March 31, 2005: Headlines: COS - Armenia: San Jose Mercury News : Brett and Laura Holt Travels To Armenia As Teachers With Peace Corps

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Armenia: Peace Corps Armenia : The Peace Corps in Armenia: March 31, 2005: Headlines: COS - Armenia: San Jose Mercury News : Brett and Laura Holt Travels To Armenia As Teachers With Peace Corps

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Brett and Laura Holt Travels To Armenia As Teachers With Peace Corps

Brett and Laura Holt  Travels To Armenia As Teachers With Peace Corps

Brett and Laura Holt Travels To Armenia As Teachers With Peace Corps

Volunteer trek aids cultural understanding

Couple Travels To Armenia As Teachers With Peace Corps

By HongDao Nguyen
San Jose Mercury News
San Jose, Calif.
March 31, 2005

During the Iraqi war, Brett and Laura Holt lived in the remote Tehama County town of Mineral. Even in their small corner -- where about 42 families reside -- they were barraged with media stories about the conflict and especially struck by the anti-American sentiment expressed by people in and out of the country, they said.

They wanted to do something about it: go overseas and reveal a different side of America. What could be better, they said, than to join the Peace Corps and move to Armenia just six months after they got married?

"It's right there in the Middle East," Laura Holt said. "It's connected to countries where there's a lot of hostility with America or with each other."

So after the couple said their vows in 2003, they sold their cars, left their careers -- he as a firefighter and she as a substitute teacher -- and dropped their belongings off at Brett Holt's mom's house in South San Jose.

It would be their first grand adventure together. Beginning in summer 2004, they took on new roles across the world from their home: Laura Holt became an English teacher and Brett Holt, who was born and grew up in San Jose, became an environmental educator.

They joined the more than 400 Peace Corps volunteers to serve in the country since 1992, when the corps began sending people to Armenia, said Dennis McMahon, a spokesman for the San Francisco regional office.

Armenia is in southwestern Asia, nestled by Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran. During the country's history, it came under the rule of other empires, including the Roman, Arab and Ottoman, according to the World Fact Book Web site.

In 1920 the country was incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and it wasn't until 1991, after the U.S.S.R. disbanded, that the country regained its independence. Since then it has worked to rebuild its infrastructure and economy.

The Holts are stationed in a northern town of 3,000 to 4,000 people. An old copper factory billows huge puffs of pollution in the air and the rushing waterfall nearby is actually sewage water emptying into a nearby riverbed. Running water is turned on twice a day, if at all.

As the couple interacted with the Armenian people -- whom they found to love American culture -- they were challenged in their work and personal lives.

"They've taught us so much," Laura Holt said, about hospitality and being faced with a different culture.

The Holts spent their first three months living with a host family, the Mkhitaryans, whom they describe as easy going and fun. Photos with the family during the Christmas and New Year celebrations show a table decked for the holidays, and Laura Holt holding a fireworks sparkler to ring in the New Year.

During that time, the Holts began their jobs at schools in northern Armenia, where her after-school English clubs brought in as many as 120 students daily.

For Brett Holt, the transition was more difficult.

He was excited to tackle environmental issues of deforestation and water pollution with his students. But the local female teacher with whom he was supposed to collaborate was reluctant to work with him because the woman's husband believed it was improper for her to work with a man. So Brett Holt was moved to the school where his wife was teaching to start environmental clubs.

Such cultural differences continued to jar the newlyweds. When the Holts moved in with their second host family, the woman of the house chafed when Brett Holt helped out in the kitchen -- cooking or cleaning -- which is considered the woman's duty in Armenia.

"The host wife said I was being a bad wife," Laura Holt said.

But the cultural clashes haven't taken away from the couple's wonder at the country. Most of their tales are about the hospitality of people they met; many times strangers invited them into their homes to chat and share a meal.

McMahon said that though there hasn't been a large change in the numbers of volunteers joining the corps since the war began, he's noticed that more people cited a desire to make a difference overseas as the reason for joining.

"In the last several years I've seen people reference the need for greater understanding in the world," he said. Volunteers might be more worried about their safety because of world events, he said, but he couldn't determine whether that deterred some volunteers.

The Holts, who are in San Jose on a short medical leave because Brett Holt is having trouble with his shoulder, said they don't regret going. Sure, their families thought they were crazy, they said, and sometimes they want to start their careers and have a family, but they've gained so much.

"We look forward to going back," he said. "For right now, it's where we should be."

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Story Source: San Jose Mercury News

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