Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Peace Corps Way: The Best Countervailing Force in the World

The Peace Corps way: It’s the best countervailing force in a turbulent world, especially now in the Middle East and in Muslim countries across continents. 

What is the Peace Corps way?  This is what I remember, after two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine (2009-11).

You arrive a stranger, a total stranger, and you integrate slowly into the community you are serving.  You get to know it, learn the language (as best you can) and how to communicate;  relish the geography, the landscapes, the buildings and architecture, the neighborhoods, the parks, the rivers, nature. 

You get to know the people, one by one, day by day, starting with your host families or your working partners, your counterparts.  You meet at crowded offices in old buildings, at their homes, at restaurants, at  nine-story apartment complexes with elevators that don’t work, at shops, markets, schools, cultural, social and government centers. 

You have many cups of tea.  You listen, and listen some more.  You find out what people are thinking, what the community needs, what the key issues are.  People introduce you to their friends and your circle keeps expanding. 

You learn how to get from here to there, read the signs, walk and bike everywhere, and make many stops along the way, many stops on the street to chat.  You take your time.  You learn patience. 

You wait in line at the post office for a stamp, long lines, long waits, slow tellers, and you never complain. You smile and learn.  You never refuse an invitation, to tea, to dinner, to a social event, to your NGOs functions.  You share meals, laughter, and sorrow.  You allow yourself to be taken here and there and everywhere, even when you don’t understand what it’s about; you go and learn.  If you are in the dark most of the time, it’s okay.  You go with the flow, take life as it comes. 

You come to admire the strength of the people, to understand their traditions, their struggles, their hopes and dreams.  You do all you can to help the people achieve them.  You get translators, write grants, give talks, lead seminars, get computers, connect people and organizations, build new networks for the future. You mirror the can-do spirit of America, without making judgments, open to all ideas, all points of view. You model tolerance and acceptance.

You become a fixture in your community, even among people you do not know. For example, in the little village of Starobelsk, in far-eatern Lugansk oblast near the Russian border, I was “the Amerikanka.”  That Amerikanka is everywhere.  I saw the Amerikanka today.  She was at the post office.  She was at the market.  I saw her at the university.  She has an English Club at the Library.  She came to my store. She bought soda, not good for you. She looks thin.  She fell off her bike and broke her arm. 

Boy, everyone knew where I was and what I was doing! I got used to it.  I understood. I went from being only a curiosity, to being a member of the community.  It was hard to leave, hard to say goodbye.  

“Americans are not so bad afterall,” a librarian who had been cautious at first confided in me as I was leaving.   I will always remember, I said.  Я всегда буду помнить.

This is the way Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens served the country of Libya and wherever he was stationed in the Arab world.  The Peace Corps Way. 

The people remember. The president of Libya called him friend. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about it, eulogized it.  The journalists are reporting it. Commentators are praising it.  Middle East experts acknowledge it. 

Chris Stevens was the best friend the Arab world could have.  He understood the frustrations and the dreams, he spoke the language, he admired the religions, the traditions and cultures; he liked nothing better than meeting people on the streets, sharing conversations and meals, sharing people's problems and their hopes for a better life, and helping however he could to bring peaceful change for the majority of people.  He was the people's ambassador.   

It’s the Peace Corps way.  I think it’s the only way, in the long run, in spite of the challenges. I think Chris Stevens would agree. The arc of history is towards justice, Martin Luther King said.  It’s the long view.  It was Stevens' view.  It’s the Peace Corps view.  It will triumph in time.

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