For the first time, all Peace Corps volunteers are called back home: ‘It feels like a bad heartbreak’
On the eve of her one-year anniversary in the Peace Corps, 23-year-old Katie Bassett packed up the last year of her life in the northeastern Isan region of Thailand and prepared for emergency evacuation.
Her last two days were filled with tearful goodbyes to teachers and students she had built deep relationships with and to her Peace Corps colleagues.
She gave her blender and a three-pound bag of Sour Patch Kids to her neighbors – she had bought the candy during a recent trip home to Bourbonnais and was hoping to save it for a rainy day. Her nail polish, makeup brushes and headbands went to the girl across the street, and her game of Twister that was a hit at a school where she worked went to a teacher there.
Bassett is one of more than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers in 60 countries who were evacuated because of COVID-19. The government service announced March 15 that it would temporarily suspend all operations, an unprecedented move that threw volunteers into a state of chaos as they tried to leave the countries they considered their homes.
“It feels like a bad heartbreak,” Bassett said. “It’s the same kind of heavy feeling in your chest.”
After breakfast with her host mom, she headed to Bangkok on March 18 and flew back to the United States. For her and other volunteers who talked to the Tribune, the return home has been fitful. Not only did they abruptly give up a life they were dedicated to, they now must worry about finding housing and jobs – after they are quarantined for two weeks because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“People who join the Peace Corps give up a lot,” said Mary Owen-Thomas, who served in the Philippines in 2004-2005 and is an active member of the Chicago Peace Corps Association and a Midwest representative on the board of directors for the National Peace Corps Association. “A lot of people sell all their belongings and get rid of their cars and homes when they decide that they want to try something different and integrate into a totally different community, learn a different language and live the life of an expat.
To wake up one day and be asked to leave is not only jarring, but terrifying, Owen-Thomas said. The last big evacuation of volunteers was during the Ebola outbreak, but that was just a few countries, not the entire world. There’s no template for an evacuation of this magnitude, she said.
“I think the first day of leaving was really traumatic for a lot of us, myself included, because there was so much uncertainty,” said Whitney Wehrle, who was supposed to end her two-year service in Armenia this June. “A lot of us didn’t have closure within our group, let alone within our communities and host families and students. I’ll never see them again. That’s been really hard to come to terms with.”
Pedro Razo, 25, was a volunteer in Paraguay and had to say his goodbyes over WhatsApp. He cried over texts messages from the entrepreneurship and business class he was teaching. “It was honestly heartbreaking,” said Razo, of Oak Lawn. “This has been my life for the past two years and this is something I’ve been so passionate about.”
He packed his bags Sunday night and waited for instructions. For the next few days, he lived hour by hour, everything he owned in two suitcases. At times he was scared he would get stranded with limited access to Wi-Fi and little money. “It’s been a crazy journey,” Razo said. “I really love my work and I really love my service and it’s been heartbreaking that we had to leave like this.”
Kyle Dunlap, 27, who just returned to Kappa, Ill., from Ecuador on Wednesday, met his fiance while he was in the service and had to leave her behind. “We’re both taking it pretty hard right now,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out when I’ll be able to get back to Ecuador.”
Dunlap said he feels like a foreigner in his home country. “It’s hard not to let my mind race.”
Volunteers in Columbia and Peru have been particularly stressed. Flights have been canceled and evacuees have been stuck in a hotel. With borders scheduled to close and the deadline to leave rapidly approaching, chartering a plane back to the U.S. would be the easiest option, but the Peace Corps has yet to give their country directors the green light.
Others are concerned about what happens now that they’re home.
Wehrle’s parents are both in their 60s, making them among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Wehrle, with nowhere else to go, has been self-quarantining in her childhood bedroom, taking extra precautions to mitigate the risk of infecting her parents. She’s heard rumors that the Peace Corps is considering revising its instructions and providing options for housing. Not everyone has access to isolated housing for the mandated 14-day self-quarantine like she did, Wehrle said.
Joshua Johnson, who served in The Gambia with his wife from 2009 through 2011, created the Returned Peace Corps COVID-19 Evacuation Support Facebook group this past week with his friend Jim Medwick, whom Johnson met in The Gambia. As of Friday morning, the group had more than 6,400 members and hundreds of posts, offering advice and support.
“The Peace Corps has been such a big part of my life,” Johnson said. “This was my opportunity to give back in a small way.
Johnson said adjusting from living in a rural village is hard enough when you’ve had months to prepare – coming back unexpectedly aggravates the experience, both practically and emotionally. Like many other evacuees, Wehrle feels overwhelmed by returning to a struggling economy and finding a job. She planned on attending graduate school in the fall and will teach English online in the interim, so her plans were more flexible than others, she said. For Wehrle, the Facebook group has been a source of comfort during her transition.
“That support group has been mind-blowing in terms of not feeling alone and registering that there are more than 7,000 of us doing this all at once,” Wehrle said. “It just makes me feel like I’m not doing this alone.”
Andrew Piotrowski, president of the Chicago Peace Corps Association, a local affiliate of the national nonprofit, recommends evacuees get connected with the Facebook group, check in with the COVID-19 page on the Peace Corps website for updates and connect with their local affiliate groups. “Our role as an association is to be supportive and collaborative with them and ensuring that volunteers land on their feet and are able to overcome the initial shock in all of this and find their way over the challenges and onto their next step in life and service,” said Glenn Blumhorst, president of the National Peace Corps Association.
He believes the Peace Corps has every intention of returning volunteers back to service as soon as conditions permit, but how and when that will happen is unknown. Volunteers are supposed to receive updates every 30 days from the Peace Corps.
Blumhorst acknowledges that providing volunteers with the support, benefits and entitlements has been met with challenges, creating chaos and inconsistencies. This is especially concerning if a volunteer is infected with coronavirus and doesn’t have access to health care. All returning volunteers must undergo a medical evaluation, but with doctors’ offices shuttering because of the pandemic, even that may prove difficult.
Returnees are supposed to receive a readjustment allowance, a third of which is supposed to come in the first week, plus an evacuation allowance of an unknown amount. But neither of those allowances have shown up for Bassett, Dunlap, Wehrle or Razo. Service members are typically given health insurance for one month after returning and have the option of paying for an additional two months out. There’s a petition among current and former Peace Corps volunteers to extend that coverage up to six months instead, he said. There’s another calling for federal assistance.
Despite all the uncertainty and stress, Bassett said the silver lining of the volunteer recall is that the United States will have a large group of people with a unique perspective.
“A lot of us are coming back from communities that are very tight-knit and self-sustaining and do a lot to help one another through everyday lives that can be more challenging than what we have in the States,” she said. “We can show people how to work together to survive difficult things.”