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  • Orrin Luc posted an article
    Short-term, high-impact. Now marking 25 years since its founding. see more

    Short-term, high-impact. Now marking 25 years since its founding.

     

    By Steven Boyd Saum

    Photo by Christian Farnsworth

     

    A quarter century ago, at a midsummer White House Rose Garden ceremony attended by President Bill Clinton and Sargent Shriver, first director of the Peace Corps, a new type of Peace Corps service was announced to the world: Crisis Corps. Short-term, high-impact, it was, as then-Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan explained, “an effort to harness the enormous experience, skills, motivation, and talents that the Peace Corps, including its returned Volunteer ranks, possesses, and bring them to bear in an organized fashion during such crisis situations.”

    At the outset, all Crisis Corps Volunteers were required to have already served in the Peace Corps. In fact, the program traces much of its origins to grassroots work by returned Volunteers. The National Peace Corps Association Emergency Response Network, activated to help in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, provided powerful inspiration.

     

    IN ITS FIRST YEARS, Crisis Corps enlisted hundreds of Volunteers to serve in places from Bosnia to Guinea to El Salvador. Volunteers worked with communities recovering from conflicts, hurricanes, earthquakes, and more. Following the devastating tsunami that hit Thailand and Sri Lanka, among other countries, in 2004, the largest cohort ever of Crisis Corps Volunteers deployed there. Months later, hundreds more began serving Gulf Coast communities battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — the first time Volunteers served in the United States.

     

    Flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

    Flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Photo courtesy Wikimedia

     

    By 2007 the broadening nature of assignments led the agency to rename the program Peace Corps Response. Assignments last three months to one year, shorter than a standard 27-month term of Peace Corps service. That makes them more feasible for working professionals, who have to take a leave of absence. And, since 2012, Response Volunteers have included individuals who haven’t previously served in the Peace Corps.

     

    Two women in Guinea at World Food Programme distribution of food

    Mothers and daughters pick up gifts of cooking oil as an incentive for school attendance, part of a World Food Programme effort in Guinea documented by Christian Farnsworth, who served as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer.

     

    It’s interesting to note that in 2020 the Commission on Military, National, and Public Service issued a report that called for exploring virtual service assignments for Peace Corps Response, to further open up opportunities for people able and willing to serve but not, perhaps, able to travel to other countries. Indeed, after the evacuation of all Peace Corps Volunteers in March 2020, the Peace Corps agency launched the Virtual Service Pilot — which connected evacuated Volunteers and Response Volunteers with organizations and communities in countries where they had been serving. 

    In May 2021, more than 150 Peace Corps Response Volunteers deployed domestically, as part of a partnership with FEMA. “By sending specialized volunteers to targeted assignments, we are helping to advance Peace Corps’ mission of world peace and friendship,” Peace Corps Response Director Sarah Dietch noted. Response Volunteers began serving with community vaccination centers to reach underserved communities — an effort that seems more important with each passing day, as another wave of COVID-19 takes a terrible toll.

     

     

    Ukrainian grandmother in village, photographed in profile

    Grandmother in a Ukrainian village, photographed by Michael Andrews as part of the Baba Yelka project.

     

    In the 25 years since Peace Corps Response began, more than 3,800 Volunteers have served in over 80 countries — and twice in the United States. As we go to press, Response is recruiting for 136 openings, with Volunteers departing “no earlier than late 2021” for Belize and Guyana, undertaking assignments that include literacy specialist, adolescent health specialist, and epidemiology specialist. They’re recruiting for positions departing “no earlier than early 2022” for more than 20 countries, from Mexico to Malawi, Uganda to Ukraine, Georgia to Guatemala, Jamaica to South Africa.

     

     

    Kudu being released into a wild animal park in Guinea

    Kudu released into Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in Malawi, where Betsy Holtz worked as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer

     

    Response Volunteers were at the vanguard as Peace Corps returned to countries such as Liberia. Civil war forced the program there to close in 1990. In 2007, when Response Volunteers arrived to serve, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of Liberia, personally attended the swearing-in ceremony.

    In the pages that follow, we bring you a brief history of the program. Along with milestones, take note of the stories of lives and communities that have been shaped by the experience. It’s no coincidence that there’s a recurring theme of building together, whether that’s infrastructure or shared knowledge, and undergirding it all, that commitment to nurturing peace and friendship. 

     

    Three girls in a village in Panama

    Three girls in Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, eastern Panamá; Eli Wittum documented environmental work in the country, and when he visited this region these three were delighted to pose for a photo.

     


    Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.

     September 12, 2021
  • Communications Intern posted an article
    Introducing the Virtual Service Pilot program — reconnecting communities and Volunteers see more

    The evacuation of Volunteers from around the globe interrupted service everywhere. And while Volunteers have yet to return to the field, last year Peace Corps launched a program for communities and Volunteers to work together — virtually.

     

    Six months after Peace Corps evacuated all Volunteers from around the world, 45 returned to service under the aegis of the agency: the inaugural cohort of an 10- to 12-week endeavor christened the Virtual Service Pilot program. They were Volunteers and Response Volunteers and trainees. They partnered with communities in nine countries and areas: Botswana, Colombia, Costa Rica, Eastern Caribbean, Paraguay, Peru, Senegal, South Africa, and Ukraine. And they embarked on projects that included education and health, conservation and youth development.

    An idea whose time has come? In March 2020 — even before COVID-19 brought the Zoomification of so many workplaces—the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service issued a report that explicitly called for exploring virtual volunteering to open up service opportunities to more people in the States. 

    Round one of the Virtual Service Pilot wrapped up in December. The editorial team at WorldView magazine spoke to two Volunteers about their service — first on the ground, and now virtually. And as we go to press, round two of the virtual program, which expanded to 20 countries, just finished.
     


    Luca Mariotti

    SENEGAL

    Home: Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts

    Beginning in 2019, in a town called Karang, on the border with The Gambia, I was a Community Economic Development Volunteer, working with local entrepreneurs and women’s groups, helping them turn local resources like peanuts and mangoes into income-generating products. In an entrepreneurial class I was teaching, five students came forward and were interested in leading a waste management project: writing the business plan, meeting with chiefs and community members, holding cleanup days. In a town of 20,000, there’s no garbage pickup; people burn their trash. A decade ago, a Volunteer set up a waste management project with the mayor’s office — but unfortunately it was disassembled after six months. 

    We talked to local leaders, conducted community surveys, asked if people would be willing to pay — and how much. We realized that a project would have to be private — and ideally would lead to employment in the community. The mayor’s office was allocating a landfill, and I was in the process of of writing a grant.

    Along with that, in a nearby town, Keur Sièt, my counterpart and I were working with a women’s group to add value to peanuts and, through a contact in Dakar, sell to clients in Germany. Then: evacuation.

    One morning at 4 a.m. I got a call from a friend asking if I had checked my phone. “Of course I haven’t,” I said. “Luca,” she said, “we’re going home.”

    Leaving my host family two days later was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life.

     

    Host family and entrepreneurs in Keur Sièt, Senegal. From left, the women are Nday, Nday, Fatou, Luca Mariotti, and Soxna Si. Photo courtesy of Luca Mariotti


     

    What sustains us

    I’m from Dublin, Ireland, originally. My dad, Mark Mariotti, served with the Peace Corps in The Gambia — 30 minutes from where I was posted. Ten years ago we went back to his host community; he hadn’t been there in 25 years. He found the door to his host brother’s house. They cried, they embraced. That connection was really powerful.

    Last fall I began a master’s program at Cornell in global development. And I took part in the Virtual Service Pilot program with Peace Corps, working with the chamber of commerce in Sédhiou, Senegal, promoting the value chain for cassava and a superfood called fonio. It has more amino acids than quinoa. It is gluten-free, high in protein and iron, easy to cook, and drought resistant — which is important as climate change increasingly causes food insecurity in sub-Saharan countries.

     

    Fonio is a superfood with more amino acids than quinoa. It is drought resistant and is drawing increasing global interest. But that wasn’t being reflected in Senegal. Now it is.

     

    I contacted most international players in the fonio world. There is growing interest — but that wasn’t being reflected within Senegal. I was led to Malick, a contact with Terra Ingredients, which has been working on the Fonio Project, trying to find producers and, by paying fair prices and reinvesting profits in the community, build a sustainable system. They are constructing a processing plant in Dakar — the first in Senegal. My counterpart, Ndeye Maguette, and I had a number of meetings with Malick, who is sending people to meet with the chamber of commerce and producers. They hope that by the next harvest they will export fonio from these farmers.

    I’m excited to see what happens. I’m also interested in finding ways for us to continue to support projects I started when I was in Senegal. My experience in the Peace Corps really furthered my cultural humility and cultural intelligence. I saw firsthand how similar we all are, and the immense potential that lies in developing countries. I think further investments and confidence in the education systems are going to show incredible results.
     

     


    MiKayla Wolf

    UKRAINE

    Home: Chickasha, Oklahoma 

    I actually wanted to serve with Peace Corps in Swaziland, Africa, where I was originally given an invitation — but I was moved to Ukraine right before the departure date for medical reasons. I did not know anything about Ukraine. But I loved my work with the kids and parents of my organization. I had a wonderful counterpart, and the Peace Corps Ukraine staff were so supportive. I went from doubting if I would stay in Ukraine to deciding to extend one more year.

    I was a Youth Development Volunteer with the All-Ukraine Association of People with Disabilities in Vinnytsia, in central Ukraine. I led clubs and classes for children with disabilities, assisted with games for Special Olympics Ukraine, attended conferences about inclusion, and learned and taught Ukrainian Sign Language.

    When we were evacuated, my counterpart and I were talking about a grant for a project that would benefit parents in our organization. It was close to the beginning of Special Olympic events in Vinnytsia. And the day I was supposed to work with my counterpart on the paperwork for my extension was the day that evacuation was called. 

    The last time I saw my kids and parents from the organization was at a painting class right before evacuation. There is still a lot of work to do in Ukraine regarding inclusion. Given the opportunity to assist online, I wanted to do it. With the Virtual Service Pilot program, I was assigned to my original NGO and worked with the same counterpart. I know my kids well and what they are capable of. 

     

    Ukrainian parents were able to learn strategies and ask questions. I had a young adult female share her story, so the parents could hear about growing up with autism from a child’s perspective.

     

    I led online sessions for children with disabilities to help them develop life skills, communication skills, and socialization skills. I started a monthly discussion between parents in the United States and Ukraine. This provided an opportunity for the American parent of a child with autism to share their story — and what worked and did not work in the USA. Ukrainian parents were able to learn strategies and ask questions. I had a young adult female share her story, so the parents could hear about growing up with autism from a child’s perspective. A Peace Corps Ukraine staff member translates for the parent discussions. 

    In the virtual program, Ukraine had a Volunteer in every sector, including PEPFAR. It was a good experience; I chose to participate in the second phase. I still talk to my host mom, kids and parents from the organization, my counterpart, Peace Corps Ukraine staff, and others from Special Olympics. My counterpart started a project for adults with autism. Through one of the parent talks, she found out about a program in Oklahoma that supports adults with disabilities, and she wants to come visit and see how it is run. 

    What’s ahead? I’m working at the university in my hometown of Chickasha until September 2021. I am also a graduate student at Arizona State University online, where I am studying special education: applied behavior analysis. 

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    Editor Steven Saum speaks on issues of the current times and how NPCA can move forward. see more

    Peace Corps teaches us a new way to think about time. Pandemic does, too. So what do we do with this?

    By Steven Boyd Saum

     

    ACROSS THE DECADES and countries and communities where tens of thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers have served, there are a few things we share. One: a new grasp of time. Be it seasons or how we count the days, a revised sense of punctuality or the value of hours in terms of money or daylight, be it devoted to sleep or preparing a meal or hiking to the well, be it in the presence of friends or alone with this self you are becoming — one of the gifts: to be invited into a new way of measuring a life. Step outside of the this, then this, then this. Also a gift: the dawning of the truth that empathy and understanding are not transactional stuff, giver and receiver both richer, stronger, wiser, more human. 

    Now here we are: old strictures of time dissolved, pandemic time warping the distance between today and last Monday until that day is shockingly distant. When time itself has taken on new meaning—or lack thereof. But how? 

    It’s been nearly nine months since most Volunteers around the world got the news — via phone call or email or WhatsApp: Because of COVID-19, they were being evacuated. The pandemic was burning its way across the globe. In this country and others, it still exacts a terrible toll. As we put the fall edition of WorldView magazine to bed, globally there have been 43 million cases and 1.16 million people have died, more than 226,000 lives lost in the United States alone. 

     

    We look to a pandemic a century in the past for lessons on enduring this one. And we behold a future that came too soon. 

     

    We look to a pandemic a century in the past for lessons on enduring this one. And we behold a future that came too soon. 

    In the San Francisco Bay Area, which I call home, this was the year of the Blade Runner sky: Dry lightning sparked hundreds of fires up and down the Golden State, including the largest blaze in recorded history — more than 1 million acres. As summer faded, fires were burning up and down the West Coast of the United States and Canada, fulfillment of Cassandra climate change warnings that would visit themselves upon us within a quarter century if we didn’t do something now. Then here they were. 

    To Louisiana came four named storms: Marco, Laura, Beta, Delta — the second of that lot blowing the fiercest winds of any tropical cyclone in modern history to make landfall on the Bayou State. 

    The arc of a storm, the arc of history, the path of the fire or the pandemic of COVID or hateful racism: Where will we find ourselves in the time that matters? Digging the perimeter to halt the flames, preparing meals for the first responders, helping someone breathe? 

     

    WorldView Fall 2020: What’s the role of Peace Corps now? Cover illustration by David Plunkert.

     

    THIS UNPRECEDENTED MOMENT, 2020 continued. Let us speak of world peace and friendship. We’ve just begun commemorating six decades since this whole audacious Peace Corps endeavor caught the 1960 election-year zeitgeist. Origin story: 2 a.m. at the University of Michigan on a drizzly and chilly October 14, cut to San Francisco’s Cow Palace on November 2, and not even six weeks after inauguration day 1961 there’s the executive order on 3/1/61 — JFK signs the Peace Corps into being. Youthful idealism that set in motion something that could and should be the best of what this nation aspires to be.

    Perhaps not coincidentally, when I was teaching contemporary American literature as a Volunteer in western Ukraine — the independent country then all of three years old — the poem that most fired my students’ imaginations was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting.” It is a litany of an American promise unfulfilled, ideals unmet, but that does not mean giving up: 

    and I am perpetually awaiting 
    a rebirth of wonder

    Because as we studied this Beat poet (now 101!) I asked these future teachers and bankers, singers and city council members, mothers and fathers and citizens — notebooks, please: What are you waiting for? 

     

    WE ARE HOPING for Volunteers to return to communities around the world, knowing what’s ahead is uncharted for all. Yet ambassadors and colleagues, students and families have all asked: When? Because solidarity, not charity, calls. Yet we know that the safety and security of communities and Volunteers must circumscribe what is possible. And these cannot be empty words. 

    Because we carry with sorrow and compassion a tragic truth underscored in recent weeks. In January 2018, Bernice Heiderman, from Inverness, Illinois, was serving as a Volunteer in Comoros. As a New York Times article detailed this fall, she contracted and died from undiagnosed malaria. Had it been treated, she might have made a full recovery. She was 24 years old. 

    To her loved ones, the Peace Corps community sends the deepest condolences. And a pledge to ensure that the agency does better. As NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst wrote in an open letter, “The current challenge of suspended Peace Corps programming provides a tremendous opportunity—and clear responsibility—for the agency to engage global health experts, Congress, and the broad Peace Corps community in a transparent dialogue on where improvements in volunteer health care are needed and what is needed to implement those improvements ... And we must commit to the care and well-being of these Volunteers in a changed world.” 

    We can do nothing less.

     


    Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He was as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.
     

    This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Fall 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.

  • 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 year ago
    • Michael Burza I sincerely hope as many PCVs can return to their sites as possible.
      1 year ago
  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Working on the grassroots level in a geopolitical epicenter. And leaving communities behind. see more

    Ukraine | Kevin Lawson

    Home: Greensboro, North Carolina
     

    “When will you come back?” I wake up more and more to this question as the days go by since evacuation.

    I had been serving as a youth development Volunteer since August 2018. When we were evacuated I left behind the promise to play soccer with Dima, Sasha, and Max. I was in the middle of lesson planning with my English teacher, Olena, and organizing a festival at school with my counterpart.
     

    As a youth volunteer, one-on-one connections with students were so important to me. No matter the time or place, if a student called me over for help or wanted to share something, I was there!

    One particular project I was sad to leave unfinished was a youth-led leadership and artistic camp for Ukrainian teenagers.

    So now I know, no matter how far apart we are, Ukrainians and I are asking the same question: When will I come back? And more important: When will Peace Corps come back? 

     

     
     
     

    See more photos from Kevin's service

     


    Ukraine | Jamal Marcelin

     

    Ukraine Volunteer Jamal Marcelin, center, with students Maksim and Pasha. Marcelin’s students thought he was arockstar. As a Black Volunteer, he sometimes faced racist taunts and threats in the mining town where he lived. His story was featured in the photo series Humans of New York.

     


    Ukraine | Griffin Bouwens

    Home: Michigan

    I was in my third year working in community development in Vasylkiv, a small town about half an hour from Kyiv. March 12, I flew back to the States to go through security clearance for a job I had applied for — serving an interpreter helping train Ukrainian military. As I left, they were closing borders; everybody thought it was just a bump in the road, maybe two weeks. It’s been months. I’m going back to Ukraine, of course — the question is when, and how.

     


    Everything is on hold. I never got to do the security clearance; my medical stuff is held up. If there’s one thing I learned about applying for Peace Corps through the government, it’s don’t count your chickens before they hatch. 

    I left friends behind. And my dog — he’s a stray, and I miss him. I left a sense of meaning and purpose. I had assumed a volunteer leader role. My organization, a community foundation, was formed shortly after the Maidan; really it’s a collection of people, all volunteers, who put in incredible amounts of time, especially my counterpart. I studied public administration, so I try to use my skills as an advisor, and to help them build confidence to be at the table in local governance. The Peace Corps experience in Ukraine is often about people’s ideas about democracy and identity. As an American, you can bring a sense of optimism. Civil society is just developing; some say Ukraine wasn’t really independent until 2014. And national identity is bound up in European integration.

     

    The Peace Corps experience in Ukraine is often about people’s ideas about democracy and identity.

     

    Why does the world need Peace Corps? It comes down to how we see ourselves as Americans. Some people who don’t want to have Peace Corps say, “We should be spending that time investing in ourselves — why are we helping these other countries?” Others say: “This is just neocolonialism — why are we going there?” 

    I disagree with both. First, it’s investing in Americans. We develop new perspectives on the world; it’s good to have an educated society, with skills and abilities to work internationally. It’s necessary if you value being on good terms with the rest of the world. Second, Peace Corps is promoting peace and friendship at the most granular level. 

     


    A Conversation with Nancy Bouwens, Parent

    Griffin’s Close of Service was supposed to be at the end of June. Our family would have been visiting in April. All that week, I kept thinking, what would we be doing? We would meet his dog, his friends, his host family; visit places he loves and, for a little bit, be a part of the country that had stolen his heart. He flew home for security clearance on the job he’d applied for. He came in on a Wednesday. That Saturday, he was out with his cousins bowling, and he sends me a text: “I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

    I could read grief between the lines. So much left undone and unsaid. Peace Corps is not just a one way street. The Volunteers give, but the community gives back to them. His heart is broken. And like so many of the other Volunteers, he’s treading water.

    The Kyiv Post produced a video profile on him and his work in Vasylkiv. Until I saw that, I never understood the reach and the impact that Volunteers have year after year. It breaks my heart to know that there are none out there right now. I was reading over his Description of Service report and he said to me, “You know, it started out that I went there to be a part of an organization. But I felt like I was part of the community — with the hospitality and the graciousness and the kindness of the Ukrainian people.” 

    I know Peace Corps is unique in that Volunteers integrate into communities. That’s why it’s so effective. It’s not part of the government like other programs. It’s people just being people and connecting as part of a community. If we could recreate what Peace Corps does on a larger scale in communities around the globe — and in the United States — we would have a better world.

     

    If we could recreate what Peace Corps does on a larger scale in communities around the globe — and in the United States — we would have a better world.

     

    Thinking about the future of the Peace Corps: It’s too important to let it fall away. And it could. I’m also concerned for these Volunteers: You normally come home, family meet you at the airport, you’re celebrated, and you have at least thought of what your next step is going to be. I know they’re resilient, and they will figure it out. But it’s been so important for the whole community to be able to reach out to them and to their families during this time.
     
     


    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.