Why We Volunteer For Peace Corps Community for Refugees

Monday June 18, 2018

World Refugee Day presents an opportunity for our team to reflect on why we do what we do on behalf of refugees and immigrants. We are all RPCVs or former Peace Corps staff who have been welcomed into the lives of people in other cultures and changed by that experience. Many of us have stayed connected with the countries in which we served, or sought ways to help refugee and immigrant communities in the U.S.

What brought us together more than a year ago was concern about the worldwide refugee crisis and U.S. response to it. We wanted to share our personal reflections with you, fellow RPCVs and others in our Peace Corps community, as we work together on this global humanitarian effort. Please see Our Team page for photos.

 


Barbara Busch     |     Team Leader/Overseas Action

In February 2016 my sister and I and three friends traveled to the Greek island of Lesvos to join two Peace Corps friends working on the refugee crisis there.  Lesvos is the closest island to Turkey and bore the brunt of the human tidal wave coming across the narrow strait from there.

Soon after arrival, our friends introduced us to a small local organization, the Starfish Foundation, founded months earlier by two local friends. We signed up and became “Starfishers.” I was and am very proud to be one of them.

After a brief orientation, we were assigned to an eight-hour shift in one of three locales near the town of Molyvos and went to work.

I was immediately struck by our fellow volunteers—mainly young people, though with some retirees as well, largely from Europe and North America.  They were “veterans” who had been there three months—and awe-inspiring. Their dedication, ingenuity, compassion and sense of humor had only been matched in my experience by returning Peace Corps Volunteers I met over many years on the headquarters staff.

Observing the Starfishers’ tireless service to people in such need brought me close to tears. I kept thinking returned Peace Corps volunteers would be so very good at this! They would have so very much to offer! They just need to be alerted to opportunities!

The rest is history.  With the unstinting support and encouragement of NPCA, the Peace Corps Community for Refugees was born, and I am very proud to be a member!

 

Patricia Nyhan      |      Advocacy/Communications

My Peace Corps time in Afghanistan in 1970 was still with me by the time I heard about Rohafsa, a widowed Afghan refugee with three children who arrived in Portland, Me., in the early 1980s with severe PTSD. Her husband had been tortured and presumably killed – he just disappeared. Having heard too many bombs go off next to her, she suffered from migraines and other medical issues so severe that, despite my efforts, she couldn’t find a job.

Her resettlement agency had few resources in those days. But my family welcomed her, as much so my own kids could learn about the world beyond theirs as to help her. Being an Afghan, for whom hospitality and friendship are sacred, she ordered Afghan native outfits for my kids from a tailor in Kabul. We were honored. She was an educated woman with a smallpox-pitted face, who had lost her formerly modern, productive life and didn’t know how to create a new one, with no support in the world except us.

Rohafsa didn’t get much better. But she had a family in us. And so she was able to slowly rebuild her life.

My second mentoring experience came last year, when I helped another Afghan family, a go-getter couple who had worked for Americans in Kabul and came on a special visa with their two young children. We outfitted their apartment, introduced them to the practicalities of American life, and they were off and running within a few weeks.

Hassan, an accountant, had lost all his notes from a year-long grad course at American University, Kabul, in a horrific Taliban attack. I asked him, “Hassan, what’s that binder you’re always carrying?” It was the class notes, meticulously reconstructed by him from memory. The Afghan determination to succeed, despite all odds: I knew that trait.

I have this deep connection to Afghans. They welcomed me, so I must welcome them, and any refugees. That’s why I volunteer for Peace Corps Community for Refugees.

 

Peter Deekle     |     Advocacy/Outreach

We are all residents of this global community, and my Peace Corps service confirmed this when, completing two years of service in Iran, I prepared to return to my secure and protected U.S. life.  Leaving behind a young man, Massoud, who I and others had taught, nurtured, and encouraged became, for me, a stark reality of a villager caught between cultures – the promise of a free and open society versus the certainty of a life with few prospects.  Fortunately for Massoud, I and other returned Peace Corps volunteers became advocates who championed his cause and brought him to the U.S. and a promising future.

I believe that our individual cultures and associated communities distinguish us, but they do not have to divide us.

In 2016 while serving on an accreditation team at The American College of Greece, I encountered the refugee community.  The nearby refugee conditions in Lesbos became for me a stark example of the growing humanitarian crisis for refugees.

In 2018 I meet many displaced people in the Washington, D.C., area who are also caught between cultures, seeking a promising future.  Our present national politics motivates us to confront the realities of our participation in a global community and our actions lead us to embrace the immediate and local needs of those refugees among us.

This is why I am motivated to active support on behalf of refugees and immigrants. And why I am a member of the Peace Corps Community for Refugees.

 

Valerie Kurka     |     Community Engagement

Some of the most memorable moments of my Peace Corps service were when I learned about new perspectives through the eyes of the people I lived with and served. I have those similar moments when working with resettled refugees in the United States.

One such moment was when I met a family in their new apartment who had just arrived in the United States that same day. Just 3 days earlier, this young married couple was sitting in their home with their 1-year old baby. Suddenly they had to scramble to pack their things within a few hours and flee their home because they heard that someone was coming to kill them. They got on a plane, landed in the U,S., and were taken to their new apartment with the few things they were carrying.

They cannot go back, and I am at the beginning of their new lives.

The world is complicated, sometimes messy, and not always fair, but knowing that I am empowered to do something for someone is not only a memorable moment, but it changes lives. I volunteer because the Peace Corps Community is in a perfect position to do something, too.

 

John Dickson     |     Advocacy/Communications

I first met Gabrielle in Ottawa, Canada.  Her accent, her demeanor and her height led me to believe that she was African, which she confirmed when she said she was from Rwanda and had been living in Canada for less than ten years.

It took many months of regular encounters for Gabrielle’s story of survival from the Rwandan genocide to emerge.  Identifiable as Tutsi, she and her children had to flee into the forest to save themselves.  They took little with them; for days, they did not eat.  With no end to the bloodletting, they joined the long caravan of people who walked hundreds of miles to Uganda, running into the forest whenever they heard rumors of machete-wielding attackers.

Then, Gabrielle made the most terrible choice a parent should never have to make.  Hungry and unsure of what lay ahead, she met an elderly couple in Uganda along the road who offered to take in her two children while Gabrielle forged ahead.

Gabrielle eventually made her way to a refugee camp where, after some time, she learned of her eligibility for resettlement in Canada.  After many more months of waiting to get a visa, she finally arrived in Ottawa, without language or job skills, but hopeful.

Then her miracle happened.  Her children had ended up with the elderly Ugandans’ daughter who lived in a bigger city.  She was able to track down the whereabouts of Gabrielle.  One day, out of the blue, Gabrielle received a call from the young woman and was able to speak to her two children.  Another year passed, and they reunited in Ottawa.

By the time I met her, Gabrielle had learned English, and was finishing up her degree in human relations.  She had moved well along a path to integration, with a strong support network in Canada.

What continues to haunt me, and moves me to become involved in Peace Corps Community for Refugees, is that Gabrielle’s story of courage in the face of horror is but one of millions endured by refugees.   My only response, had to be, “What can I do to help?”

 

Colleen Conroy     |     Refugee Resettlement

I have joined in this effort for two principal reasons:  I feel strongly that all people have the right to live in an environment free of conflict, and I also feel that refugees coming into another country need assistance in acclimating to their new environment.  My experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Northeast Brazil gave me some insight into “the refugee experience in adapting to a new and different culture”.

When I joined Peace Corps in 1969 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Pernambuco, Brazil, I had no idea how challenging that assignment would be, but I soon found out.   After one month of intensive Portuguese language training at New York University,  I flew to Rio de  Janeiro where I was given my assignment as a nurse instructor in a hospital  in a small rural village in the state of  Pernambuco.

The Peace Corps driver dropped me at the entrance of the public hospital which was situated in the middle of the sugarcane district.  I introduced myself in faltering Portuguese as the new instructor of nurses and was shown my room which was a small hospital room with sink and toilet and a small metal closet that normally would accommodate a robe and nightgown.  Two large black bats were hanging in the rafters, keeping watch over what was to be my new home.

I quickly realized that my Portuguese language skills were not adequate to teach the nurses. As it turned out, there were no nurses other than me, only two physicians who were more interested in their ranches than the well being of their patients.  So here I was with a load of unanticipated challenges: living in an unfamiliar culture, with weak language skills and not the job I had hope for.  On top of that, I was isolated from the community, with no home and no friends except for a male volunteer who was working in agriculture. In the end, my assignment was changed to a larger market town where I worked with midwives in the community.  It turned out to be a wonderfully enriching Peace Corps experience.

I feel that some of the challenges that I had to address in Pernambuco are similar to many that our refugees are dealing with, but with one major difference: They are fleeing from dangerous, life-threatening environments and not able to return home again.

I feel that it is my responsibility to help refugees in resettlement, just as I was helped so many years ago in Northeastern Brazil.  Having someone who understands your situation, who listens to you and helps you adjust to a new culture, and most importantly, be your friend, makes all the difference in how you are able to successfully address a new experience and a new life.

 

Lisa Hill     |     Web & Social Media Administrator

There are many reasons why I volunteer to assist refugees anyway I can. My closest friends were born in a refugee camp after their parents fled from Laos. They grew up as my neighbors and are as American as I am. I never made that distinction in my mind and can’t imagine my life if they’re family was still in that camp. They have been there every moment I’ve needed someone, every bad time and every good time, we are family.

I have worked alongside many refugees here in the states, with the same job title as me. I researched, integrated with and am an advocate for the refugee community stuck in Turkey, looking for safety in east Africa, and walking on the routes through Europe. I’ve found ‘refugees’ to be a population just like any other, just like ‘us.’

I’ve been a foreigner in many places and have lived in small villages. What I remember the most is the kindness others have welcomed me with, the assistance and guidance they have given me, and the willingness to help me whenever I needed it. I want to be present in the same capacity for those who are forced to leave their homes.

I recognize that we do not choose where we are born or what resources are available to us. We do not choose to create a life in a land that will not provide us with physical safety, education or possible means to support ourselves. I cannot stand by and watch others suffer and be left to waste away in a holding pattern of a life in search of basic survival from one minute to the next. I have no choice but to do everything I can to assist our fellow human beings as I would my neighbor.

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