November 28, 2001 - LA Times: Peace Corps Volunteers: America's Diplomats in Central Asia

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2001: 11 November 2001 Peace Corps Headlines: November 28, 2001 - LA Times: Peace Corps Volunteers: America's Diplomats in Central Asia

By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, November 29, 2001 - 12:19 pm: Edit Post

Read this story from the Los Angeles Times about how hundreds of Peace Corps workers were working shoulder to shoulder with the people of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan until Sept. 11 at:

America's Diplomats

America's Diplomats

Peace Corps volunteers back from Central Asia say they were able to dispel myths about the U.S.


When the Peace Corps volunteers got word they were being assigned to Central Asia, their response was predictable: Run to a map and find it. Until the poverty-stricken and landlocked region found itself pulled into world events, it was as much a mystery to the volunteers who would move there as it was to most other Americans.

Though there were no Peace Corps workers in Afghanistan, hundreds were working shoulder to shoulder with the people of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan until Sept. 11. Then came the attacks and, days later, their hurried evacuation to the United States.

In less extraordinary times, their experiences might be fodder only for reminiscences with friends and fat photo albums. But the world's attention has shifted, and suddenly their experiences shed light on day-to-day life in a region that Americans know little about. The region north of Afghanistan, the volunteers say, is a place where horses and cars share the roads, where the roles of men and women are sharply defined, where opportunities to celebrate are quickly seized--and Americans were made welcome.

Allison Joe, 25, lived with a family of six in a small Turkmenistan village about three hours from the Afghan border. Her job in the village was translating English-language medical materials into Turkmen, which she now speaks fluently.

Her host family constantly plied her with teas and treats and was always hauling her off to weddings and other people's homes as a sort of show and tell.

"At first they were very smothering," said Joe, who is now living with her parents in La Canada. "I was, like, 'Hey, I'm an independent person. No, I don't need you to walk me to the toilet. No, I'm not hungry. I ate five minutes ago!'"

Though Westerners of any sort were a novelty, Joe, the first Peace Corps volunteer stationed in her village, said Americans are practically celebrities. Even when she dressed in traditional Turkmen garb--long dresses with embroidered collars--she was greeted at all times of day and night by curious Turkmen calling out, "Good morning, American!"

The people of Turkmenistan eke out their livings picking cotton and rarely travel far from their villages, Joe said, so "it's real exciting for them to talk [with guests] about something other than what's for dinner or how many chickens they have."

The Peace Corps operates at the invitation of foreign governments, and there are no workers in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran--and haven't been for years. But, at various times throughout the last decade, some 1,400 Peace Corps volunteers have served in the region, including the 311 who were evacuated in September from countries north of Afghanistan. There are still 104 volunteers in Kazakhstan.

The volunteers were under strict orders to not cross into Afghanistan at the risk of having their assignments terminated. But fully cognizant of the danger, few wanted to go anyway.

They were busy in their host communities, translating educational materials and teaching English. And learning from the families with whom they lived a different way of life--one in which the pace was much slower, adversity was routine, material goods were scarce but hospitality plentiful.

Five Central Asian countries--Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan--were under Soviet control from 1924 until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and they declared their independence.

Though predominantly Muslim, religion is practiced more in custom and culture than in worship. In Turkmenistan, Joe said, most of the people she knew did not spend much time in prayer. "There wasn't a mosque close to us," she said. "They didn't know the five pillars of Islam. They ate a lot of pork and drank a lot of vodka."

Leslie Wakulich, 27, lived with a family in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan from 1999 to 2000. In the southern part of the country, closer to Afghanistan, she said, people were more devout and dressed more conservatively. But where she lived, "they weren't very strict in their religion." Like many American Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter, they celebrated the main Muslim holidays and took part in various Islamic traditions, but that was pretty much it.

Wakulich said her family would often tease, "Yeah, we're Muslim, but we smoke and we drink."

Actually, Wakulich said, "They drank a lot." Vodka is still the drink of choice in these former Soviet republics, which are now fledgling democracies struggling to find a financial foothold in the absence of a socialist economy that provided for all its citizens. Many have seen their living conditions worsen and say their quality of life was better under the Soviet system.

Lindsey Meyers, 25, taught high school English in Kyrgyzstan from June 1999 until August this year. Much of the infrastructure Americans take for granted either didn't exist or was inconsistent in Balikchi, the town of about 35,000 where she lived. Meyers became an expert at making do with almost nothing, just like the locals she was there to help.

Because Kyrgyzstan sold much of its water to neighboring countries for income that water service was sporadic. More often than not, Meyers had to pump it from next door, then carry the buckets up four flights of stairs to her apartment. If she had to do laundry, she did it by hand. There were no washing machines.

Electric power was intermittent, a problem for Meyers in winter. She relied on an electric heater in her apartment to keep warm in temperatures that frequently dropped to zero.

But the telephone was her "biggest source of misery," she said. Her wiring was frequently stolen, leaving her to find more and splice it to her line for service.

She did not have a car and though the town had a bus, it didn't run on any schedule. "By the time you waited for the bus, it was easier to walk," she said. "You could have been there twice."

She could afford to buy food in the market, but most residents could not. They grew their own.

Wakulich, who also served in Kyrgyzstan and now lives in Norman, Okla., said her host mother worked for the village water office, collecting payments in potatoes, onions, vodka and live animals in lieu of money. Her host father rode to work each day on a horse.

The lifestyle of the Kyrgyz is a far cry from the villagers' perception of how Americans live. A college professor Wakulich worked with asked, "Do all Americans have their own helicopters?" Much of what Central Asians know about the U.S. they learned from Hollywood action films, which often portray the country as violent and decadent. And in the Russian school system, they were taught that Americans were selfish, spoiled, lazy and rich.

With that understanding of what Americans are like, it's easy to see how meeting a Peace Corps worker could throw the locals for a loop. The workers, who go through a rigorous screening process, are generally altruistic, well-educated and open to new experiences.

When Wakulich's host mother told her, "We never thought we would like Americans until we met you," she completely understood.

"When all you can feed your children is tea and bread for a month, and you and your husband both work, and you have to leave your 2- and 4-year-olds at home alone all day because you don't have anyone to watch them, and then you come home from work and work out in the field to get food to feed your family, it's really hard to look at Americans and say, 'Yeah, you have a rough life,'" Wakulich said.

Hearing what her host mother told her "really did something to me as far as my view of what I was there to do," she said. "I was there to teach English ... but I was also there to be America."

The Peace Corps, a U.S. government agency, has 7,000 volunteers in 71 countries to help locals learn English, cultivate crops and develop business. Since Sept. 11, applications to the agency have increased dramatically in each of the organization's 11 recruitment offices, except in New York. The office there was in the World Trade Center and was destroyed in the attack. But in San Francisco, applications are up 70% over the same time last year. In Chicago, they are up 25%.

Why? Perhaps the prospective volunteers believe in grass-roots diplomacy, that joining the Peace Corps is a way to improve cultural understanding, to show the world that all Americans are not movie stereotypes. Perhaps they are answering Peace Corps founder John F. Kennedy's clarion call: Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

Despite living for much of two years without electricity or running water, Meyers said the two years she spent in the Peace Corps were the best of her life.

Like most returned Peace Corps volunteers, Meyers had a hard time reentering American society. For a month after she got back, she felt guilty about shopping. After two years in a country where people earned less than $100 a year, she couldn't justify spending $50 on a pair of jeans.

"Everything here kind of seemed silly. Everything is so consumer-oriented," Meyers said. "Kyrgyzstan is not at all that way. [There] you appreciate the smaller things in life.... Here you kind of get wrapped up in your job and your car payments."

Meyers joined the Peace Corps a month after graduating from the University of Colorado with bachelor's degrees in biochemistry and English. She now lives at home and works for her parents' mortgage company in Colorado Springs.

As hard as it was to reassimilate, she, like many of the other volunteers, has a renewed appreciation for the freedoms of choice and multiple sources of news in the United States. At 22, Meyers said she was looked upon as an old maid. Women in Kyrgyzstan typically married right after high school, and many of them were "stolen" by men who saw them on the street, threw them on the back of their horses--or in their cars--and called them their wives.

In Turkmenistan, Joe also felt the pressure of being single at 25. An ulterior motive to her host families' excursions to villagers' homes was to marry her off to a local.

Outside information was hard to come by in Turkmenistan, and those with extra money often invested in a satellite TV dish, Joe said. There is only one television station in the country, and it was "pro-government, pro-president." Every night the station aired some Russian news and some clips from CNN, but "they took out all of the really relevant news," Joe said. "They'd have a clip on an exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci ... and I'd be, like, 'I know there's something more going on in the world.'"

Joe's other source for news was her subscription to Newsweek, copies of which she received two months after publication. Wakulich relied on her students for news from the outside world: When tornadoes whipped through her home state of Oklahoma, flattening houses and killing some of its residents, she heard about it from them.

Will Clark, a 29-year-old from Los Altos who volunteered in Uzbekistan, lived in a town with one Internet cafe and a single computer that "was really slow. I could do about one e-mail every half hour."

On Sept. 11, news of the terrorist attacks in the United States rippled through the ranks of the Peace Corps volunteers. Some in remote areas were reached by messenger. Joe was visiting a volunteer in a nearby town who had a television and watched the events unfold on CNN. As they tried to understand the scope of the disaster, "pretty much all that was on our minds was, 'What happens to us?'"

No one was gloating in the streets. Instead, Joe said, there was a flood of empathy. When there were rumblings of an American attack on Afghanistan, the people in her village were less concerned about their own safety than they were for hers.

For 11 days, Joe said she was clustered with other volunteers in the Turkmenistan capital waiting for word on whether she would have to leave. Each day she returned to her host village to tell her family, "I think I'll be back tomorrow for lunch, but I'm not sure."

And then she was gone.

Instead of sipping sweet tea with her host family in Turkmenistan right now, she's hanging out with her family, jogging and taking art classes. She had six weeks left to complete her two years of service when she was plucked from her post.

It is unknown whether the Peace Corps will again place volunteers in the Central Asian countries it evacuated. But, the agency's press director, Ellen Field, ventured to say she thought it was likely the projects would reopen. "We'll be in consultation with the State Department and the embassies in those countries to find out when it is safe."

Field said there's even a possibility the program will reopen in Afghanistan if it is invited. "We have a long history of opening and closing programs, and it's always done with respect to the safety of our volunteers," Field said.

But safety, it seems, is largely a matter of perspective. Joe said she never felt threatened.

"It's probably still safe on a daily living basis there," she said. But considering that her host family could hear bombs at their house when the U.S. first began its attack, she said, "that would be pretty scary.... I really want Peace Corps to be there and active in that country, but it's awfully close to things right now." The border, she said, "is very porous."

Still, "it felt like we just kind of all took off and left them," said Joe, who carries an embroidered Turkmen handbag as a memento. "One minute you're talking to people, and the next minute--Sept. 11--we're all gone. No new volunteers. No transition. No closure process. That makes me really sad."

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