The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jaded dream

I once looked into the future over next 6 months or so, and I saw the fruits of my labor. I saw myself getting an invitation to the Peace Corps and flying to a new country where I would hopefully work on Spanish or possibly have to learn a new language, eat new foods, meet new people, struggle and defeat new challenges. Like I always do, I saw everything with rose-shaded glasses. I told myself I was being realistic, I told myself I was being rational, but in the end, I guess I wasn't. I was overly optimistic.

I haven't gotten so much as a "boo" from the Peace Corps in over a month. After missing my invitation, they said they were working on a new placement for me and I'd hear from them in a few weeks. It's definitely been more than a few weeks. However, that doesn't worry me.

What worried me, initially, was an email I received before the silence. An email that told me if I wasn't willing to go to any country they wanted me to, I should consider working with a different program. The email that told me regardless of my skill set, of what my recruiter told me, and how big the South American region is, they would not be sending me there. They wouldn't let me wait for another date, they wouldn't even consider it.

This email was prompted by an email I had sent them. I had talked with a Return Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) and they had given me some advice on how to make the most of my PC experience. He suggested I could in fact ask for what I wanted, it all came down to how I asked for it. After missing my invitation date to a Spanish speaking region, he suggested there were ways I could ask for another similar nomination. So I wrote an email describing my previous language experience, how I feel I will be most effectively used in Spanish regions, and how my time there will also help me with coming back to the US and working with Spanish speakers, which our country has more of now than ever. I wrote this all with an air of flexibility, stating my ability to work wherever needed, while showing skills that pointed me in an obvious direction. I let it sit for awhile, I let others read it, and I sent it.

Their response was less than desired, and somewhat chastising. "Now would be a good time to refresh yourself with the Peace Corps core values," they said in response to my "inflexibility." Ouch.

But it made me think; do I want to go with a different program? Throw away everything I've worked for and start all over again? I am volunteering two-years of my life to the government in hopes to help others, to gain experience, and test my skills. It felt like they just needed a warm body to fill a position, regardless.

Then the other day, I got a call from my mom telling me I should watch 20/20 that night. They were doing a piece on the Peace Corps.

The long and short of it is, they were bringing up the question, "Does the Peace Corps put its volunteers in dangerous situations?"

If you've looked into the PC at all, they put a great deal of emphasis on safety. They only place people in countries that have a good standing with the PC and are accepting of volunteers. They always quote the statistic "98% of Peace Corps Volunteers feel safe to extremely safe in their host country."

The question of safety was brought up because of a murder of a PC volunteer--by her fellow PC co-worker from her host country, nonetheless. He was dating/raping/having children with multiple middle-school-aged girls in her classes, and she brought that to the attention of the Peace Corps, asking for anonymity in her identity. The man was fired, information was leaked, and he killed her in her sleep shortly thereafter.

Obviously, this is a terrible case that is not by any means the norm. However, 20/20 went further in depth concerning the safety of women volunteers. In the last decade, there have been over 1,000 reported rapes of volunteers in the PC. They brought on six women to tell their stories, along with how the PC dealt with support and help during their time of need.

One woman was gang raped, and leading up to her rape she was being stalked and harassed by the same group of men. She and other women on site asked for help and to be moved to a safer location, and PC refused. They sent a representative to the town to talk to the local police, and later that day she was attacked and drug in an alley, told she should have stayed quiet.

How did the Peace Corps handle this? First, when it was decided she would go back to D.C. for medical care, she was told she couldn't tell anyone what happened. She could only tell people she needed her wisdom teeth removed. Before she returned to her host country, the PC made her write a list of everything she did wrong to cause the attack so that it wouldn't happen again. She had to list "staying out too late" as a reason. She was attacked at 5:00 p.m.

The other women's stories didn't stray too far from this one. While the other interviewees hadn't been gang raped, support for them during the aftermath of their rape ranged from little to none. One woman was offered three counseling sessions, and that was it. Others weren't offered any. All women were told the rape was a result of their poor decisions. Decisions like, going out for dinner and a drink.

To read a little more about it and watch an interview of the girl who was gang-raped, click on this link,

Or, watch the full episode here, it starts about 9:45 minutes in with the story of Kate, the girl killed in her sleep.

I understand that, sadly, there are inherent risks as a woman in any country, and that safe decisions should be made anywhere. I also understand the risk of sexual assault quite possibly is increased while in a country where women are not held in high esteem. Women are in much more danger than men anywhere. These are sad truths of our world.

However, I'm appalled that the organization, whose very name demonstrates humanitarian and peace efforts all over the world, should take such a low approach towards these volunteers in their very hour of need. These women dedicated their time and effort to help other countries in the name of ours. You could even say these women risked their lives for the PC effort, and they were given blame and isolation in return.

I had come to realize before this moment that the Peace Corps is not a perfect organization. It is too vast and policy ridden to run smoothly, and while good intentions and willing people are all working together, bureaucracy, cultural divides, and limited resources leave little room for a well-run system. It was understood that the experience I get out of the Peace Corps would be largely based on what I put in it. Honestly, it's still part of the appeal-- working and teaching in a different country with lots of free-range while roughing it and still accomplishing something worthwhile.

However, this whole situation was a low-blow to my psyche, and took my dream out at the knees. How can I stand behind an organization that doesn't take care of its women volunteers in a time of crisis? The Peace Corps can't guarantee anyone their safety anytime of day, but it does guarantee to take care of you. How can I volunteer two-years of my life to an organization knowing it would rather sweep rape under the rug than be associated with it? That in the terrible event I am raped, I would more likely get chastised than supported?

It makes me angry and sick. It makes me feel like I found out my hero and mentor uses crack and keeps bodies in their freezer. It doesn't change what I wanted to do with the Peace Corps, but it seriously makes me question whether this experience should be through the Peace Corps.
I know the Peace Corps has completely lost the faith of my parents, and many of the people who it took a long time to support my decision to join.

Justin said to me there had to be a way to have a similar experience but to be safer. And this made me even more sad, because I don't think there is. If the experience I'm looking for is living in a third-world country doing volunteer work, the dangers will always be there. While the dangers do make me uncomfortable, the danger increases ten-fold with the knowledge that I may not be helped if I ask for it. And if the Peace Corps can't help, really, who can?

It's all just falling apart around me. When I was in the thick of applying to the Peace Corps, I asked myself, "What kind of person would go through all of this and then quit? Decide to turn down an invite, or even go a few months in their host country and ask to be sent home?" I told myself I would not be one of those people.

Now, I don't know. I know many people have joined the Peace Corps in the last 50 years, and many have had amazing, life-altering experiences. Not every experience has to turn out like the women on 20/20 or the 1,000-plus who have been sexually assaulted/raped while serving. There's still a chance that I could have my Peace Corps experience. They may send me to a country where I don't know the language or even the alphabet, where I have to fetch my water from a river, bathe with a bucket, or eat rice everyday for two years, but I could still put all my heart into it and get everything out of it in return. The chance is not gone. But do I want to take that chance? Will the Peace Corps listen to my cries of help if I need it?

I believe everything happens for a reason. I was wondering what the reason was that I didn't make it to my first nomination to the Caribbean. Maybe this is it. Maybe I'll become one of those people that put all the time, effort, and thought into the grueling Peace Corps application, only to walk away in the end. In the name of women rights and my own personal safety, it would be in my own best interest to do something else. Maybe my dream wasn't meant to be anything more than a dream.

The Peace Corps needs to respond to the 20/20 episode, and it needs to make an effort. If they want to keep volunteers like me, they need to show they care.