March 31, 2003 - US State Department Washington File: Director says Peace Corp's Volunteer Spirit Transcends Nationalism, Politics

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Director says Peace Corp's Volunteer Spirit Transcends Nationalism, Politics

Read and comment on this story from the US State Department Washington File on Director Vasquez's recent trip to Jordan where he said that despite the waves of anti-Americanism that have swept parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds recently, Peace Corps volunteers continue to be accepted warmly as teachers, health care workers and on rural development projects in more than a dozen Muslim countries at:

Peace Corp's Volunteer Spirit Transcends Nationalism, Politics*

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Peace Corp's Volunteer Spirit Transcends Nationalism, Politics

(Volunteers warmly accepted by host countries, says Director Vasquez) (930) By Jim Fisher-Thompson Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- While U.S. foreign policy may rub some governments the wrong way, American volunteers, who live and work for two years at the grassroots level in foreign communities, continue to be welcomed and cherished by locals as members of the family, says Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez.

Vasquez explained that Peace Corps volunteers were viewed as being outside the political fray and were immunized from much of the anti-Americanism sweeping the Middle East because of their work with local communities. "That's apparent to anybody who has been a volunteer or even a member of the staff like me," he told the Washington File in a recent interview. "I've traveled to a number of Arab countries and there is absolutely no doubt that the volunteers become integrated into the communities and develop strong relationships with their host families."

Despite the waves of anti-Americanism that have swept parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds recently, Vasquez noted Peace Corps volunteers continue to be accepted warmly as teachers, health care workers and on rural development projects in more than a dozen Muslim countries. In addition, "We have been invited into three more and are in the process of going into Azerbaijan, Chad and Albania," he said. Of the 6,680 volunteers serving in 70 nations, nearly 1,000 are in predominantly Muslim countries.

Sadly, because of political conditions in the Gulf and Middle East regions, Vasquez said he recently had to suspend the program in Jordan for safety and security reasons. He explained, "I personally went to Jordan and visited with King Abdallah and other leaders in the top ministries there to underscore that we view this suspension as temporary. Jordan is a great country. We've had great success there, and the king conveyed a very strong desire to see us return as soon as possible. And we committed to doing just that."

The king, said Vasquez, "is a very strong supporter of the Peace Corps. And it dates back to the time when his father was king of Jordan. As a matter of fact, Queen Noor was present at the dedication of this [Peace Corps HQ] building when we moved into these facilities. So, the relationship between Peace Corps and Jordan has been very substantial, one that has allowed us to do some great development work in that country."

During his last visit to Jordan, Vasquez said, "I met with all of the volunteers who were part of the last group to leave and they felt the jobs they had were meaningful and significant. King Abdallah, who agrees, has a real interest in going forward with their return, and have their numbers grow in the areas of information technology and small business development. Those are two high priorities that he identified, so we are committed to fulfilling his wishes and returning as soon as possible."

In his travels to some of the 70 nations where the Peace Corps serves, Vasquez said, "I've met with the host families and watched the dynamic between them and their volunteers, and it's pretty amazing. It's true that when you become a part of a community you do in a way transcend politics and borders. So, the uniqueness of the Peace Corps strategy is that it is a two-year commitment, and that is no accident. Because in that period volunteers are able to integrate themselves into the community, build relationships and trust. This sometimes goes so far that in some cases volunteers do not come back to America. They stay in their host countries. They come to love the people and culture and some even marry locals."

During a recent tour of the program in Jamaica, Vasquez said, "I met the Minister of Health who was married to a former Peace Corps volunteer, who had arrived in the country some 20 years ago. And recently, in Washington, we attended a celebration for the Peace Corps at the Korean Embassy and the ambassador's wife turned out to be a former a trainer of volunteers in Korea. You hear all of these stories or relationships and they run deep and long and are not forgotten.

"I think it is that uniqueness that makes the Peace Corps admired and respected as well as providing the legacy that so many volunteers have left in countries that are still welcoming other volunteers."

In Africa, Vasquez said, "We have been in Morocco for over 40 years now and have a strong legacy. We're in Senegal, another Muslim-majority country where the Peace Corps has been for 40 years, and where we just announced the other day the new Digital Freedom Initiative we're going to be doing with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Commerce Department."

The director stressed the need to bring people of differing backgrounds into his agency. "Our overriding managerial goal is to create an opportunity for all Americans to serve in the Peace Corps. This means we should create the avenues for older Americans, couples, and people from all faiths and ethnic groups to have an opportunity to serve -- that is our pledge. So, these are exciting times."

Vasquez said, "It is really amazing to see the success of the Peace Corps in 2003 when you consider that in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy established it, there were many critics and cynics who said, 'This will never work.' Well, here we are 42 years later, stronger than ever."

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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