I am serving my country abroad, and my country is America. I can’t quite believe it myself. The words conjure pictures of soldiers, brave and resolute in uniform, or Ambassadors, smooth and sophisticated. I am neither of these, and I am a novice American. I was born in Ireland, a British citizen from Belfast. I moved to the U.S, to Maryland, and to Shady Side in the early 2000s. I was working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) then. I was lucky enough to get a green card not long after 9/11. That sufficed for a while, but, as I became more committed to the American way of life—and American founding principles—I took advantage of my option to become a fully-fledged citizen. Adopted as one of America’s own, I felt I owed a debt of service.
A young man I worked with had just returned from two years with the Peace Corps in Kenya. Chris is something of a role model for me—resilient, focused, calm and creative in solving everyday problems. He mentioned that Peace Corps was actively seeking older volunteers, and said I should give it a go. The idea coursed through me like a quicksilver snake. I was bored at work. My children had left home and didn’t need me anymore. I was ready for travel and adventure.
People scoffed of course: I am not at all outdoorsy, I like a sedentary life, and am famed for my love of good food, mixed drinks, beautiful shoes and opulent interior design. “Put it like this” my sister said “I don’t see you digging a latrine”. I didn’t see this either, and I worried about my weight, the arthritis in my knees, and my general lack of pioneer skills. It seemed Peace Corps would hardly consider me a prize specimen.
I applied for Thailand at first. I had spent time there with a friend who was volunteering, which gave me something to write about on my application form. And then there were the beaches, the cocktails, the fabrics…
My recruiter swiftly identified that Thailand was not for me “You can’t ride a bike over rough ground and you don’t feel comfortable with a squat toilet for two years” she said briskly. There was no mention of beach bars or street markets at all….
The recruiter phoned again. “The Country Director in Armenia is interested in your resume” she said “would you consider serving there?”
“Oh yes” I said “that would be great. Perfect for me”. And then I looked up Armenia on Google maps.
It turns out that Armenia is in the Caucasus, just north of Iran and sandwiched uncomfortably between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It is a former Soviet State. An early adopter of Christianity. A beautiful, rocky, mountainous place with its own curvy alphabet, troubled history, and hospitable people. I have now lived here for one year, and have another one to go. I am happy here, and glad I came.
Like my native Ireland, Armenia has more of its people spread all over the world than it does at home. People forced to flee the genocide one hundred years ago have been followed since by hundreds of thousands seeking work. We export math geniuses, physicists, computer whizzes, chess players and a host of self-taught tilers, builders and decorators. After the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, Armenia became an independent state. Those were dark days—literally. There was electricity for maybe an hour a day, the water supply was inconstant, and food was very scarce. Houses half-built were suddenly abandoned. Factories closed.
Things are much better now, thanks to the imagination and effort of those who have persevered here. As in Ireland, the population is well-educated and there are signs that the innovators of Silicon Stone Quarry will rival California’s sunny valley. There still an over-dependence on foreign-aid but volunteers like those of us in Peace Corps are helping organizations large and small to become more self-reliant, business-like and entrepreneurial. Beyond that, our mission is to promote peace and friendship in this volatile part of the world.
My own day-to-day work? Well, this week I used a pack of playing card illustrated with pictures of Ireland to prompt some village teenagers to talk in English about landscape and weather. I wrote a grant to try to win funding for a summer school. I ran a creative writing contest. I made a video to encourage people to come and spend money at a fair my host organization is running. No digging is involved. For fun, I work with middle and high school English-language students who are taking part in a recitation contest. This year’s theme is What Makes Us Human and the students are learning poems by Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Mary Oliver, among others. It does my heart good to hear them. It does my health good to eat the homegrown fruits and vegetables prepared by my friends. The exercise afforded by the hills helps my poor old knees. I will not be the first U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer to feel that I am well served by serving America here in Armenia.
To learn more about Peace Corps go to https://www.peacecorps.gov/apply/.