It was 9 PM and I was sitting on a plastic lawn chair with my favorite family, barely able to communicate over the sound of loud accordion “típico” music, when my phone started buzzing out of control in my pocket. I remember thinking I did not want to take it out because I wanted to enjoy my evening, as it would be one of the last family gatherings I would have in my site before leaving the following Saturday.
I was one week away from finishing my two years of service in Peace Corps Panama.
I looked at the screen anyway, only to read the text, “You may pack two checked bags and one carry on. You must get on your earliest transport out of site whether that be tonight or tomorrow morning. We are evacuating all Peace Corps volunteers.”
7,367 volunteers in 61 countries around the world, serving in sectors such as education, health, economic development, agriculture, environmental conservation. Each volunteer with an entirely different role, entirely different site, entirely different web of work relationships, friendships, bonds and memories.
Uprooted within 10 hours.
But we don’t feel like we have been “fired”.
Volunteers are devastated, not solely because we don’t have jobs, but because we were sent home to a place that doesn’t feel quite as much like home anymore. We left friends — family — behind in a crucial moment when they could have really benefited from our help. I am overwhelmed with guilt for having pledged to be a support in any way possible during service, only to seemingly abandon ship in the middle of the night as soon as the waters got choppy.
But we were not fired. We were evacuated during an unprecedented global crisis.
What hurts is that some of us were steps away from bringing potable water to our communities for the first time. Some of us were just kicking off the school year, laying the groundwork for extracurricular programs and sex education curricula. Some of us represented a support for people who don’t have access to the same news cycle we do. Some of us just represented stability in a time where that is a commodity.
In a way this will be one of the biggest tests of the Peace Corps pillar of sustainability. We will see how well we have been capacity building by seeing which projects come to fruition without us and which crumble without our support. And after that, we can reanalyze and fix what needs fixing. But the work has been, and will continue to be, valid.
As I’m writing this I’m laying in bed, at home in New Mexico, in a room that is still decked out with my high school memorabilia. Stuffed animals from ex-boyfriends and a graduation tassel hanging on my wall. Which is to say, I, and many others, am coming from a place of privilege in that I have a place to come home to. A warm house with a stocked fridge (and for some reason lots of toilet paper). I am fortunate and I am privileged. But I’m not asleep. I have had less than 16 hours of sleep in the last 6 days. Evacuation of 7,367 people isn’t the easiest feat and that is evidenced by the countless flight delays, bulk hotel reservations for upwards of 200 people at a time, anxious waiting and, ultimately, chartered flights. But I’m not asleep because I want to keep being productive. I don’t want to go back to the same jobs that I had before Peace Corps because the standard for meaningful contribution to society has all but shot through the ceiling. I’m frustrated because all of a sudden I feel anonymous and useless. Just another millennial reading quarantine memes and hypnotizing myself into complacency as I scroll through Instagram.
But I don’t feel anger. I’m not mad at the Peace Corps for taking us out because logistically there was no other option. This is serious. And it should be treated that way. Peace Corps volunteers are a huge liability and it would have been entirely too risky to keep us in country for many reasons — especially with all of the travel restrictions that are being placed. Keep in mind, when we take our oath we pledge to serve our host country selflessly and in accordance with what they need to be done. Imagine the massive suck on resources we would be contributing to if we were to have gotten sick there. Medical appointments, medicine, transportation, possibly even unintentionally bringing the virus directly to the people in our communities that we love so much.
Additionally, in a time when our own country is at the brink of a massive recession, it would be against Peace Corps “Core Values” to expect the option of “interrupted service” (which would constitute a certain allowance for each volunteer up until the date of reinstatement). Taxpayer money funds incredible Peace Corps projects around the world, but to use that money to give volunteers a cushion for the foreseeable future when we have actually no concept of how far this will go, nor how long it will last, would be irresponsible at best. It would be nice, but it’s not what our nation needs to be spending money on right now if we can avoid it. We have to exercise integrity, think bigger than ourselves.
All volunteers will still get at minimum 50% of their readjustment allowance, depending on the amount of time they have served thus far. If you have served for at least a year, you will get the full extent of your Close of Service benefits. Volunteers will be compensated for quarantine costs should they choose to spend their two weeks of recommended self quarantine somewhere other than at their home of record. Health insurance will be covered for two months — one month more than if we had finished service normally.
And hey, in many ways we are some of the most equipped people to be handling this kind of crisis. We have had no choice but to become comfortable with social isolation. Days, sometimes weeks, spent in remote areas with little to no signal whatsoever. We have been ill in places that are a bus ride, a boat and a pickup truck away from the nearest clinic. We have gotten creative with new recipes using strictly foods that have long shelf lives. Honestly we could write a pretty handy “Quarantine for Dummies” guide. (Chapter 7: Plant based toilet paper alternatives!) We can still be useful here as the country navigates this strange new normal.
There is so much uncertainty. I don’t know what Peace Corps will look like in a week, much less a month, much less a year. No one does. But Peace Corps has also been a crash course in handling uncertainty and accepting ambiguity. We have done this before and we will do it again. And I would be willing to bet the entirety of my evacuation allowance on the fact that the vast majority of volunteers would gladly get back on a plane and go right back to their sites to finish their services if given the chance. But for now I think we need to find solace in the referenced quote from Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen, “I also want to assure you and our host country partners that these evacuations represent the temporary suspension of Volunteer activities. We are not closing posts, and we will be ready to return to normal operations when conditions permit. Importantly, our host country staff will remain in their current positions.”
The work will still get done. It just might not get done by us. But if you believe in the Peace Corps mission and Peace Corps values, the work was never about “us” anyway.
I don’t claim to speak for all 7,367 volunteers and I guess that’s just the point. No one should. I’m speaking on behalf of myself and a couple of the volunteers from my post in Panama who felt hurt by an alarmist, single-storied Washington Post article last Friday. The volunteer interviewed in the article has every right to feel slighted, angry, betrayed. If anything right now, in this weird time in history, we must accept everyone’s feelings as valid. But there’s another group of us who are just broken-hearted. Aching, because we left big pieces of ourselves all across the world. Wanting hugs from people who can’t give them to us. And hoping we can still manage to find a way to serve out our roles as ambassadors of peace, hope and friendship.
Courtney Eker is from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She studied Political Science and Spanish at College of Charleston in South Carolina and served as a Teaching English, Leadership, and Life Skills volunteer for the past two years (2018-20) in Panama. As she says, “Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is the best thing I’ve ever had the privilege of being.”