By Apryl Gibson
"Is it true they're going to kill you?"
Elizabeth was taken aback by her friend's question. At the time, Elizabeth, whose name has been changed due to the sensitivity of the situation, was a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador. She lived and worked in a small town in the south central department of La Paz. She started hearing rumors she would be killed in the final month of her two-year service. For the previous twenty-three months, she had assisted local women in starting businesses. She helped her community cultivate a garden to supplement food in schools. She championed human rights projects. Now, someone wanted to kill her.
It all started in 1980 - before Elizabeth was born. Civil war broke out in El Salvador and tens of thousands of Salvadoran refugees fled to the United States over the course of the 1980s. Some of these landed in the American southwest, where the Salvadoran youth faced problems from already established gangs with Mexican or African-American roots. In order to protect themselves, a group of these Central American young people formed their own gang. Mara Salvatrucha, infamous for its excessive brutality, may have originated in Los Angeles, but the gang's roots can be traced to the Salvadoran conflict.
About a year into Elizabeth's service in Central America, gang members from Mara Salvatrucha and rival gang Calle 18 were deported from the United States to communities in El Salvador. A few members of both gangs landed in Elizabeth's town and began heavily recruiting. They also began fighting for dominance.
Violence plagued Elizabeth's community of about 2300 people. Her town became notorious for arms and drug trafficking, and police patrols were frequent. Elizabeth soon learned to be inside by 7 p.m. Her colleagues warned her to lock the door and never leave the house - even to go to the outhouse that served as her bathroom. They told her never to open the door at night, even to them, because she never could know if someone was holding a gun up to their heads. In one month, Elizabeth attended eight funerals.
Elizabeth became adept at sizing up uncertain situations. She knew which buses to get on and which to avoid. In spite of this, Elizabeth felt relatively safe, and she never asked Peace Corps to move her. She believed she was being well-utilized as a volunteer, and she felt well-integrated into her community. For these reasons, she felt her community would protect her.
The situation changed when a gang sign appeared on the door of a local building. Some of the young people, frustrated by the turn their community had taken, decided to paint over the sign. They enlisted Elizabeth to help them out.
"We were going to take back the community!" she exclaimed in a recent interview in New York - as she threw her fist in the air. "I realized later that it probably wasn't such a good idea."
When she found out that her life may be in jeopardy, she contacted the Peace Corps. Still, she resisted leaving right away. For Elizabeth, it wasn't the loss of her life that was so terrifying; it was the peril to her projects.
"They were just rumors. I knew that, if I left, [my community] wouldn't get another volunteer." She worried that her exit would bring months of progress to a halt. She begged the Peace Corps not to send her home, but the organization couldn't take the chance. She was told by the office in San Salvador that she had to leave.
Rebecca, who claims to hold the title of "Peace Corps' most evacuated female volunteer" had a similarly traumatic experience. Rebecca's name has also been changed due to the sensitivity of multiple situations she encountered in West Africa. She started out in Mauritania doing girls' empowerment projects, but al-Qaeda came in and disrupted the stability of the country. She was evacuated to Senegal and then sent on to Guinea. Civil unrest led Peace Corps to temporarily close the program, and Rebecca found herself in Mali. Wanting to complete her service, Rebecca decided to go to Liberia with Peace Corps Response - a follow-up to the Peace Corps. She was placed near the borders of Guinea and Sierra Leone. Shortly after her arrival, rebel groups began to light schools and churches on fire. Rebecca remembers crouching on tile with other women in her community.
"I went to sleep not knowing if I would wake up." Rebecca says. "[To this day], I have a hard time [with] white tile floors."
Then she was sent home. "On Friday, I thought I was going to die. On Monday, I was walking [my dog] by manicured lawns. It was surreal."
Upon their return to the United States, both Elizabeth and Rebecca went through a similar readjustment process. Both were mandated to go to counseling, and both resisted to some extent. Rebecca felt that her counselor was not equipped to deal with her situation, and Elizabeth realized she might have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Elizabeth would insist that her parents lock the door to their home in rural, upstate New York, and Rebecca would barricade herself in her room and cry. She surrounded herself with pillows because she figured this would be the best way to slow down a possible intruder. Rebecca survived a minor earthquake in California and relived the trauma through subsequent aftershocks. She had a hard time starting her car for fear of bombs. Elizabeth would explode at minor annoyances. Both Elizabeth and Rebecca had trouble sleeping. They would wake with the slightest noise and feel "on edge." For two months, Rebecca slept with the lights on.
While Elizabeth and Rebecca are extreme cases, many Peace Corps Volunteers report experiencing a kind of "trauma" when they come back to the United States. Even volunteers who have not lived through such harrowing experiences tend to experience a feeling of "shock" upon their return - reverse culture shock.
The concept of Peace Corps started on October 14, 1960 with a speech by then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy on the steps of the University of Michigan Union. He challenged young people to use their talents and experience to assist those in the developing world.
By March 1st, 1961, President Kennedy had signed the executive order establishing the Peace Corps. By the end of August, over 90 volunteers went to Ghana and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to teach and participate in surveying projects.
According to the official website, Peace Corps currently boasts 8,655 volunteers in 77 countries. Volunteers participate in a variety of projects in sectors such as Health, Business Development, Agriculture and Youth Development. In the almost 50 years since its inception, over 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries.
Peace Corps enters a country at the request of that nation's government. It is a partnership between the United States and the host country, and Peace Corps Volunteers - or PCVs as they are referred to within the organization - are expected to exemplify the best America has to offer. This means learning the local language, integrating into the society and being respectful of the host country's norms and mores. They are expected to engage the world around them and adapt to it - like taking on a new skin.
And 27 months in the skin of another culture tends to change a person - especially when one lives and works at the community level. It has been said that no service organization is more "grassroots" than Peace Corps, and volunteers are encouraged to "go native." It is vital to its mission to promote world peace and friendship.
The experience of moving to a foreign country feels just like that - foreign. Volunteers are confronted with new sights and smells, new cultures and customs and a completely new data set for interpreting information.
"[When I arrived in the Balkans,] I couldn't believe my eyes. It's scenery I've only seen out of movies - roads packed with one or two or three people sharing motorbikes, weaving through a horse or tractor here and there and lines of quaint little antique cars. Us Americans are quite the novelty. There are moments when people rush out of their houses to stare, especially children," writes Marissa, a former volunteer in Macedonia.
Regina, a returned volunteer who served in Paraguay, observed, "Not many houses have doorbells - often due to the lack of consistent electricity. It is often difficult to knock on the front door, because the actual house is deeper in the family's property, often fenced off. I learned that visitors clap their hands to announce their arrival. I thought applauding was a nice alternative to shouting or other more abrupt methods of making enough noise to announce your arrival at someone's house. Something very small, but also very heart-warming."
Brian, a former volunteer who taught English in Albania, related that the minarets and frequent calls to worship grabbed his attention. He was also impressed by the ubiquitousness of donkeys and cinder block houses, which were referred to as "palaces."
So the mind accepts the situation for what it is: foreign. The volunteer tends to take all of this in without much fanfare, reservation or crisis. And, over the course of 27 months, the donkeys become familiar. The packed roads with their antique cars become commonplace. Even the staring becomes routine. There is rarely anything "foreign" to write home about.
Enter the United States - a unique culture all its own; a world away from the houses where one claps in order to enter. The PCV is now an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer), and she has to cope with a new data set. But this information is not new. This is "home." So, why does it feel so "foreign?" Cue the fanfare, the reservations and the crises.
"Don't come shopping with me. I will stand in the yogurt aisle for hours," warns Molly.
"My mom took me to Kohl's. I had to ask her to take me to a smaller store," states Chris.
"I practically had an anxiety attack. I just wanted to buy some toothpaste," relates Thomas.
Molly served in Fiji. Chris was in Thailand. Thomas lived and worked in Bulgaria. These former volunteers were scattered all across the globe, and yet they expressed the same sentiments upon their return: consumer choices proved to be debilitating.
Many served in countries with small stores. There wasn't a lot of competition between products in town. In some countries, when volunteers wanted lentils, there was one brand available. When they wanted chocolate bars, there may have been two brands that were fairly distinctive. When they wanted peanut butter, they made do with whatever Mom sent them.
This is not the case in the United States. As the Irish band U2 aptly stated in their song New York, "Freedom looks like too many choices." In the states, one is offered over 25 different kinds of Colgate® toothpaste - just Colgate! And what is the difference between Total Advanced Clean and Total Advanced Fresh? How does one choose between Max Fresh with Mini Breath Strips and Max White with Mini Bright Strips? What are the benefits of choosing Luminous Crystal Clean Mint over Sparkling White Mint Zing? The options can be insufferable.
"I wanted to cry," says Thomas. Other volunteers relate that they went to the store and returned without a single item - even though they had many on their list.
Quirks tend to stick around longer than they should. Many volunteers find themselves with holdover behaviors that don't always translate well in the culture of the United States.
Thomas found himself staring at women for what would be considered an inappropriate length of time. Brian wanted to occupy a table at a local café, drink coffee and people-watch for two hours at a time - day after day. Chris found himself constantly surfing the internet at work - until they blocked him, and he found his way around it. Molly lost her ability to be punctual. Elizabeth talks about returned volunteers who still read by candlelight.
"In Senegal, if you're walking down the street with an open bag of chips, people will just reach in and take some," says Thomas, who also volunteered for a different organization in Namibia.
Thus, Rabayah, a returned volunteer who served in Senegal's neighbor, Mali, found herself offering chips and candy to students at Columbia University in New York - even if she did not know them. Just the fact that they were in proximity to her meant they were entitled to her snacks.
Speaking of snacks, another common trait returned volunteers share is their tendency to gain weight upon their return. Rebecca used the words "gross" and "disgusting" to talk about the food in the United States. On the whole, most former volunteers had access to only fresh and organic food. Much of the food in the U.S. is loaded down with preservatives.
"In [Africa], my bread would mold after a day," says Rebecca. "Here... two weeks? When?"
Another common sentiment expressed by returned volunteers is frustration with the seeming triviality of topics discussed by their peers in the United States.
"Four days earlier, I'd been crying in an airport [about returning to the U.S.]," relates Taylor, who served in Guatemala. "Now, I was at a wedding listening to someone talking about purchasing a truck."
Elizabeth is more straightforward. "I don't give a shit about minor things. Some people want to talk about a shirt they bought at the mall. I'd rather worry about someone [coming] in with a machete."
Most expressed difficulty identifying with friends who had stayed behind. Even if life had changed for those friends, it tended to change slowly and in other directions.
"I would start almost every sentence with 'In Thailand...,'" says Chris, who realizes the topic can wear on those who have never been.
Audrey was not sure how to share her experience with others who had not lived it. Whenever anyone asked her, "How was Morocco?" she would simply reply, "Good."
Without many outlets to adequately discuss their experience, many returned volunteers tend to spend time with the person with whom they are most familiar: themselves. Brian's parents jokingly referred to him as a "monk," and his room became a "cloister." Rhiannon, a volunteer in Uganda, found herself "sitting at home a lot." JoAnna, who began dating another volunteer in the Dominican Republic, brought him home with her.
"We planted a garden and hung out with my parents a lot."
Even unlikely places tend to feel lonely. Both Chris and Rebecca expressed feelings of isolation when they moved to New York City.
"People here don't have time for you," says Rebecca. "You have to [schedule] dinner." They both had returned from cultures where socialization was more spontaneous.
Usually, family becomes tremendously important. Almost all the returned volunteers interviewed expressed a newfound desire to spend time with their families upon their return. Molly shared a recent incident when she called her parents to inquire as to what they were doing. At the time, they were on their way to a reunion with her siblings. They had not invited her because they were so used to her being out of the country.
"They thought I'd be too busy," she relayed with a pained expression.
To cope, former volunteers employ a variety of methods. Two of the more popular appear to be attending graduate school or working abroad again. Regina found work in Turkey. Brian went to Vietnam to teach English and work with street kids. Molly signed up with an organization in Fiji. Marissa worked at the U.S. Embassy in Bosnia. Thomas attended Indiana University in Bloomington. Chris, Audrey and Rabayah went straight to grad school at SIPA.
Keeping oneself occupied tends to work in the short term, but swallowed sentiments have a way of catching up with returned volunteers. Keondra, a former volunteer in Fiji who immediately enrolled in Columbia, related that she began to miss someone from her community just by talking about that person, and this person's absence was almost unbearable. Audrey mentioned a breakdown she had one weekend not so long ago while getting ready for an event. "I missed my friends [in Morocco]. I couldn't stop crying. I almost missed the party."
Peace Corps offers a host of services for returned volunteers.
Kat Edwards, the Program Support Assistant from Returned Volunteer Services writes, "We have a variety of services set up to assist Returned Volunteers find their 'Next.' Part of those services are our RPCV [Returned Peace Corps Volunteer] Career Events. Though these events focus on providing career support, many RPCVs have commented on the support they received from their fellow RPCVs. Many have written to us to tell us that the career events helped them feel better supported and more confident in their transition."
Peace Corps also encourages what is called "third goal activities," or providing opportunities for returned volunteers to share their story with others who may be interested in becoming volunteers. Taylor and Molly have gone to events to inspire prospective volunteers, and both have said that this has been helpful in terms of transitioning back to the states. Both also mentioned that these activities have been useful in validating their experience abroad.
As for mental health services, however, Peace Corps can sometimes leave volunteers in want. Currently, the organization offers mental health vouchers, but access to them can vary. Some are given the vouchers as soon as they close their service. Others are told that vouchers are available if they'd like to have them. Still others claim to have never been informed of any mental health services upon their return to the states.
Even if they were made aware of the vouchers, several volunteers decided not to use them. They were worried using them would cause problems if they pursued any career that requires background checks.
"Peace Corps is so bureaucratic, why would I go to them [for mental health services]?" asks Taylor, who says that upon return he didn't feel depressed so much as confused.
Also in the mental health arena, the National Peace Corps Association offers mentoring services. Freshly returned volunteers can ask to be matched with RPCVs who have long completed their service and feel they have successfully made the transition back to the United States. Many volunteers, however, stated that they were not aware of the mentoring program. Even if they had signed up for it, some found prospective mentors lived too far away to be effective.
Outside of the organization, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can typically find local groups that cater to their empathetic needs. For example, "The Big Apple Corps" is a group run by returned volunteers that serves greater New York. Ex-volunteers in such groups tend to get together to participate in fundraising activities and do community service projects. They may also get together for happy hours, dinners, and holiday parties. It's a chance for fellow former volunteers to reminisce and commiserate. Even so, spending time with these kinds of compatriots can be detrimental. Rabayah claims that the more time she spends in their company, the more challenging it is to integrate into life in graduate school.
Still, while the sentiments about transitioning back to life in the United States are similar, there is no one-size-fits-all method that seems to work for everyone. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, while sharing unique experiences, are still unique individuals. Elizabeth, who claims she never felt more alive in her entire life than when she was in El Salvador, went to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to see if she can easily enter and exit crisis situations. Taylor wrote and self-published an account about his life in Guatemala. He says the book, "Fiesta of Sunset," brought his experience full circle.
For some, certain aspects of life before this experience may never come back, and they need to just accept that. Whatever the coping strategy employed, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers must make their own way. Sometimes, the only way out is through.