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Monday, December 24, 2012

Peace Corps Family

Making gravy
At a time of the year when it is often difficult for Peace Corps Volunteers to be away from their family, their friends, and their country, I wanted to talk briefly about the people and experiences that have come to form my de facto family here in Jordan.


As many of you know, in 2007 and 2008 I served as a Volunteer Program Director with Manna Project International in Ecuador (MPI-E).  Like Peace Corps Volunteers, MPI Volunteers are immersed in the local language and culture and engage in community development activities from a wide-range of sectors including education, agriculture, public health, and business development to name a few.  There are, however, two significant differences between Peace Corps and MPI which I believe bear explanation as they both result in profoundly different experiences for the volunteer.  I want it to make it very clear that I am absolutely not promoting one over the other as they are definite benefits and drawbacks to both; rather, I would just like to highlight some of the differences and their impact on the volunteer.


The first of these is that MPI Volunteers live and work together every day.  Although volunteers spend every day in the local community, speaking the local language, partnering with local community leaders, and learning about the local culture, at the end of the day volunteers come home together to a mini-America.  As I have come to realize lately, this home life of American volunteers is a vital support system for MPI Volunteers that does not exist for most Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide.

Living in Jordan is the first time in my life that I have lived alone.  One becomes especially aware of the isolation from family and friends when sitting alone in a cold and dark house at 12:11 AM on Christmas Eve.


PCV's giving thanks
The second difference is that MPI requires a 13-month commitment whereas Peace Corps requires a 27-month commitment.  As I have now been in Jordan for approximately 14 months, I cannot imagine leaving already.  While a year sometimes feels like a long time, when it comes to grass-roots community development it is but the blink of eye.  So much of international community development is (or at least should be) grounded in relationship building and community partnering.  I absolutely never would have been able to succeed in any project that I have attempted here in Jordan had it not been for my local community partners managing and running the programs and activities with me.  Likewise, I never would have been able successfully work with my local community partners had I not taken the time to intentionally build relationships with them.

Community development should be driven by the community, not by the outsider.  My goal in Jordan is not to impose my ideas as to what I believe is best, as much as I may want to at times, but rather to support my students, colleagues, partners, and friends to grow and develop themselves and their community, as well as make progress towards their goals, as they so desire.  From supporting one friend in applying for a Ph.D. program in Germany, to helping another friend with a Master's in tourism with his English so he can work as a bilingual tour-operator, to sharing teaching strategies and techniques with other English and non-English teachers, to providing opportunities for adolescent boys to understand and develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, my work is still very much in progress.  After taking the time to build relationships and learn as much as possible from the people I work with, I am absolutely not ready to abandon my work and my relationships with Jordanians.


On the other hand, 27 months with little to no personal contact with friends and family outside of Jordan is not an effective relationship-building strategy.  It may sound trite that it takes being alone at Christmas for me to tell you all that I miss you and your friendship and I regret how out of touch I have been, but it needs to be said.  Given how much effort I put into building new relationships, I have never been good at maintaining friendships from afar.  Nevertheless, I do truly value my friends and family throughout the world.


Thanksgiving dinner
I am not, fortunately, isolated and alone.  As I described above, I have many strong and rewarding relationships with Jordanians in my community, but furthermore I am lucky enough to have a strong family of other Peace Corps Volunteers here in Jordan.  While my friends are spread out throughout the Kingdom, Jordan really is not all that large as there are 38 states in the United States with a greater area than Jordan and 14 states with a population greater than Jordan, so it is relatively easy for us to meet up once a month or so in the northern cities of Amman, Irbid, and Mafraq or in the southern tourist destinations of Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba.

One such event is the annual Peace Corps Christmas Party at the US Embassy.  Peace Corps and Embassy staff go all out to provide us an amazing Christmas dinner and desert.  While we haven't yet had this year's Christmas party, I have fond memories of food, friendship, and family from last year's event.

Also this year, two separate groups of volunteers put on pot-luck Thanksgiving dinners on consecutive days. While these two Thanksgivings were four governorates apart, I managed to attend both.  Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  In fact, due to my 27-month commitment , I will actually end up spending three consecutive Thanksgivings in Jordan.  I even told my evening adult conversation classes that the one thing that makes me the saddest about living in Jordan is the fact that I have to spend three Thanksgivings in a row away from my family.  Nevertheless, Thanksgiving this year was absolutely the best I could ask for in Jordan.  Not only did everyone contribute an incredible amount of wonderfully tasting entrees, appetizers, side dishes, and desserts, but we were together as a Peace Corps Volunteer family.

Jordan at times can be quite the difficult place for an American to live, but I owe a lot of my success and happiness in Jordan to the support and friendships offered by the other Peace Corps Volunteers here in Jordan.


On the topic of other Peace Corps Volunteers, the J14's have for the most part left Jordan (sad!) and the J16's trainees are coming close to finishing their training and being sworn-in as Volunteers (exciting!).  I was lucky enough to lead a session on teaching English to the trainees a couple weeks ago and I must say that I was very impressed by the new group.  They are a quite talented and diverse group and it will be fun to see what they accomplish in their two years as Volunteers.  I wish them the best of luck.


Happy Holidays!

2 comments:

  1. Excellent post! Good thoughts that help me wrap my mind around being somewhere in the Peace Corps for 27 months! I am here in Eugene, OR, waiting for placement right now.

    Happy Holidays!

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