My colleague greeted me with a premonition: "tsudi otsneba mqonda" — “I had a bad dream.” His implication was clear: my time here would be cut short.
I was working in the Georgian Black Sea port city of Poti through the Peace Corps, consulting a civic development non-governmental organization and a TV station. We were meeting on a sunless Saturday afternoon to discuss a grant proposal for a collaborative advocacy project between the two organizations, but immediately on this premonition the clouds crept inside, brooding over our conversation.
I had been living in the Eurasian country of Georgia for close to a year. It is an amazing place with some unbelievable mountains, incredible cuisine and a culture of inspirational hospitality — Georgia is growing as a tourist destination, and for good reason: visiting still feels like stepping into a myth. After all, Jason and the Argonauts procured the Golden Fleece on the river which flows through Poti, nestled between ancient forts and a mountainous backdrop on which Prometheus was supposedly chained.
Peace Corps Georgia had, until a month ago, four University of Georgia alumni (the distinction between the two Georgias causes no end of confusion). Two were working with civil society organizations, and two were teaching English and conducting youth programs. The novel coronavirus seemed like a faraway problem; Georgia’s cases were few, and Foreign Policy even listed Georgia as one of five model responses to the pandemic. Within a matter of days, though, we went from living as if nothing was amiss to having our lives turned upside-down, leaving our work unfinished.
The entire experience of evacuation and all of the resulting uncertainty from COVID-19 has made it difficult to feel much of anything. My determination to return to the “other Georgia” to finish the advocacy work we’d begun is resolute, but I recognize this is largely a defense mechanism, clinging on to the life and work I was building in response to an increasingly uncertain world.
It is easy to turn that uncertainty into negativity, something which has occurred in the press surrounding the Peace Corps from a perspective piece in the Washington Post and, to a lesser extent, coverage from other outlets such as NBC. While the nature of Peace Corps service is tricky as we are “volunteers” who receive a stipend and benefits, this negativity is neither accurate nor productive.
Returned volunteers have not been left out to dry, let alone “fired,” as some would lead you to believe. Terms such as “angry,” “enraged” and “resentful” are being thrown around in interviews and conversation; this is deleterious rhetoric considering the Peace Corps has been and still is under threat of budget cuts (in addition to cutting Peace Corps funding, which represents less than 1% of Congress’ International Affairs budget, other programs and diplomacy are being slashed).
During these times of populistic isolationism, it is critical to remember why the Peace Corps and its values of friendship and mutual understanding are more vital than ever. I count myself blessed beyond belief to have had the opportunity to work within and strive to understand a place and people that has taught me to always remember that my perceptions are never reality and that the human experience is fundamentally alike once you dig past environmental influences. This understanding changes the focus of your life; you cannot ignore others’ problems if you see yourself in them.
Today, bad dreams such as my colleague’s may come true, but we still have the capability to define what this means for our future. Not only for the more than 7,000 newly-returned Peace Corps volunteers, but for all communities. We must recognize this while coming to grips with our feelings and expressing our grief healthily. Most importantly, this must be done without the vitriol and blame expressed in the media and in conversation that has plagued and divided our country.
We must remember to give thanks and strive to help each other, however we can, in a spirit of respect and compassion. This spirit is the essence of the Peace Corps, and it is so desperately needed in today’s environment of distrust and anger. Regardless of whether you have any connection to the Peace Corps – now, perhaps more than ever, it is critical to maintain the pursuit of mutual understanding that Peace Corps fosters across the world.