

    Not me — I’m extending for a third year! Besides, we’re on a “standfast,” schools are closed. I’m safe with my host family here in Ibarra. The Ecuadorian government is already taking precautions!

    My phone rang — my supervisor. Two checked bags. Be ready to leave by midday. 

    Upstairs I heard the TV in Margarita and Jose’s room so I knew they were still awake. I banged on the door. Margarita came running. “Que pasó?” The three of us stood in the doorway, holding each other, crying. 

     

    I banged on the door. Margarita came running. “Que pasó?” The three of us stood in the doorway, holding each other, crying. 

     

    The next morning I texted the principal of the school where I had been teaching and training teachers. I had a packet of maps from the U.S. for the school. She came, said she would share my goodbyes. We stood in the street and cried. All morning long my extended family called or came by: I would always be part of their family, their doors were always open, they would wait for my return. Then little Pablo: “No te vayas, Becky! No te vayas!” Don’t go!

    Margarita made a lovely soup for lunch — our last meal.

     

    Showing for GLOW: Girls Leading Our World

     

    In a hotel conference room in Quito, we learned our service was officially being terminated. Ecuadorian borders were closed. It took three different flights to get us all from Quito to Guayaquil for a connection to the States. Airport staff were fully suited, masked, gloved. They took our temperature from 12 feet away. They squirted disinfectant gel into our hands.

    When we arrived in Miami, we headed to customs. No masks, no gloves, no gel. I stepped up to the customs official, expecting questions about where I had traveled from, where I was going. He only wanted to know if I was carrying any agricultural products. I thought, Their script is a little out of date.

    Then he said, “Welcome home.” A strange concept when your heart is on a different continent.

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Benjamin Rietmann left friends and project partners, and students trying to start their own business see more

    Dominican Republic | Benjamin Rietmann

    Home: Condon, Oregon

    Photo: Build your dreams: Ben with two students who competed in the Peace Corps "Construye tus Sueños" competition, where they presented business plans trying to win seed money to start businesses. The young woman wants to make and sell yogurt, and the young man wants to start a hardware store.

     

    I’m from a small town in eastern Oregon. I was in the community economic development sector, working with an association of dairy farmers and teaching entrepreneurship to high school-age students. We held the Construye tus Sueños competition — Build Your Dreams — where they presented business plans trying to win seed money to start businesses.

    When we were evacuated, I left behind friends and project partners with whom I’d worked to build relationships over the past year. I left behind students who had yet to finish my entrepreneurship and personal finance programs. I left behind my dog, house, furniture.

     

    We held the Construye tus Sueños competition — Build Your Dreams — where they presented business plans trying to win seed money to start businesses.

     

    I was helping several dairy farmers to organize and better understand their finances. I was helping the association administrator learn more computer skills, and I was creating an annual budget for the association. I was helping a students start their own business making yogurt and other dairy projects. Much of what I was doing seemed promising. 

     

    Got milk? The dairy association collection center where Benjamin was working, in process of having a second story built on the building. Photo by Benjamin Rietmann

     

    Coming back to the U.S., I was fortunate to have a place to stay and a family to provide for me during quarantine. As I write this, I’m unsure if I’ll be able to return to Peace Corps service, unsure if I’ll be able to get a job during the pandemic, unsure what the future holds.

     

    See more from Benjamin's service

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    A departure too quick — from the only Peace Corps program in the Arab world. see more

    Morocco | Joshua Warzecha

    Home: Clayton, California


    Joshua Warzecha was an Arabic studies and linguistics major at Dartmouth College before joining Peace Corps in September 2018. He was on vacation with his family in the northern part of Morocco when he got the evacuation message and had to race back to his post in Tata, a province in the southwestern part of the country. He worked in the youth development sector, spending much of his time teaching English to teens and young adults.

    Back at his parents’ home in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the weeks under self-quarantine he was texting with his former students. They were sad and angry, telling him Tata is too hot for the coronavirus to survive. “A lot of ‘We miss you,’ a lot of ‘Why did you have to leave?’” he says. “We agreed the anger is more frustration.”

    —Lisa Kocian for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.  

     

    Master craftsman Hamid began learning his trade 50 years ago, at age 8. Photographer and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Dylan Thompson met him at Seffarine Square in Fez.

     

    Read more from Morocco here:

    Morocco Country Director Sue Dwyer in “This is Not a Drill.”
    Volunteer Giovana Giraldo and Counterpart Omar Lyamyani  in “Shoulder to Shoulder.”

     

     


    This story was first published as part of  “Mission, Interrupted” in Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. It also appears in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 print edition.
     

    Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Work Amber Cohen was doing was small-scale, in-person, and hopefully long-lasting and sustainable. see more

    Zambia | Amber Cohen

    Home: Washington, D.C. Area

    In the village of Itinti, a 15-hour bus ride from the capital, Amber Cohen assembled a meeting of the farmers with whom she’d built 27 fish ponds during almost two years. “It didn’t really hit me that this was the last meeting I’d be having.”

    Her work as an aquaculture Volunteer was small-scale, in-person, and hopefully long-lasting and sustainable. In training she learned to speak Bemba, one of Zambia’s 72 languages, and gathered resources to teach fish pond construction and management. 

    She lived in the compound of the “head man” — a big house but, more important, just steps from the village well. People visited her throughout the day when they came for water.

    Also important: the commitment of the village leader and her counterpart, Laston Mukuka, to the idea of fish farming in the village. “I arrived in May, and we had ponds built by September,” Cohen says. Mukaka even dug his own 20-meter by 15-meter pond alone. “Laston! Ask your friends for help,” Cohen begged him. “No, I got this,” he replied.

     

    “We all change, but Peace Corps makes you reflective. We are all learning now how to be alone with our minds. To accept changes and growth.”

     

    The ponds were stocked with green-headed tilapia — palé in Bemba — to provide food security and surplus to sell. Many ponds were owned by individuals, one by a women’s club, one by a collective.

     

     

    Evacuation came quick. It felt like walking through a dream, Cohen says. In the last meeting, the fish farmers sat outside her house. “I gave them a speech about how proud I was of the work we did,” Cohen says. “We talked about coronavirus and why I was being evacuated. How it could be coming to Zambia. They didn’t have any cases; in Zambia there’s a big greeting culture. But prevention strategies were being talked about by government health workers.” 

    Cohen is headed back to southeastern Africa — to Malawi this time, as coordinator for a malaria prevention project. “I am not the same person I was,” she says. “We all change, but Peace Corps makes you reflective. We are all learning now how to be alone with our minds. To accept changes and growth.”

    John Deever

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    In Togo they say, How are you? How's the family? Hows' your courage? They keep asking. They care. see more

    Togo | Sarah Bair

    Home: Bethesda, Maryland

    The village of Alibi II is in the center of the country.
“It’s basically the Muslim capital of Togo,” Sarah Bair says. Working with a clinic, she focused on maternal and child health, serving some 3,000 people.

    “I went to mosque every Friday. I learned a lot about religion and how that affects health — and how to be conscious about health education through religion.” For attending mosque, she wore a headscarf; walking to work, not necessarily. That led to conversations with people in the village about personal choice.

    She coached two girls’ soccer teams, practiced twice a week. “One practice I would use for a health talk — washing hands, nutritional eating, setting goals for a healthy lifestyle.”

    Before praying five times a day, one should perform ablutions. “Because of that, and everyone having outdoor showers and no one having indoor running water, there would be a lot of standing water between houses and compounds,” Bair says. “Standing water leads to flies, which leads to many diseases — such as a diarrheal diseases.”

    Solution: dig a hole by the shower, fill it with rocks and sand, create a way for te water to filter into the ground. Bair worked with a counterpart to get people to construct more than 100 of those in the village. Her job wasn’t to dig; it was to build buy-in.

    Then came a phone call at 4 a.m. on Monday, March 16. A friend saying check your email. She had two days to say goodbye.

     

    “Reina — my dearest friend in village and arguably the strongest woman I know,” says Sarah Bair. “There are many obstacles women face in Togo including working multiple jobs while also expected to always cook, clean etc. On top of all of this, Reina raises her three kids alone as her husband is working in another country. With the little time she has left to offer, she spends it helping me with health talks and projects in village. The world is a better place because of compassionate women like her!“ 

     

     

    She left her cat and the projects and deep friendships, and she knew she’d be carrying the weight of sadness in the leaving — not just for her sake, but also because she’s aware of the fact that Peace Corps hasn’t left Togo since the program was established in 1962. 

    She wished she’d had the chance to educate her village on coronavirus and imminent health issues. There wasn’t time. She did say this at the clinic: “Remember that health talk we did on washing hands? We really need to reinforce that.”

    She didn’t expect that when she told her host family father — also the head of the neighborhood, “a very serious Muslim man” — he began sobbing. Seeing his genuine sadness and the sadness of others was heartbreaking. 

     

    “In Togo they say, ‘How are you? How’s the family? How’s your job? How’s the house? How’s your courage?’ They keep asking. They care.”

     

    Before she left, there was one small thing that a friend insisted on. In Western Africa, many countries have a tradition of protection scars — like a tattoo, where they break a bit of skin but the color wears off in a few months. Bair had been talking about getting one on her foot. “We’ll get it for you now,” her friend said. “We need to protect you before you go where coronavirus is worse.”

    She plans to train as an EMT. In August, she began graduate work in public health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. She keeps in touch with friends in Togo via WhatsApp, “Which makes me both happy and sad,” she says. “They’re always most concerned about how I am. In Togo they say, ‘How are you? How’s the family? How’s your job? How’s the house? How’s your courage?’ They keep asking. They care.”

    —Steven Boyd Saum
     


    Togo | Ryan Blackwell

    Home: Washington, D.C. Area

    Medo gbe lo! ŋkɔnye nye Ryan Blackwell alo Kɔkuvi. Wodzim KuɖagbeThat’s Ewe, a language widely spoken in southern Togo. Translation: “My name is Ryan Blackwell or Kokouvi” — which is what I was known as in my community. It means that I was born on a Wednesday.

    I just got back from serving for almost three years as an English and gender education volunteer in Togo. I also worked a bit with Pathways Togo, a Peace Corps-affiliated organization that provides full scholarships all the way through university for outstanding female students.

     

    Peace Corps Togo staff — Togolese and Americans — are doing incredible work, especially supporting Togo’s education system and girls’ education in the country.

     

    A thousand words: 8th-grade English students show off the monsters that they drew and described to celebrate Halloween in Adeta, Togo. Photo by Ryan Blackwell

     

    I had to leave my colleagues, my friends, my neighbors, and my students. I’ve never felt that connected to a community in my life.

    In terms of unfinished business: We need to get the Peace Corps opened up again as soon as possible. Peace Corps Togo staff — Togolese and Americans — are doing incredible work, especially supporting Togo’s education system and girls’ education in the country. I can’t really put into words how grateful I am for being able to be a part of the Peace Corps and being able to work there.

     

      

     See more from Ryan's service

     


    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

    STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.

    STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.

    Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.