COVID-19 ended my Peace Corps service, but I’m still grateful

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Mark Walker( Guatemala 1971-73)

 

The Red & Black Publishing
April 30, 2020

The novel coronavirus has forced the Peace Corps to send volunteers home earlier than planned.
Mary Mckean/ staff

 

COVID-19 ended my Peace Corps service, but I’m still grateful

Brun Baringer 2018-2020

My colleague greeted me with a premonition: “tsudi otsneba mqonda” — “I had a bad dream.” His implication was clear: my time here would be cut short.

I was working in the Georgian Black Sea port city of Poti through the Peace Corps, consulting a civic development non-governmental organization and a TV station. We were meeting on a sunless Saturday afternoon to discuss a grant proposal for a collaborative advocacy project between the two organizations, but immediately on this premonition the clouds crept inside, brooding over our conversation.

I had been living in the Eurasian country of Georgia for close to a year. It is an amazing place with some unbelievable mountains, incredible cuisine and a culture of inspirational hospitality — Georgia is growing as a tourist destination, and for good reason: visiting still feels like stepping into a myth. After all, Jason and the Argonauts procured the Golden Fleece on the river which flows through Poti, nestled between ancient forts and a mountainous backdrop on which Prometheus was supposedly chained.

Peace Corps/Georgia had, until a month ago, four University of Georgia alumni (the distinction between the two Georgias causes no end of confusion). Two were working with civil society organizations, and two were teaching English and conducting youth programs. The novel coronavirus seemed like a faraway problem; Georgia’s cases were few, and Foreign Policy even listed Georgia as one of five model responses to the pandemic. Within a matter of days, though, we went from living as if nothing was amiss to having our lives turned upside-down, leaving our work unfinished.

The entire experience of evacuation and all of the resulting uncertainty from COVID-19 has made it difficult to feel much of anything. My determination to return to the “other Georgia” to finish the advocacy work we’d begun is resolute, but I recognize this is largely a defense mechanism, clinging on to the life and work I was building in response to an increasingly uncertain world.

It is easy to turn that uncertainty into negativity, something which has occurred in the press surrounding the Peace Corps from a perspective piece in the Washington Post and, to a lesser extent, coverage from other outlets such as NBC. While the nature of Peace Corps service is tricky as we are “volunteers” who receive a stipend and benefits, this negativity is neither accurate nor productive.

Returned volunteers have not been left out to dry, let alone “fired,” as some would lead you to believe. Terms such as “angry,” “enraged” and “resentful” are being thrown around in interviews and conversation; this is deleterious rhetoric considering the Peace Corps has been and still is under threat of budget cuts (in addition to cutting Peace Corps funding, which represents less than 1% of Congress’ International Affairs budget, other programs and diplomacy are being slashed).

During these times of populistic isolationism, it is critical to remember why the Peace Corps and its values of friendship and mutual understanding are more vital than ever. I count myself blessed beyond belief to have had the opportunity to work within and strive to understand a place and people that has taught me to always remember that my perceptions are never reality and that the human experience is fundamentally alike once you dig past environmental influences. This understanding changes the focus of your life; you cannot ignore others’ problems if you see yourself in them.

Today, bad dreams such as my colleague’s may come true, but we still have the capability to define what this means for our future. Not only for the more than 7,000 newly-returned Peace Corps volunteers, but for all communities. We must recognize this while coming to grips with our feelings and expressing our grief healthily. Most importantly, this must be done without the vitriol and blame expressed in the media and in conversation that has plagued and divided our country.

We must remember to give thanks and strive to help each other, however we can, in a spirit of respect and compassion. This spirit is the essence of the Peace Corps, and it is so desperately needed in today’s environment of distrust and anger. Regardless of whether you have any connection to the Peace Corps – now, perhaps more than ever, it is critical to maintain the pursuit of mutual understanding that Peace Corps fosters across the world.

 

3 Comments

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  • Thanks, Brun, for a brief stroll down memory lane. I enjoyed hearing about your experiences, and the work you were doing in Poti. I am not surprised by the intuitive dream presented to you. I worked in Georgia with a USAID-funding training project more than 15 years ago. Our first participant, who studied finance in Florida, is now the CEO of Georgian Airlines. I loved the people, food, landscape and spirituality of the region. And the area where you can go uphill on the road, while your instruments in the car read otherwise. It was truly a magical place, where I made wonderful friends whom I still think of fondly today. Inspired by the music wafting out of nearly every window, I learned to play the piano in my spare time. In the evenings, with friends I drank some of the best brandy from home-wall spigots along with home-make red wine served in large carafes on the table. And of course, a daily breakfast of caviar, a staple for all walks of life. As I am sure you will, I also hope to return someday. Thanks again for the wonderful and positive rendition of you time in Georgia, which was a reminder to us all of the importance of enjoying each day, because you never know “when you time will be cut short.”

  • Brun’s Story was so beautifully express and made my day.
    Julie ‘s comment was equally moving.
    Thank you both for continuing to believe in Peace Corps
    Believing
    After all that’s the Peace Corps. That’s the difference. That’s the Peace Corps difference.
    We will forever be Peace Corps and we will continue stronger than ever.

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