Among the many people around the world struggling to adjust during the coronavirus pandemic are 7,300 Americans who were, up until the last few weeks, working as U.S. Peace Corps volunteers abroad.
For the first time in the more than 60 years of the federal agency’s history, the Peace Corps sent all of its volunteers back to the United States and temporarily suspended operations worldwide, instructing the recalled volunteers to quarantine for 14 days and abruptly ending their service.
Volunteers say they have received a deluge of emails and documents on how to access benefits but are struggling to piece together what happened and what they’re supposed to do now. Their circumstances leave them among the most vulnerable Americans right now ― their regular stipends cut off, their housing gone, the guidance about their health benefits unclear and few prospects for other jobs at a time when unemployment is soaring at home.
Typically, when volunteers complete their service, they attend a conference preparing them for reentry into American society and the workforce. They’re also given $375 for each month they served ― adding up to a little more than $10,000 for volunteers who complete their service. Evacuees who served up to a year are being given about half that allowance, while those who served more than a year will receive the full amount.
In response to questions for this article, Peace Corps’ press office referred HuffPost to its Coronavirus FAQ. The office could not be reached for follow-up questions.
The conditions of evacuation varied depending on where the volunteers were posted. According to volunteers interviewed for this article, staff at headquarters seemed overwhelmed by the unprecedented situation and struggled to disseminate accurate information to the evacuated volunteers. Volunteers in countries that were evacuated earlier, such as China, Mongolia, Morocco and Ecuador, found it more difficult to access resources and quarantine instructions than volunteers who got the recall notice later in the process.
Confusion And Word-Of-Mouth
Danielle Shulkin, a 26-year-old volunteer in Panama, said that a friend called headquarters for instructions on where to quarantine safely because her mother has existing health issues. The staff member told her they couldn’t offer money for a hotel but graciously offered to host the volunteer at their own home. The volunteer is now quarantining herself in a separate part of her mother’s home.
Peter Elias, a 26-year-old Morocco evacuee, initially stayed with his parents, who were at higher risk for severe illness because of their age. He said he only learned how to receive reimbursement for alternative lodging three days after coming home and that was via a Facebook group run by former volunteers. He’s now spending the rest of his quarantine in an Airbnb and expects to get a reimbursement.
In Morocco, which had 345 cases of the novel coronavirus and 23 deaths as of Friday, volunteers were already starting to face skepticism and harassment due to their status as foreigners, so the local Peace Corps staff made the decision to evacuate before the rest of the corps worldwide.
Evacuation there began the week of March 16. Volunteers who had begun service in September 2018 were told they would be ending their service early. The volunteers who started last fall were told they would be placed on “administrative hold” for a month while the Peace Corps determined whether they could return. The in-country staff gathered volunteers at a hotel in the capital, held a makeshift ceremony for the departing volunteers and chartered a plane out on March 18, volunteers said.
When they arrived back in the U.S. on March 19, the newer ones believed there was a chance they would return to Morocco eventually. On March 22, however, volunteers say they received an email informing them they would be COSed — a Peace Corps acronym meaning “close of service.”
“In one single email, the entirety of what my future was going to look like and the hopes that I had for returning, you know, was just, in a sense, decimated,” said Alex Sproule-Fendel, a Morocco youth development volunteer who began his service in September 2019.
The Peace Corps was founded during the Kennedy administration as an opportunity for Americans to engage in development work and cultural exchange abroad. Volunteers, who can be any age but are often fresh out of college, serve two-year terms in sectors like agriculture and education.
In Namibia, where Nichole Kulikowski had served as an education volunteer for nearly two years, the government shut schools and all other public activities down on March 15 after learning of two travel-related cases. That approach appears to be successful so far; the country has had a total of eight cases, according to Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
Kulikowski did not expect that, mere hours later, her Peace Corps job would come to an abrupt end.
“When they made the call, I think a lot of us were a little bit frustrated and maybe even angry,” she said, since there were so few cases in-country. As they saw borders shut down in South Africa, however, the volunteers began to appreciate the gravity of the situation and understand the decision to evacuate, Kulikowski added.
Many volunteers felt like they had betrayed their host community, especially if they had told locals they would return ― only to find out later that they most likely will not.
Joshua Michael Inton Campell is a returned Morocco volunteer now researching relationships between global development volunteers and their host country counterparts as part of his doctoral program at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
“I have to imagine my people are made to feel like liars in that situation. And that’s something that hurts, and there’s no way to avoid that,” he said. “The way the [local] counterparts feel at a time like this, I can only guess. I haven’t spoken to anyone, but I imagine that they’re scared, that they feel abandoned.”
Facing An Uncertain Future
Now back stateside, volunteers are struggling to plan their futures. Volunteers are not eligible for unemployment, according to the Peace Corps website, because they are not technically “employees.”
The coronavirus relief package signed into law Friday includes $88 million for the Peace Corps, to “support the evacuation of more than 6,000 Volunteers and more than 170 U.S. direct hires from overseas posts.” But it’s not clear if there will be help beyond that for volunteers. The Peace Corps did not respond to an email asking for clarification.
The organization did extend volunteers’ post-service health insurance, from one month of coverage to two. But for volunteers returning to a country ravaged by a new and terrifying virus, the question of where they can get the post-service exams that are typically required when coming back into the U.S. looms, not to mention what happens after two months.
Casey Bouldin, an evacuated Morocco volunteer, is in Seattle, one of the earliest U.S. cities to see a spike in COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus strain. The city’s health care system is already overwhelmed; she doesn’t know where she’ll be able to receive primary health care or what would happen if she got sick.
Evacuated volunteers are also finding it difficult to prioritize their own mental health.
“It feels like we have to justify how much of a shock this is because everyone’s daily life has been uprooted. Everyone’s out of work. Everyone is working from home. Life is not normal right now.” Bouldin said. “But beyond what’s happening, we’ve also been ripped away from everything that we had built and everything we’ve worked on.”
“Obviously, plenty of people in the world have it worse than I do,” she added. “But to feel like people don’t necessarily care because everyone’s going through something right now makes it that much harder, if that makes sense.”
Still, many volunteers expressed gratitude to the Peace Corps staff in their host countries as well as the network of past volunteers who welcomed them back to the United States.
In Namibia, the staff took advantage of the opportunity to hold a “close-of-service” conference for volunteers, Kulikowski said, which prepares volunteers for their return to the United States, and advises them of benefits, employment and educational opportunities available to them stateside.
Volunteers in countries more affected by the pandemic, such as China, Mongolia and Morocco, weren’t able to have these sessions.
The community of former volunteers has set up a Facebook group to support the newly evacuated group. Elias, one of the Morocco evacuees, has said that he’s relied on that network and WhatsApp messages with fellow evacuees to get practical information during the quarantine. But he’s still overwhelmed and grieving the sudden end of his service.
“I was thinking the other day about the local market, the guy who sells, like, parsley and cilantro, and, like, I would go to him every week, and he would give me the best prices,” Elias said. “In that moment, I felt all the sadness, and I cried for, like, 20 seconds, but then I stopped because I started thinking, like, ‘What am I going to do for health care?’ You know?”
Reporter Alex Leeds Matthews served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco from January 2014 to October 2015.
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