January 3, 2004 - Asia Week: Suong Vong arrived in the country of Turkmenistan on Sept. 9, 2001

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Turkmenistan: Peace Corps Turkmenistan : The Peace Corps in Turkmenistan: January 3, 2004 - Asia Week: Suong Vong arrived in the country of Turkmenistan on Sept. 9, 2001

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Suong Vong arrived in the country of Turkmenistan on Sept. 9, 2001

Suong Vong arrived in the country of Turkmenistan on Sept. 9, 2001

No Peace Corps in Times of War for California APIA
Suong in front of the Turkmenistan flag. Photo courtesy of Suong Vong.
By Suzanne Lee

Suong Vong, a 24-year-old freshman volunteer for the Peace Corps from Fresno, Calif. arrived in the country of Turkmenistan on Sept. 9, 2001. Two days later, far away from television and radio, she heard vague reports of the tragedy at home on the other side of the world. Two weeks later she and all other Peace Corps volunteers in that region were evacuated from their sites and brought home to the United States as a safety measure.

Although it is a neutral country, Turkmenistan shares a border with Afghanistan. Annexed by Russia between 1865 and 1885, Turkmenistan became a Soviet republic in 1925. It achieved its independence upon the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. President Niyazov retains absolute control over the population of 4.6 million people.

Looking for something eye-opening, Vong joined the Peace Corps to volunteer in health education. She arrived in Turkmenistan expecting to spend the next two years of her life there learning about the Turkmen culture and teaching the locals healthcare, including maternal and preventive health.

When the tragic events of Sept. 11 unfolded, it was nighttime in Turkmenistan.

“There was no form of communication. Our director came to the campsite and told us that some planes had crashed into buildings. That’s all I’d heard when I went to bed that night,” Vong said, “When we did finally see the news coming out, we knew how we were connected in relation to the incidents.”

After meeting their host families, Vong and the other volunteers were not allowed to stay with them. However, they continued on with the planned two months of training up to the last day they were there. In that short time, they were beginning to learn the language and the intricacies of the culture, such as how women and healthcare are viewed.

“I, myself, want to go back and finish the job. There are so many things neglected. With the little that I was exposed to, I saw how many things that needed to be done,” Vong said.

Än this Muslim country, Vong recalled how the volunteers mostly from Western countries “stuck out like a sore thumb.” She remembered how much the people of Turkmenistan adored American culture.

“They were fascinated by us, and they shared our grief. When we went into the cities, people would come up to us and pray in our presence saying, ‘We feel for your people.’ They are the nicest and the most hospitable people. Right up until our last days there, none of us felt like we were in any danger,” Vong said.

The day before their departure, the group was given a 24-hour notice to pack everything and say their good-byes. It wasn’t until they got to the airport and were handed their tickets, did she realize she was being sent home.

“It was all very ‘hush-hush.’ We were told not to reveal our identity even when we got to Germany for our connecting flight,” Vong said.

The Department of State has warned U.S. citizens to defer travel to Turkmenistan. While the Government of Turkmenistan has taken steps to increase security around the country, the proximity of Turkmenistan to Afghanistan has raised additional security concerns for Americans. According to government advisories, Americans who decide to remain in or visit Turkmenistan should exercise maximum caution and take prudent measures.

“Although I was upset we were pulled, I understand the reasons why we had to come home,” Vong said.

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Story Source: Asia Week

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Turkmenistan



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