San Francisco Chronicle interviews evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers

 

 

Coronavirus: Bay Area Peace Corps volunteers deal with ‘emotional trauma’ after global evacuations

Annelise Hill was attending a conference in the Bohol Province of the Philippines — where she worked as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer — when she received a devastating alert from headquarters in Washington, D.C., urging her and others to evacuate their host countries.

Hill had 24 hours to pack her belongings, say goodbye to her friends and people in the community she’d helped and rush to the airport.

“It was very stressful and shocking to know that we were leaving,” said Hill, a 24-year-old Novato resident who worked as a coastal resource manager for eight months in Getafe, a city of about 30,000 people. “I knew that if I thought of it as, ‘I’m not coming back,’ I was going to break down. I kind of had to lie to myself to get out of there. I felt like I was abandoning my community and my office.”

In an unprecedented decision last month, the Peace Corps evacuated an estimated 7,000 volunteers from 60 countries. The decision to recall volunteers was made to prevent them from getting stranded abroad as countries shut down their borders and airports while enforcing shelter-in-place orders because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Many of these volunteers hail from the Bay Area, including 56 UC Berkeley alums, according to the Peace Corps. Over the years, Cal has contributed more alumni — 3,741 in total — than any other university in the country.

The decision to flee was a devastating blow for Hill and many volunteers who were plucked out of life-changing assignments in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the world — only to land back in the U.S. with tenuous housing situations and dismal job prospects. Many volunteers told The Chronicle they feel as if they abandoned their posts and fear they won’t get a chance to return.

“It’s being ripped from the community where you thought you were going to be living for many more months and transported back to the U.S. in the middle of a pandemic and global recession,” Hill said.

The Peace Corps is a 59-year-old government program designed to provide aid to developing countries. Volunteers complete three months of training and two years of work in their host countries, filling critical educational, health, environmental and cultural roles. The sudden absence of these volunteers likely will leave many communities without critical resources and enrichment programs, from learning English and reducing food insecurity to promoting health through sports.

Hill’s main focus was assessing the health of Getafe’s ecosystems, including surveying residents and the region’s groves, seagrass and corals.

“We were developing a work plan and applying for a grant to implement a lot of projects that were directly related to my work,” she said.

In the weeks since the evacuations, the Peace Corps has been partnering with a dozen other government agencies to host virtual job fairs starting this month, as well as provide webinars and online classes to help volunteers update their resumes and navigate the federal hiring system.

The organization also promised to provide evacuation and readjustment allowances, extended health insurance coverage and lodging reimbursements for volunteers who are unable to self-quarantine at home for the recommended 14-day period. Volunteers will qualify for noncompetitive eligibility, which makes it easier to obtain federal jobs.

“To be clear, the Peace Corps is not closing posts, and volunteers will be able to return to normal activities as soon as conditions permit,” Dr. Josephine Olsen, the Peace Corps’ director, wrote on the organization’s website after the evacuations. “We are already planning for that day.”

Volunteers have given the Peace Corps credit for doing what it can under the circumstances and many said they feel supported. But they fear the organization’s efforts simply won’t be enough to ensure the 7,000 volunteers find an immediate job during such dire economic times.

“They’re coming back to an economy that is certainly not a good job market amid a global health issue, which creates so much uncertainty for them,” said Glenn Blumhorst, president and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association in Washington, D.C., which acts as an alumni group to help volunteers re-acclimate to life in the U.S. after they complete assignments abroad.

“It’s an emotional trauma for these evacuated Peace Corps volunteers,” Blumhorst added. “They were in the middle of something really meaningful in their life and it was disrupted.”

Noah Bratcher, 28, of Humboldt County was in Kyrgyzstan for nine months before he was evacuated March 20. He had hoped to become a teacher after completing his volunteer work.

But the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which offers credentials to Peace Corps volunteers who serve 18 months as education volunteers, told Bratcher it has not discussed waiving the requirement for returned volunteers whose experience was cut short, leaving him and many others in limbo.

“This opportunity was one of the reasons I considered Peace Corps service,” Bratcher said. “We don’t really know if we’ll be able to go back at all. I don’t know if I’ll be able to reach the 18 months somehow. It’s quite disappointing.”

The commission on Tuesday said it does not have the legal authority to suspend or waive the requirement.

“We are currently looking into this matter as well as more than a dozen other issues affecting people in teacher credentialing programs who are impacted by the COVID-19 situation,” a commission spokeswoman said in an email.

Eddy Holman of San Lorenzo left the Oromia region of Ethiopia, where he had worked as a community health educator since January 2019. Holman was visiting family in New York when the evacuation order came down and was unable to return and say goodbye to his community.

“I was about to get on my flight to Ethiopia and my Peace Corps director sent me an email in all caps saying, ‘DO NOT GET ON THE PLANE,’” he said. “I got no closure with my community, with any of my Peace Corps volunteer friends. I didn’t even get to pack anything.”

Holman was living with his 77-year-old grandmother before he left for Ethiopia. He feared exposing her to the coronavirus if he returned home, so he opted to temporarily stay with his mother.

“It’s like the rug is pulled out from under you,” he said. “I almost felt robbed of my second year. … I felt in denial up until the end.”

Photo of Tatiana Sanchez Tatiana Sanchez covers immigration and civil rights for The Chronicle. She got her start in journalism in the California desert, where she covered the marginalized immigrant communities of the eastern Coachella Valley for The Desert Sun. Previous stops also include the San Diego Union-Tribune and most recently, the Mercury News in San Jose. A Bay Area native, she received a master’s in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree from Santa Clara University.

Follow Tatiana on: Facebook, Email: tatiana.sanchez@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @TatianaYSanchez

 

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