Evacuated from poorest corners, Peace Corps volunteers return to America remade by pandemic
By TODD J. GILLMAN | The Dallas Morning News | Published: March 25, 2020
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A week ago, Zane Cawthon was living in a leaky hut in Eswatini, a small African kingdom where he’d been teaching high school students. Now he’s spending a two-week quarantine in a friend’s unfurnished apartment in downtown Dallas, hoping the landlord doesn’t kick him out.
His dad fetched him from the airport but they never touched, and dad headed straight to the carwash.
“I have returned home to an America I don’t recognize,” Cawthon said. “No hugs from Mom for two weeks. No job hunt. No grad school tours. No coffee dates. No church.”
Peace Corps Volunteers are known for being resourceful and resilient. None imagined a global evacuation that saw 7,400 volunteers dismissed simultaneously from service, and operations shuttered in 61 countries as borders and airports closed.
For generations, returning from the world’s neediest corners entailed reverse culture shock: potable water, reliable electricity, fully stocked grocery stores. But after stints teaching English, nutrition and crop techniques, volunteers could count on a joyous embrace from mom and dad.
Homecoming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is more often an anticlimax. Hugs are on hold until they’ve hunkered down for two weeks in a childhood bedroom or motel.
They face suspicious glances when people hear they’ve been overseas, even though the countries they’d served in had COVID-19 rates well below those in western hotspots like Italy.
Still, they wrestle with guilt at leaving behind impoverished friends in the midst of a crisis. Many worry that the Peace Corps will never resume its work. Languages they just mastered will go unused. Job benefits earned after a year of service won’t come through, and worse, the world economy is teetering and jobs are scarce.
Stints that should have lasted 27 months ended after six.
Cawthon’s mind keeps returning to a SiSwati word that means “you will grow.”
“It’s something Swazi parents tell their children when they make a mistake or if something bad happens,” Cawthon said. “Your boyfriend broke up with you? Utawukhula. That job application didn’t pan out? Utawukhula. I wish I could just `utawukhula’ this situation away.”
Cawthon, 25, grew up in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood and studied opera performance at the University of Tulsa. He was smitten with Peace Corps after meeting a recruiter sophomore year. He thought of it as “the adventure of a lifetime.”
Called Swaziland until two years ago, Eswatini is nestled between South Africa and Mozambique and has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection. His village was in a region of goat herds and sugar cane fields.
In what he called the scariest 30 seconds of his life, a venomous 2-foot long black mamba — among the world’s fastest snakes — surprised him on his front porch. He managed to kill it with a bare heel.
In coming months, Cawthon had hoped to start a boys club, help students apply to study abroad, work with residents with disabilities, provide condom demonstrations at a local clinic, and help his host mother pick up extra income selling peacock feathers to local crafters.
“It’s very hard not to feel hopeless and lost,” he said.
Lifelong goal `ripped away’
Since 1961, when President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, over 220,000 Americans have served in 141 countries.
These are idealistic, service-oriented adventurers. There’s a joke that when Peace Corps Volunteers are asked if a glass is half full or half empty, the response is: “I could take a bath in that.”
For Jason Michael Walker and fiancée Amber Grayson, Sunday would have marked six months in Senegal. Instead, they endured a long day of cancelled flights before arriving in Dallas from Washington, where they’d landed in the wee hours Saturday.
“We felt safer where we were,” Walker said, noting that Senegal had only three dozen COVID-19 cases by the time they left Friday. “It’s kind of like we’re going back here to the hornets’ nest.”
As volunteers trickle home from around the globe, Facebook pages are filling with photos of beaming parents holding signs like “Welcome home from Zambia!” There was no welcome committee for Walker and Grayson at D/FW. Baggage claim was nearly empty as the pair, in masks, gathered duffels and headed to a hotel shuttle.
Grayson, 42, graduated from the University of North Texas and grew up in Denton County. After 14 days of self-isolation, they’ll move in with her parents, not far from D/FW.
For now, each will get $38 a day for food from the Peace Corps.
They’re older than most volunteers.
Walker, 43, wanted to join straight out of Arizona State but got married instead. Once his son turned 20, the divorced dad gave up his job in insurance, sold his car and rented out his house for the two years he expected to be overseas.
“This was a lifetime goal that took me 25 years to get to, and it feels like it got ripped away,” he said. “I have basically two suitcases of clothes and no job and no car and no ability to get a job.”
The couple had been serving in a remote village of 300 called Kayere Hal, in a compound with a family of 30 — concrete with a corrugated tin roof, spotty electricity and running water, and sketchy cell service.
For three months they’d been making plans with village leaders and local farmers to build a fence around the school and plant a community garden.
The goodbyes were frustrating. They had learned enough Wolof to converse, but not enough to convey everything they wanted to say in the hurried final hours.
They worry about the villagers. Meals are eaten from communal bowls. People wait until they’re very ill to see a doctor.
An environmental science major, Walker hoped to leverage his agroforestry work in Senegal into a federal job in a couple of years. Alas, he didn’t serve long enough to qualify for preferential hiring.
The initial plan was to fly from Dakar on Sunday by commercial flight. But the president closed the airports. The U.S. embassy scrambled, chartering a plane from Ethiopian Airways that took nearly all of the volunteers to Dulles together.
“They had to send us home,” Walker said. “I just wish it didn’t have to happen.”
From Georgia to childhood bedroom
Rachael Rosenberg is back in her childhood bedroom in Denton after nearly two years in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
“I feel really lucky having a house I can go back to,” she said. “I know for some other volunteers that wasn’t an option.”
She was visiting friends in Armenia during a break from her post teaching English in Ninotsminda, a small town near the border, when the order came for volunteers to report to Tbilisi for quarantine. The evacuation order came a few days later.
She wasn’t allowed back to her site. A coworker who had stayed behind for spring break got into her apartment with 20 minutes to get out of town ahead of a snowstorm, enough time to pack one duffel and grab her emergency cash and US SIM card.
She had only three months to go, but big plans that included a training course on preventing child marriage, a spelling bee, and a more deliberate round of farewells, had to be canceled.
“I can be a little more Zen about not being able to do everything I planned, because it is what it is. But not being able to say goodbye — giving people notes, taking photos, having meals together to say goodbye — that is still really bothering me,” she said.
Rosenberg, 24, majored in international studies and Russian at American University. She started training in Georgia in April 2018 and had already been assigned a June 17 close of service date.
She was teaching at an Armenian-language public school. She also ran an English club and a summer camp, worked with a local youth center, and started a conference to promote dialogue between ethnic groups.
“It’s strange … having all this free time,” she said. “I’m a little bored.”
Left China healthy, exposed in US
Just as COVID-19 hit China first, so did the Peace Corps response.
Leora Kurtzer was teaching English at a university in Guiyang, a provincial capital 800 miles from Wuhan, where the coronavirus emerged.
She was on spring break in Taiwan in late January when China volunteers were ordered to Bangkok to await instructions. A friend grabbed Kurtzer’s passport from her apartment, along with a hard drive and some of her clothes.
“No one thought it was that serious at that point,” said Kurtzer, 26, a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas.
Peace Corps had already announced in mid-January that it would pull out of China in 2021, a move welcomed by conservatives in Congress who long bristled at the use of taxpayer funds to aid a bustling economic competitor. Coronavirus moved the timetable up to Feb. 6.
Kurtzer spent a few weeks in Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam before flying to Washington on March 4, six weeks since she’d been to China.
In DC, she had dinner with a cousin, only to learn days later that he’d been exposed to a friend who tested positive. By then, Kurtzer was in Dallas, staying with a friend in her 50s who reluctantly asked her to leave.
Now she’s with a friend in Edmond, outside Oklahoma City, laying low through the end of March and trying to avoid revealing to anyone else that she’d been in China, even two months ago.
“People back away,” she said. “It’s not the welcome home that you were expecting when you finished Peace Corps.”
Like other recent evacuees and former volunteers, she’s deeply worried about the future of the Peace Corps.
Training relies heavily on a handoff of experience and relationships between annual waves of volunteers in each country. The evacuation drained the agency’s budget. It won’t be cheap or easy to resume operations, even if Congress is willing.
“I’m scared that a bipartisan organization will now become something they can get rid of,” Kurtzer said. “Sometimes people in other countries have negative views of America, and Peace Corps allows relationships to form that can really dispel that negativity.”
To grandmother’s house
Like Cawthon, Bri Millet, 22, spent most of the last six months in Eswatini, a nation of 1.1 million people a bit smaller than New Jersey.
She’d been teaching HIV prevention at a high school in Mlindazwe, a rural community of 1,200 or so whose leader messaged after she’d left.
“He thought we would be sticking around to help them with the coronavirus. I had to apologize,” she said. “They expected Peace Corps to stay.”
But like other volunteers, Millet accepts that there was no good alternative, given how remote these sites are and how scant the health care.
“I can see where they are coming from,” she said.
Millet was a couple of hours from her village, training with other first-year volunteers, when the evacuation decision came down. They were driven back to their sites with little time to pack, and instructions to avoid contact outside their host families.
She left behind a dozen soccer balls and a bike. She saw a few kids and teachers who lived nearby. Hardly anyone has a phone.
“I probably will never contact them again,” Millet said. “That was the hard part for me, saying goodbye without actually saying goodbye.”
At Texas Woman’s University, she studied Afro-fusion dance. In Eswatini, even small events are an occasion for dancing. “If you’re new to the school, they will welcome you by dancing and singing and I just think that’s amazing,” she said.
There was no dancing when the group departed.
The volunteers boarded a bus at 4 a.m. Wednesday. They took a short flight to Johannesburg, a long one to Dubai — “I was so thankful that I made it on the flight,” Millet said — and an even longer one to Washington.
By the time she saw her brother and sister at D/FW, she’d been traveling for 42 hours.
They’re military brats. Dad is stationed in Italy, a COVID-19 hotspot. So she headed to Southlake to stay with grandparents. The snag: They’ve been unable to fly home from a cruise in South America.
A family friend took her in, along with siblings forced home from college during the outbreak.
“It’s a very nice couple with a lot of rooms,” a comfortable spot to self-quarantine and decompress, Millet said. “This was definitely a last minute life-changing turn of events.”