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‘None of Us Saw It Ending This Way’: Peace Corps Volunteers Evacuate Abruptly
When the agency suspended all operations for the first time in its history, more than 7,000 volunteers in about 60 countries packed their bags, said their goodbyes and rushed to get home.
The urgent update from the Peace Corps landed abruptly in the email inboxes of volunteers on March 15: It was time to evacuate.
Miguel Garcia, a 27-year-old volunteer leader for the corps in the Dominican Republic, had just reassured someone that the corps would be staying on the job. With a sinking heart, he read the detailed instructions three times.
The tears would come later. Now he had a job to do.
He had 24 hours to get 32 volunteers scattered across the country to Santo Domingo, the capital. Several of his volunteers were about eight hours away in hard-to-reach communities near the border, with limited internet and cell service.
“Panic took over, and I was just mindlessly doing things,” Mr. Garcia said. “It wasn’t until I came home to an apartment that needed to be packed that it all hit me. I showered in cold water for about 45 minutes and cried, overwhelmed by all of the people I needed to communicate with and say goodbye to.”
For the first time in its nearly 60-year history, the Peace Corps had temporarily suspended its operations, evacuating more than 7,000 volunteers from posts in more than 60 countries because of the coronavirus pandemic. An independent agency of the U.S. government created by President Kennedy in 1961, the corps sends volunteers abroad to help with social and economic development projects. They dig wells, teach in schools and train people in everything from sewing to healthy breastfeeding.
In an open letter, Jody Olsen, the director of the Peace Corps, said the move was meant to protect volunteers and prevent them from being stranded during the pandemic. Within hours, volunteers were packing their bags, saying their farewells and rushing to designated meeting places as airlines canceled flights and countries began closing borders.
It was a crushing blow for a group of idealistic Americans, mostly young people who had postponed careers and graduate school to promote the lofty goal of “world peace and friendship.” Their average age is 26, although some are retirees older than 50. The hardest part, some said, was fleeing before they could help their communities prepare for the pandemic.
In interviews, a handful of volunteers described shock, confusion and heartbreak as they arrived back home in the United States, jobless in the middle of growing outbreak and economic shutdown. All were asked to quarantine themselves.
“The situation in Morocco went so fast,” said Elizabeth Burke, 54, who had been in the country for less than a year, teaching English and working at a sewing cooperative. “It went from Moroccans not being aware of the coronavirus and what was going on to a complete shutdown. Hours after we left, all cafes and restaurants had closed.” The cooperative is now sewing masks for health-care workers, she said.
Hailey Hall, 26, had spent nearly two years in Zambia. “None of us saw it ending this way,” she said. “It was a shock. Everything happened so quickly, but I think people understood why this had to happen.”
With more than 400 volunteers and trainees, Zambia had the largest number of Peace Corps volunteers, she said. “I had a friend in a northwestern province, which is a two- to three-day journey by public taxi and bus,” Ms. Hall said. “The worst part was the way people had to say goodbye so quickly. It was heartbreaking.”
After nearly two years in the Philippines, Ashley Vetter, 26, gave away a lot of her belongings, found a new home for her dog and said goodbye to the teachers she had worked with — all within 24 hours — before hopping on a 13-hour bus ride to get to Manila on time.
“I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the fact that I was leaving for good,” Ms. Vetter said.
She had to leave in the middle of a big project: Her high school students were building wells to provide fresh water for their community, essential for hand washing and other good hygiene to fight Covid-19 and other diseases. After she arrived home in the United States, the teenagers sent her photos: They had finished the wells.
When the email reached P.J. Gibson, 22, in Tanzania, he had been teaching physics at a secondary school for about nine months. There were no reported coronavirus infections there, so he was hopeful. “My idea was that I would stay in the country until I was physically removed,” he said.
His students were upset and asked why he was leaving for a country with more coronavirus cases. Mr. Gibson said he had no answers for them. “My students were the hardest group to say goodbye to,” he said. “At one point, I had to go home during the day because I couldn’t hold myself together.”
Despite the hurried retreat, volunteers said the Peace Corps was supportive, helping to book last-minute flights, telling them how to stay safe from the virus and paying for alternative lodging if volunteers couldn’t self-quarantine with U.S. relatives considered high risk.
“I feel like they did a good job of making the best of a really horrible situation,” Mr. Gibson said.
Glenn Blumhorst, the president and chief executive of the National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit organization for former volunteers, said the evacuation was prudent. The agency has evacuated specific regions in the past, such as for the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, but never all of the posts at once, Mr. Blumhorst said.
“We need to salute these individuals. They’re the ambassadors of our country around the world and represent the best of America,” he added. “They’re coming home as heroes, and we need to support them as a community and a country.”
Peace Corps volunteers typically serve for two years, after three months of training. The evacuees will still receive some compensation, $4,500 for those who served less than a year and $9,000 for those who served less than two years, with two months of health coverage, the corps said. They also have preference for federal jobs.
The evacuated volunteers described a surreal return, a moment that was supposed to feel celebratory was made somber. Many worried about exposing their family members to the coronavirus after long legs of travel, and did not know how they’d adjust to a country vastly different from the one they left.
QueenEsther Adu, 25, said the airport in Washington, D.C., was empty and her flight back to Columbus, Ohio, was even emptier. She hadn’t thought about the coronavirus much while serving as a health volunteer in Senegal, where she had been for more than two years, and was surprised at how serious the pandemic had become, she said.
Returning to the United States has always been a culture shock for Peace Corps volunteers, who often prepare for it over a couple of months. It can be shocking, for example, to walk into an American supermarket or a Costco laden with products after years in a poorer country. Mr. Gibson said the adjustment was particularly hard, returning to empty streets and home isolation.
The Peace Corps community in the United States, which includes more than 200,000 former volunteers, has been supportive, offering to open their homes, and provide food and advice if needed, Ms. Vetter said.
When she arrived in Minneapolis after her lengthy journey from Manila, her mother met her at the airport but stood a good distance away. Ms. Vetter then drove to a hotel, paid for by the Peace Corps, to self-quarantine away from her father, who is considered high risk.
“That was the hardest part,” Ms. Vetter said. “Seeing your mom after two years and being so close but not being able to give her a hug. We both cried a lot.”