March 26, 2003: Headlines: COS - Philippines: COS - Mauritania: Safety and Security of Volunteers: Coshocton Tribune: Parents of PCVs in Philippines and Mauritania concerned about safety of loved ones

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Philippines: Peace Corps Philippines: The Peace Corps in the Philippines: March 26, 2003: Headlines: COS - Philippines: COS - Mauritania: Safety and Security of Volunteers: Coshocton Tribune: Parents of PCVs in Philippines and Mauritania concerned about safety of loved ones

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Parents of PCVs in Philippines and Mauritania concerned about safety of loved ones

Parents of PCVs in Philippines and Mauritania concerned about safety of loved ones

Serving far from the cameras

By Andrew Hirsch
Tribune Staff Writer

Trevor Jones

COSHOCTON -- This is not a time when Americans are enthusiastic about overseas travel.

Apart from the hazards facing members of America's armed forces in and around Iraq, simply going overseas for any reason at the present time is risky.

But for the families of two local Peace Corps volunteers, much anxiety exists over the safety of loved ones.

Andrew Harrison, a 1997 graduate of Coshocton High School, is serving on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Another volunteer, Amy Helmick, is a 1997 graduate of River View High School, and is now teaching agricultural techniques in Southern Mauritania in West Africa.

As a county commissioner, Kathleen Thompson's worries are supposed to be local, and on the job they are. But she nonetheless has her eyes fixed on events in the Philippines, where her son, Andrew, is teaching English to poor children.

Thompson recognizes that the Philippines is not the war zone Iraq is, but Americans are still confronted by hostile situations there, Thompson explained.

"My problems are minor, but when it's you own child, it's your own concern," she said.

The Philippines is largely Catholic, a legacy of some three hundred years of Spanish rule. However, there is a Muslim minority of about 5 percent located in some of the southern islands. Muslim rebels are there fighting for independence from the mostly-Christian nation.

In the north, where Andrew is teaching English, another violent guerrilla movement -- the communist New People's Army -- also puts pressure on the government and challenges American interests.

Between the two of them, Thompson notes, Americans can be made to feel unwelcome throughout the Philippines, which was an American colony from 1898 to 1946.

"He has encountered a fair amount of anti-American sentiment," Thompson said. "(Filipinos) think we are rich and very lazy."

There are no rich financial rewards. Corps volunteers are trading their expertise and knowledge for a unique experience. The Peace Corps pays its volunteers roughly the average salary earned by local residents. In Andrew's case, that adds up to less than ten dollars a week, said Thompson.

With Andrew's highly-visible red hair and freckled face, there is no way of mistaking him for a Filipino in the Philippine islands.

In the town of Vigan, in the north of the main island of Luzon, he is, as far as Thompson knows, the only American within a three-hour drive.

He lives with a poor local family. His first meal set the tone for his diet during his time in the Philippines, Thompson explained.

"All he had was fish-heads and rice," she said, adding that the family could not afford to buy the main part of the fish.

"He eats dog all the time, and that bothers me. Andy is a kid who's all about the experience -- he'll try almost anything."

But facing up to the challenge provides no assurances volunteers will be appreciated or be seen as effective in their missions.

Peace Corps volunteers are often suspected of being CIA agents, Thompson said, and Andrew often receives hostile looks from passers-by.

As far as his mission is concerned -- improving the English teaching infrastructure in Vigan -- Andrew has been continually thwarted by corrupt local officials, who try to siphon material or financial aid from the U.S. into money into their own pockets, Thompson said.

Thompson admits her dilemma: On the one hand, she does not want to insist her adult son return home, although he has offered to do so if she so requests, on the other hand, she has been seeking information and assurances from authorities about Andrew's safety even before the onset of war in Iraq.

Andrew has been put in charge of evacuating other Peace Corps volunteers from his region, and he has been given special survival training techniques from a former marine should the situation deteriorate. It is this fact that has alarmed his mother as much as anything else.

She called the office of Congressman Bob Ney, R-St. Clairsville, whose office in turn called the Pentagon, which insisted that Andrew was well-trained for the situation.

"That is not music to a mother's ears," Thompson said with a sigh.

Another mother, Ruby Helmick, has similar concerns. She was amazed that her daughter chose to join the Peace Corps as her studies at Wittenberg University in Springfield drew to a close.

Mauritania is a very poor nation on the western edge of the Sahara Desert in West Africa, which has gained its independence from France in 1960.

Helmick has a variety of fears about her daughter's work, but doesn't point to any one in particular. Both she and her husband Charlie tried in vain to talk their daughter out of going last summer.

"It's just a little bit of everything I guess," Helmick said from her home on state Route 79 south of Nellie. "I'm just worried for her safety and well-being more than anything."

Amy's safety, her mother fears, is threatened by the overall living conditions in which she works. There are no telephones or electricity and there are many diseases unique to the region. Although still only 24, Amy has already had problems with fever and the sand has been hard on her lungs.

But that's not all. There's the social and political situation. Mauritania is 100 percent Muslim. Although the country still has cordial relations with the United States and of course accepts the Peace Corps volunteers, it doesn't mean all Mauritanians like America or its foreign policy.

"One of the schools -- there was a little protest there," Helmick reported. "She said they had graffiti on the office door."

Since then there has been police protection for the Americans, Helmick said. But the country does have an internal separation of sorts between its black minority and the ruling Maurs (Arabs and Berbers). As far as Amy can tell, there is less hostility toward Americans from the black population of the country, she said.

Traveling within the country concerns Amy's mother. Buses and taxis are often so crammed that people sit on each other's lap and Amy regularly travels to the provincial capital of Rosso, to meet up with other volunteers working in Mauritania.

At times she travels the distance by bicycle, but that takes up to three hours and raises safety fears for a single foreign woman traveling alone.

Like Andrew, Amy communicates with family and friends mostly by e-mail. In Amy's case, that is about once a week, when she visits the provincial capital from her home village of Dieuk.

And like Andrew, Amy will be away for 27 months, ending in September of 2004.

For Helmick, that date can't come soon enough. But she nonetheless feels her daughter has a popular following in her village, where she teaches such things as self-defense and "taking pride" in themselves.

"All the people in the village are really nice to her," Helmick said.


Originally published Wednesday, March 26, 2003

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Coshocton Tribune

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Philippines; COS - Mauritania; Safety and Security of Volunteers



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