Advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer rights in the Peace Corps community see more
Gay and lesbian RPCVs and staff joined together during Peace Corps’ 30th anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C. in 1991 to advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights in the Peace Corps community and around the world. What we knew but many others did not realize was that when John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961 as a federal agency it explicitly barred people with “homosexual tendencies” from service in a federal agency.
That’s a far stretch from where the agency is now, placing same-sex couples and transgender Volunteers in service in many countries. The change is due to the work of a great many folks. The road from then to now has surely been bumpy and there is more work ahead.
Last year Peace Corps Volunteer and classroom teacher Romany Tin was separated from service in Cambodia after he seroconverted to an HIV-positive diagnosis. When Peace Corps announced that decision, it went viral and garnered attention on BuzzFeed, Them, and Poz. We elevated Tin’s story on our social media and our email listserv. Our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer community was concerned for obvious reasons. To our members, it was déjà vu because a decade ago we successfully argued that same issue in the case of Jeremiah Johnson and we had won.
People living with HIV can and do serve successfully in Peace Corps. Like all medical considerations, there are many individual and personal circumstances to factor in. In Tin’s case, the agency wasn’t aware of the preceding policy because Peace Corps staff usually serve under a five-year term limitation. Like many long-established RPCV groups ours can and sometimes does help Peace Corps maintain some of its institutional memory, especially when advocating for change at the individual or community level.
We communicated to Peace Corps staff about these earlier Peace Corps policies that could have prevented that decision from being made in the first place. Under similar circumstances, Jeremiah Johnson (Ukraine 07-08) was separated from service in 2008. With support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Peace Corps legal counsel decided to accommodate HIV-positive Volunteers under existing federal law. In the Tin case, Johnson, who later became HIV project director for New York Treatment Action Group, circulated a demand for clarification of the agency’s current policy on HIV-positive Volunteers and their de facto separations. Johnson’s demand ended up on the desk of Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen.
His letter led to a 2018 face-to-face meeting between he and Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen. Four days after the meeting Olsen released a response to Johnson’s letter that, among many things, reported the following: 18 countries are medically cleared to support HIV-positive Volunteers, how selections are made, and how Volunteers can access a pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV.
Our memberships remains vigilant to ensure that discriminatory practices aren’t influencing decisions on a person’s ability or desire to serve in Peace Corps. We remind all PCVs and applicants that they can report any alleged discrimination to Peace Corps’ Office of Civil Rights and Diversity which investigates complaints regarding staff and Volunteers, trainees and applicants. We have not learned, however, if Romany Tin’s case has been resolved.
How We Operate
Like many other NPCA affiliates, LGBT RPCV has evolved with the times. Our steering committee and members are all over the world and most of our operations are carried on digitally. Depending on what criteria you measure—you can register with NPCA, follow us on Twitter, or join our Facebook group, for example—we have about 500 members. And our reach truly is global. In 2018, our website received over 77,000 views from 83 countries.
We include “RPCV” in our name but we’re equally interested in the PCVs and in recruiting them. I would argue that the crux of our work is about motivating and inspiring the next generation of LGBTQ Volunteers for Peace Corps service and to support those who are in the field. We collect stories from RPCVs and staff about their experiences in various countries. These serve as great references for people considering the realities of joining Peace Corps and the impact and influence their sexual orientation or gender identity might have on that decision.
We collaborate with Peace Corps recruiters to publicize and attend Pride events across the country and we collect safe zone/ally trainings from Volunteers in the field. Over the years, we’ve maintained a good working relationship with Peace Corps staff. Those ties make our advocacy easier and more effective and we have assured them we are listening.
There are still Peace Corps host countries whose governments have laws that discriminate in areas of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. However, Peace Corps’ current application process allows applicants to choose where they want to serve and that has shifted our mentorship and resources to other issues. Applying for a specific country and project gives a prospective Volunteer the ability to investigate their country of service to assure a good fit, which has refined our group’s role in mentoring applicants.
Nine years ago when I was invited to serve in Paraguay as an environmental educator I had only two months to search the internet for everything I could learn about the country. Now there is a global LGBTQ chat group that can lead applicants to several Facebook groups for many of those countries where PCVs serve. Applicants can connect directly with an LGBTQ Volunteer in service and lead to valuable friendships and create a community before getting on the plane.
It Takes More Than Pride
It may be chic to be an ally and hang rainbow flags during the June Pride celebrations, but there are definitely struggles to being an LGBTQ Peace Corps Volunteer. For starters, there are dozens of countries where Volunteers serve that criminalize homosexuality. In others without formal legislation, conservative socio-cultural tradition make our service difficult.
For example, in my case Paraguay had no official laws against homosexuality, but it certainly was not a safe place to be out. No volunteers I knew could be open about their sexual orientation in their community and expect to be able to work. In fact, a handful of Volunteers had to change sites when someone in their communities either discovered or suspected that they were LGBTQ and requested that Peace Corps remove them. For some of the same reasons, there are only a limited number of countries where same-sex couples can be placed. There is no official list but Peace Corps recruitment staff does work with interested couples to identify which countries will meet their skill set and be open to their placement.
We collaborate and advocate with many partners: In addition to the Peace Corps community, we worked with It Gets Better (IGB) on a video titled “Queer and Abroad” where RPCVs shared their stories about life beyond our borders and their LGBTQ identities. IGB’s story-telling mission uplifts, empowers, and connects LGBTQ youth around the world and the videos resonate with the work we do and the change we hope to see.
In the Third Goal spirit, we contributed a story about Ethiopia to Griots Republic Magazine, an urban Black travel brand that is interested in the range of countries and experiences that our site has collected over the years. We have also partnered with AsylumConnect, a nonprofit that hosts the first website and mobile app and features an online, centralized database of service providers for LGBTQ asylum seekers in the United States.
We are always looking for collaborators and conspirators. Primarily we encourage RPCVs to contribute stories to our website, formally join us through the NPCA (it’s free!), and engage with us on our Facebook group and Twitter account. We also encourage our members to make sure their contact information is up-to-date with Peace Corps, specifically their Speakers Match program, where people can identify that they are interested in helping with recruitment activities and speaking about their LGBTQ identity. We have come a long way since our founding 28 years ago and we look forward to seeing where the future takes us.
Manuel Colón served in Areguá, Paraguay as an environmental education teacher from 2010 to 2012 and is national coordinator for the LGBT RPCV Association. He received Peace Corps’ 2014 Franklin H. Williams award for his dedication to the Third Goal.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Fall 2019 issue.
National Service includes programs such as Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and YouthBuild. see more
The bipartisan, 11-member National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service was created by Congress to find ways to increase participation in military, national, and public service and to review the military selective service process. Our goal is to ignite a national conversation about the importance of service as we develop recommendations for the Congress and the President by March 2020.
I am honored to serve as vice chair for national and public service and was privileged to deliver opening remarks during two national service hearings held by the Commission in March 2019. From my years as Peace Corps director, I know RPCVs will have a strong interest in our work and I appreciate this opportunity to update the community on our efforts.
From February to June of this year, the commission held 14 public hearings and released eight staff memoranda on various topics related to our mission. In March, the commission held two hearings on national service and released a staff memorandum summarizing research and outlining potential policy options the commission is considering on increasing Americans’ propensity to participate in national service.
National service is defined in the commission’s mandate as “civilian participation in any non-governmental capacity, including with private for-profit organizations and non-profit organizations (including with appropriate faith-based organizations), that pursues and enhances the common good and meets the needs of communities, the states, or the nation in sectors related to security, health, care for the elderly, and other areas considered appropriate by the Commission.”
National Service includes programs such as Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, and YouthBuild. The Commission is also considering ways to include faith-based, non-profit, and private-sector organizations in creating and promoting national service opportunities.
As the vice chair for national and public service, former Peace Corps director, and a former college president, our hearings on national service were close to my heart, especially as we hosted them at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. President George H.W. Bush lived his life in service to others and as a leader who believed service could unite Americans. He served as a champion of national service, and it was an honor for the commission to host both hearings at the school that honors his legacy. And I note with pride, that Texas is fourth in the list of top Peace Corps volunteer-producing states with 350 individuals serving in the Peace Corps in 2018.
Reducing Barriers to Service
A study commissioned by Service Year Alliance in 2015 demonstrated that fewer than one third of 14 to 24-year-olds are aware of service year options. The Commission wants to assure access to these opportunities for all Americans. To do this, the Commission is interested in minimizing barriers to serve, such as stipends and benefits. Improving access to national service will ensure that the diversity of national service volunteers reflects that of the nation.
When the Peace Corps was established in 1961, it was an innovative and bold idea. Today, more than 230,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers demonstrate the enduring strength of that idea. Peace Corps Volunteers have represented the United States in 141 countries and have left behind a legacy of peace and friendship.
At our hearing, Michelle Brooks, Peace Corps chief of staff, testified and argued that federal government investment in programs such as Peace Corps and the various programs of the Corporation for National and Community Service ultimately results in the development of passionate and informed global citizens. Each Peace Corps Volunteer returns to the United States with a proven track record of working in a cross-cultural setting and appreciating and respecting the richness of working across differences.
Brooks also shared recommendations the agency would like the commission to consider. Two of those suggestions were: extending Noncompetitive Eligibility status to three years for RPCVs, bringing it in line with most other authorities granting that status; and an NCE Service Registry, an idea Peace Corps is piloting with two federal agencies.
Ms. Brook’s full testimony can be found on the Commission’s website at www.inspire2serve.gov. Do you have additional recommendations to those provided by the Peace Corps during our March hearings on national service?
Join the Discussion
I invite you to join us in this important conversation. Our hope is to spark a movement: every American—especially young Americans—inspired and eager to serve. Talk to your friends, family members, neighbors, colleagues and fellow returned Volunteers about the commission, your service experience, and how we can create more national service opportunities for Americans. We want to hear from all of you!
Share your ideas with the commission through our website on any aspect of the commission’s mission. For example, how can we create more national service opportunities for Americans, and how can we improve the current national service policies and processes?
Stay up to date on the commission’s activities and download the Interim Report at www.inspire2serve.gov. Our final report will be released in March 2020 with recommendations for the national service community—and that includes Peace Corps. Stay tuned! We also invite you to follow the commission on Facebook and Twitter via @Inspire2ServeUS and join the digital conversation on service by using the hashtag #Inspire2Serve. 1
Mark Gearan currently serves as the vice chair for National and Public Service for the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. He is director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School and served as the 14th director of the Peace Corps from 1995 to 1999.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Fall 2019 issue.
There is no better time than now to bring the world home see more
I believe the Peace Corps community is at a historic turning point. At a time when achieving the Third Goal is more important than ever, big things are about to happen that will elevate our primary goal of greater cross-cultural understanding and raise high the banner of the Peace Corps.
It all starts on September 22 as we host a celebration of the opening — most appropriately — of a major expansion of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in their new REACH living theater. The day’s events include the premiere of “A Towering Task — The Story of the Peace Corps,” as well as interactive Peace Corps exhibits and presentations in venues throughout the complex.
This is the beginning of two years in which we will publicly celebrate the power of Peace Corps and its mission of service around the world. NPCA and In the Cause of Peace, the producers of “A Towering Task,” will take the documentary film on the road for 1,000 screenings at film fests and community events co-hosted by our local affiliate groups across the country. It’s your opportunity to bring friends from outside the Peace Corps community to share the Peace Corps experience and to prove why Peace Corps is even more relevant today.
Next February the NPCA and its affiliate groups will move into Peace Corps Place, a gathering place and resource center for the entire Peace Corps community. Our new three-story home will include WorldView Café, a sampling of the new Museum of the Peace Corps Experience and room for meetings and programs that will bring the world home to nearby schools, Capitol Hill, and our new Truxton Circle neighborhood.
We also hope for final approval by U.S. Commission of Fine Arts of the long-awaited Peace Corps Commemorative, a Peace Corps Park being proposed by our RPCV friends from the Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation. We look forward to a 2021 groundbreaking on a prime spot just one block from the Capitol and the National Mall. The commemorative symbolizes America’s embrace of the world in the name of global peace and prosperity and an homage to the American ethos that motivated the creation of the Peace Corps.
These public events will culminate in a year-long celebration of Peace Corps’ 60th anniversary in 2021. In September of that year, and on the eve of our national elections, Peace Corps Connect will come to our nation’s capital for what is anticipated to be the largest gathering ever of the Peace Corps community. This is an event that can impact the future of the Peace Corps.
I look forward to seeing many of you at these events as we lift high the banner of the Peace Corps.
There is no better time than now to bring the world home to your nation’s capital.
NPCA President and Chief Executive Officer
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Fall 2019 issue.
NPCA asks Gloria Levin why she gives time, talent, and treasure to the Peace Corps community see more
NPCA asks Gloria Levin why she gives time, talent, and treasure to the Peace Corps community
While serving as a Peace Corps selection officer at headquarters from 1965 to 1966, Gloria Levin was inspired by returning Peace Corps Volunteers, especially B.J. Warren, who had served in Peru. Gloria served in Peace Corps as a community development volunteer in a squatter settlement in Arequipa, Peru from 1966 to 1968. After several years organizing in U.S. communities, she earned a University of Michigan Ph.D. in community psychology in 1975. She spent the rest of her career at the National Institutes of Health as a research administrator and policy planner until her retirement in 2002.
“I often wonder what my life would have been had I chosen to work overseas, like many RPCVs,” she says. “But NPCA affords me opportunities to stay connected with and contribute to international development.”
How did you become active in returned Peace Corps activities?
Peace Corps is a significant self-identification and focus for my energies. I have been an active member of RPCV/Washington, NPCA, and its predecessor organization for decades. When I retired, I became and remain president of the NPCA affiliate, Amigos de Bolivia y Peru.
I am proud of being an RPCV. I tell people that I’m an RPCV, often wear PC t-shirts, and have a Peace Corps magnet on my car bumper. My payback to Peace Corps is to provide my “time, talent and treasure” to the Peace Corps family.
What is your history of financial contributions to NPCA?
Because I was an outspoken critic of NPCA for many years, complaining about its insularity and relegation of the RPCV community to marginal roles, I made only modest financial contributions to the organization. That changed five years ago when I met NPCA’s newly-hired CEO, Glenn Blumhorst, whom I found to be refreshingly but realistically visionary, socially skilled, and candid. At that time I was reviewing my charitable and political contributions, deciding to substantially increase them while I’m still alive. At first, I tapped into two mutual funds that had substantially grown over decades of accrual and would subject me to capital gains taxes if sold for income. I transferred partial withdrawals from these two funds to my donor-advised charitable fund and designated NPCA as a recipient, starting at $1,000 a year. That donation level qualified me for enrollment in the Shriver Circle. Several other members sent me personal notes of welcome. I receive advance notice of NPCA’s plans, my advice is sought, and I am invited to informative briefings. I am delighted to see the recent increase in Shriver Circle memberships.
Why did you increase your financial support beyond $1,000?
I upped my annual contributions to $2,500 when NPCA made a radical change in direction from the traditional paid-membership model to a community- and mission-oriented model. Frankly, I was fearful that making membership free would hobble NPCA financially and would lead to its demise. My increased donation was motivated by acute anxiety. Also, six months after I turned 70, my IRA account began to be drawn down by the Required Minimum Distribution. Instead of taking my RMD as taxable income—and possibly raising my tax bracket—I designate much of my RMD for nontaxable donations, including to NPCA. That’s because under the so-called tax reform law and the RMD, I’m better off claiming the standard deduction rather than itemizing deductions, including charitable contributions.
Also, concerned about the future sustainability of NPCA, I was motivated to join the Legacy of Peace Fund by Tim Resch, a truly devoted RPCV activist. I designated NPCA and four other international nonprofits as beneficiaries of my IRA account after my death. Not only does this build an endowment for NPCA, but it also has favorable tax implications for me. I informed Glenn of the details concerning the then-current balance of my IRA account and contact information for my financial planner.
What are your observations of the new NPCA model?
My community-organizer heart is thrilled with the success of NPCA’s community model. I greatly underestimated the Peace Corps community; the new model has unleashed incredible energy and creativity, while at the same time stabilizing NPCA’s treasury after years soaked in red ink.
I have never understood why the community-based strategy has worked so well, but I give full credit to Glenn and the NPCA staff and board members for having nerves of steel.
I have first-hand experience with NPCA’s new dynamism. I serve on NPCA’s Community Fund advisory committee. We established procedures for reviewing applications for and tracking of grants and have approved funding of interesting, diverse projects, all paid for by the generosity of our community. I am also participating in a new NPCA direction that would provide transition services to returning PCVs. I long mentored RPCVs in job searches through PC/Washington’s Career Center and NPCA’s affiliate group matches as well as RPCV/Washington’s mentoring program. The first two are no longer active, so NPCA will be stepping forward to meet the obvious need.
What advice do you have for other RPCVs in relating to Peace Corps?
I have worked with training groups from my era to find inactive, missing RPCVs and assisted them in organizing reunions. In my conversations with “long-missing” RPCVs, I’ve been impressed with the extent to which their lives have been impacted by Peace Corps, even when they, themselves, do not acknowledge this. My own life, starting out as an unwoke and untraveled young woman, has been positively impacted by Peace Corps. We all owe the Peace Corps enterprise a portion of our time, talent or treasure.
NPCA will soon be facing very large expenses so now is the time to dig down deep.
To consult about making your financial commitment to the growth of NPCA programs and services, contact NPCA president at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NPCA asked Haskell Ward why he supports his greater Peace Corps Community: "Amazing Impact" see more
NPCA asked Haskell Ward why he supports his greater Peace Corps Community. His response: "Amazing Impact."
Haskell Ward’s international career began with Crossroads Africa in Kenya which led to his Peace Corps service in Nazareth, Ethiopia. He built his international career developing African and Middle Eastern economic development strategies for the Ford Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria. He served as New York City’s deputy mayor during the Ed Koch administration and as deputy assistant secretary for Africa under Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in the Carter administration. Ward later worked on Africa energy and mining issues for Global Alumina and spent four years negotiating submarine broadband high-speed internet services for Seacom Corporation in Mumbai, India and among governments on Africa’s east coast from Cape Town to Cairo. His last professional position was as senior vice president at Black Rhino Group, a company that specializes in investment in African infrastructure.
How was your Peace Corps experience in Ethiopia?
It was not very different from what it was like for me as a poor African American boy growing up in Griffin, Georgia. The level of poverty I experienced in Ethiopia and the living conditions people were facing in Ethiopia were like my growing up in my small southern town. I was intrigued by the cultural patterns but even back then the basic norms of behavior in Ethiopia didn’t shock me as much as it might have shocked other volunteers.
What were the challenges you faced?
My two-year Peace Corps teaching experience in Ethiopia was one of the most important experiences of my life. Having grown up as a poor African American in the American South made me more comfortable with the poverty and underdeveloped conditions I encountered in Ethiopia. On the other hand, it was difficult for Ethiopians to understand that I was an African American because they had met very few African Americans in their villages in 1963. They were curious but welcoming at the same time. The fact that I spoke more than rudimentary Amharic often led to confusing experiences such as when going through security checkpoints. The police never believed that I was not Ethiopian. I found this to be the case in other African countries as well in the early 60s. This was never an issue for white volunteers.
What were your fondest memories during those years?
The richness and diversity of the Ethiopian people and culture remain my most prized memories of my Peace Corps years. The food, the music, the beauty of the country and people made for lasting attractions and endowments in my life. As a volunteer, I made a conscious decision to spend as much time as possible with Ethiopians, especially in their homes, and because of this I developed lasting relationships with them which I cherish to this day. I ate in Ethiopian homes as much as I ate in my own home. I found this cultural affinity and acceptance to be a very valuable learning experience both in Nazareth and in other places around the country. I attribute some of the openness toward me with the fact that I didn’t think I was superior to Ethiopians because I was an American.
What about your life in Nazareth?
It was a dusty no-paved-street little railroad town outside of Addis on the rail line to Djibouti in an Oromo area where the new prime minister is from. They now call it Adama. There was sunshine there 365 days of the year and it was a very dry, hot town. I made phone calls the same way I did in Griffin. You rang the little knob on the side of the phone and you got central EthiTelecom downtown. They asked what number you were calling, 23 or 24, and they would connect you.
Do you keep in touch with Ethiopians?
Oh, yes. Ethiopians remain some of my closest friends. After the Peace Corps I went to graduate school at UCLA and Ethiopians were my roommates. By and large some of my strongest relationships have been with Ethiopians. Since then I have been to Ethiopia 25 or 30 times in different capacities. Over three or four years I was the lead negotiator for a company called SeaCom to install broadband high-speed internet capacity with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Telecommunications. The internet cable started in Mumbai, India then went undersea to South Africa and up the East Coast to Egypt.
How about friends from your Peace Corps service?
To this day they are some of my closest friends. Our Ethiopia and Eritrea RPCVs have had reunions every two years for about 40 years. I organized a flight back to Ethiopia for over 100 of us in 1995. We are people who stay in touch on almost a daily basis on the internet, through our country of service affiliate or through our Facebook group.
Do you think we’re living up to our Third Goal promise?
In my career working at the State Department, the Ford Foundation and in private enterprise on African development, I find that the greatest contribution America has made in international relations is through the impact Peace Corps volunteers have had in our universities and in foreign policy circles. Even though the agency couldn’t ratchet up to a million volunteers as we once hoped, we have had an amazing impact both in this country and around the world.
Why do you give to the NPCA?
Given its size and limited resources, NPCA is doing an incredible job. They are doing things that reflect a lot of the brilliance of the outcome of the Peace Corps experience. From my perspective the real under-appreciated asset the NPCA has is Glenn Blumhorst as chief executive officer. He has made an enormous difference. My confidence and respect for Glenn and the staff he has assembled is one of the main reasons I give money to NPCA. If more of us provided this organization with greater financial resources, NPCA could do much more in my lifetime to create a more equitable world.
Poverty, population, drought, and persistent repression see more
The influx of undocumented immigrants into the United States last year reached a 10-year high of more than 115,000 and has already passed that figure this year, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Since the recession, Guatemalans represent the second-largest group of undocumented Latino immigrants after El Salvador, according to the Pew Research Center. No longer is the majority of these immigrants young males seeking work, but families and children, many of whom are seeking asylum.
So what is pushing these people away from their homes? What impact do our government’s policies and those of the Guatemalan government have on the process? And what lessons have we learned so that we, as citizens, and our government can deal with the situation?
The deplorable conditions of rural Guatemala have existed for hundreds of years. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the western highlands in the 1970s, I received a jarring introduction to these conditions while hiking down the side of a mountain to one of my experimental agricultural plots. I passed by a small cemetery in the village of Calapte with a great many small graves.
One evening, the entire community was dancing and drinking, so I asked one of the teachers why.
“The villagers are celebrating the deaths of the angelitos,” he said, children who died before their first birthday. “They go directly to heaven because they haven’t committed any sins, so this is a happy time for us.”
I remember thinking, “but why so many?”
Over the years, I’ve returned to the highlands with many international non-governmental organizations, only to find many of the same conditions and a deepened despair, especially in the departments where the majority of immigrants come from: Quiche, San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Totonicapan and Jutiapa.
I volunteered recently at a shelter church in downtown Phoenix and chatted with two Guatemalan immigrants, Hector and Felix, who had brought their wives and several children from the Guatemalan highlands. Both were small-holder farmers forced to leave their land due to a protracted drought in the annual dry season or canicula. This one lasted longer than usual, killing most of their crops, their basic source of food. Despite the risks, they believed the difficult move from Guatemala to the United States was worth it, compared to the seemingly hopeless situation they faced back home.
According to a recent New Yorker article on Guatemalan immigrants by Jonathan Blitzer, over 65 percent of the children suffer from malnutrition exacerbated by the drought, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the Western Hemisphere. The communities Hector and Felix come from are part of the expanding swath of Central America known as the dry corridor. It begins in Panama and snakes northwest through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and parts of southern Mexico. As one Guatemalan climate scientist at the Universidad del Valle said, “Extreme poverty may be the primary reason people leave… but climate change is intensifying all the existing factors.” This phenomenon is underscored in a series of articles in the Guatemalan daily, La Prensa Libre, which reports that farmers just don’t know when to even plant crops to avoid these dry periods. The possible result is total loss of their harvests.
Felix told me his family left their home because he had to mortgage the land on which the family grew its food. “I’ll pay it off with the money I earn here.”
Life in Quiche
The Guatemalan government does work, but only for the two percent of the population who own 84 percent of the land, according to “The Agrarian Question in Guatemala” published by the nonprofit Food First in Berkeley. Most Guatemalans, especially the Mayan population in the western highlands, are relegated to small, unproductive plots of land that force them to work for extended periods on large plantations on the South Coast or to look for jobs in the capital. This exploitation goes back to Spanish colonial rule when some Mayan communities were forced to supply a “reparto,” sending a third of their male residents to labor in nine-month shifts on Spanish-owned plantations. This system of forced labor was supported by post-independence Guatemalan regimes throughout the 19th century.
I saw these conditions first-hand when visiting a coastal coffee plantation, where I recognized that the traditional garb of the worker families was the same worn by indigenous villagers working in the highlands. Conditions on the plantations are harsh and the pay low. In many plantations, these families will live for several months in lean-tos with limited, if any, sanitation.
Eventually these egregious inequities, combined with a population explosion starting in the 1950s, resulted in a period of violence lasting from 1960 to 1996, costing the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly from the Mayan population in the highlands. I led a Food for the Hungry donor tour to the Department of Quiche in 1995 and came across some pictures drawn by children in Chajul depicting planes dropping bombs and napalm on their homes.
I remember one visit with a small farmer whose child was being sponsored by a donor and when we entered their home, the first thing one of the donors asked was, “Where are the windows?” Many of the homes we visited still had dirt floors, thatched roofs with no ventilation and few, if any, windows.
Quiche is the province suffering more assassinations and murders than almost any other in Latin America. In “The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?,” Guatemalan-American author Francisco Goldman presents testimony from a 1998 Recovery of Historical Memory Project compiled by the Catholic church on government/army abuses in places like Santa Maria Tzeja, Quiche:
…The señora was pregnant. With a knife, they cut open her belly to pull out her little baby boy. And they killed them both. And the muchachitas (little girls) playing in the trees near the house, they cut off their little heads with machetes…
According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, unbridled impunity still threatens the rule of law, including the failure to prosecute former President Efrain Montt and other high officials for hundreds of massacres and other human rights crimes committed during the 1960-1996 civil conflict. Frank La Rue, a longtime human rights activist in Guatemala and former United Nations official, told The New York Times in 2014, “You can only explain that (50,000 unaccompanied children fleeing north to the U.S. in 2014) when you have a state that doesn’t work.”
In the early 1950s, the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, or “La Frutera,” exacerbated the unfair land distribution in Guatemala. The company owned over half a million acres of the country’s richest land, but left 85 percent of it uncultivated. At the time the U.S. government appeared to consider the company’s interests the same as those of U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles, who was the Central Intelligence Agency director. Prior to the government service, the brothers had been partners in Sullivan & Cromwell, a law firm that represented United Fruit. The “secret” history of these two powerful siblings was brilliantly divulged in Stephen Kinzer’s “The Brothers.”
In 1950, Jacobo Arbenz was elected president of Guatemala and began promoting social reform and land reform policies. United Fruit quickly rolled out a propaganda campaign that turned the U.S. government against the new regime and led to a U.S.-supported coup d’état in 1954. This abrupt change in government dealt a death blow to Guatemalan democracy and reinforced the inequitable land tenure system that kept the majority of Guatemalans on the margin of the larger economy.
The United States’ inability or lack of political will to control the proliferation of drugs within its borders has also impacted Guatemala by allowing drug cartels to gain ever-growing financial and political influence. In his 2011 New Yorker article, “A Murder Foretold,” David Grann wrote:
Overwhelmed by drug gangs, grinding poverty, social injustice, and an abundance of guns, it’s no wonder that violent crime rates have been sky-high. In 2009, fewer civilians were reported killed in the war zone of Iraq than were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death in Guatemala, and a staggering majority of homicides—97 percent—go unsolved.
A recent proliferation of “maras,” or gangs, began with the mass deportation of Latino criminals to Central America in the mid-1990s. The MS-13, for example, became an international gang that spread through the continental United States and Central America. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2011 that Guatemala had the highest number of gang members in Central America, with 32,000.
The U.S. State Department rates the threat of violent crime in Guatemala as critical, and when I applied for a country director position for the Peace Corps several years ago, I learned that they’d moved their office out of Guatemala City and prohibited volunteers from even entering the city, due to security concerns. So, one can understand how centuries of political abuse, violence, and a depleted infrastructure that includes schoolhouses with no books and hospitals and clinics with no medications and often a lack of doctors, has created despair. This is why families continue to leave their homes looking for a safe haven and an opportunity to educate their children. It also explains why so many seek asylum, as opposed to simply looking for work. My years of visiting and working in Guatemala only confirm that the isolation and poverty facing many remote villages in the highlands are similar to what I experienced 40 years ago.
How to Reduce Migration
The United States encouraged civilian rule and elections in Guatemala in 1985, but subsequent elections in that country were deficient in terms of substantive democratic reforms. Latin America scholar Susanne Jonas, author of the 1991 book, “The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads and U.S. Power,” wrote:
For the most part, from 1986 through 1995, civilian presidents allowed the army to rule from behind the scenes. After an initial decline, death-squad violence and other abuses by the army actually increased significantly in the late 1980s. Every regime since has been hampered by excessive influence from the military, human rights abuses and corruption.
To address the causes of migration, the three Central American governments agreed to launch the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle with technical support from the Inter-American Development Bank and the U.S Agency for International Development. The program is designed to promote local economic, health and infrastructural support to the poorest provinces, which export the majority of refugees. But in April, the Trump Administration announced the U.S cut in aid the Northern Triangle countries, which includes Guatemala.
Smoke rises from graves in the San Marcos region of Guatemala after a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck the nation in July, 2014. Human remains were exhumed from damaged coffins which were burned. The quake triggered landslides that blocked roads near the Mexican border.
The plan was a step in the right direction, but its impact is likely to be limited by corruption, a continuing issue for Guatemala, which Transparency International says has one of the highest rates of perceived corruption in the world. Former President Alfonso Portillo was extradited to the United States in 2010 and charged with laundering $70 million in Guatemalan funds through U.S. banks. More recently, another former president, Otto Perez Molina, and a former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, were imprisoned in Guatemala for corruption as a result of efforts by Guatemala public prosecutors and the UN’s anticorruption commission, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
The closest advisor to Guatemala’s current president, Jimmy Morales, the president’s brother, and the advisor’s son were arrested on corruption and money laundering charges in January, 2017. Eight months later, President Morales expelled Colombian Ivan Velasquez, the commissioner of the CICIG, when investigators began examining claims that Morales’ party took illegal donations from drug-traffickers. The CICIG also asked the Guatemalan Congress to strip Morales of his exemption from prosecution. The Congress refused, assuring continued impunity of Guatemala’s ruling class.
According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, the Guatemalan Congress is considering a law that offers total amnesty to any officials involved in the abuses and massacres during the 36 years of civil conflict. Other abuses include death threats and killings of elected officials, witnesses, members of the judiciary, and others involved in investigations of government corruption and human rights crimes, including violent evictions, labor rights violations, and other human rights violations in the context of agrarian disputes involving thousands of rural families.
At this point in our country’s history, we can choose to continue being part of the problem or offer effective solutions to the immigration issues challenging us. As U.S. citizens, we must appreciate that we are connected culturally, economically and politically to the people of Guatemala. Remittances from Guatemalans working in the U.S. reached $8.5 billion in 2019, according to a recent NPR report.
Our country’s foreign policy has always impacted Guatemala, and, unfortunately, as explained above, has contributed to the injustices there. More recently, our inability to limit the use of illegal drugs has much to do with the violence and poverty pushing large numbers of people out of Guatemala to the United States, as have macroeconomic conditions, climate change, corruption, and internal policies of the Guatemalan government. The recent decision by the Trump Administration to cut all aid to Guatemala will exacerbate the situation. Luis Argueta, the Guatemalan American film documentary director NPCA recently named its 2019 Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award, said a few months ago at Arizona State University that those who ignore the impact of existing U.S. government policies are “complicit” in perpetuating the ongoing influx of undocumented family members.
People escaping violence and abject poverty in Guatemala will continue to seek asylum and work in the United States, especially those with family ties here. Well over one million Guatemalans now living in the United States represent a lot of family members trying to reconnect. No wall, no matter how big, tall or wide will stop the ongoing influx of immigrants.
Instead of creating fear about an invasion of insurgents, we must educate ourselves and our neighbors about who these people are. We must treat them in a more humane manner when they arrive. And we should support the U.S. aid and international development efforts in the sending provinces so young Guatemalans can raise their families in their home countries.
Mark Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala, 1971-1973, working on fertilizer experiments with small farmers in the highlands. Over the next 40 years, he managed or raised funds for many international groups, including Food for the Hungry and Make A Wish International and wrote about those experiences in Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. Go to MillionMileWalker.com or write the author at Mark@MillionMileWalker.com.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Summer 2019 issue.
A Guatemalan father faces life after deportation see more
Jacobo is a compact, 43-year-old man with too many teeth and a big smile. He is about to address a Monday morning class of 23 pre-med students from Minnesota’s College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University who are on a three-month immersion Spanish language program in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city. On the day before, Jacobo stood in the living room of the two-story house in the village of San Lorenzo that he built for his family. The house, like Jacobo, is a bit unsettled. Four of the five bedrooms remain vacant and his father sleeps in what is supposed to be the dining room. At dawn the next day, he got on a chicken bus, as local buses are called, for a two-hour ride and then a transfer to a crowded 20-minute urban van ride in Quetzaltenango.
He begins speaking in Spanish, nervously, “I grew up in Guatemala, one of eight brothers and sisters. We lived in a thatched roof one-room house. There we cooked, ate and slept.” Then he adds, “Ours was a life of poverty.” The students are all in Guatemala to perfect their medical vocabulary, learn the culture first-hand and conduct community service projects. Most are proficient in Spanish but a local teacher translates into English for those who do not understand. Everybody listens attentively. Jacobo is not a stranger to them. They just saw him in “Abrazos,” the second film of my immigration documentary series. The film follows 14 U.S. citizen children who seven years ago traveled from Minnesota to Guatemala to meet their grandparents for the first time. Jacobo’s two eldest children were on that trip and are part of the film.
In those days Jacobo lived in Worthington, Minnesota, and in the film he talks about the daily anxiety of his limited mobility and the pervasive fear of detainment and deportation. “When I leave my home, I don’t know if I will make it back. That is the fear with which we live.” His state of mind is like that of millions of immigrants without proper authorization.
The young pre-med students absorb each of Jacobo’s words as if they are watching Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in which a character on the screen steps out into the real world to continue addressing them. “I am a man with a divided heart. Part of it is here with my aging father and part of it is in Worthington, Minnesota, with my wife and my four U.S. citizen children.”
A Five-Year Plan
Jacobo was once an eager 15-year-old student whose parents lacked the money to pay for books, a bus ride, or clothes so that he could continue his studies. Guatemala was immersed in a 36-year civil war during which the life of any young man was precarious; the army could force him to enlist, the armed guerrillas could recruit him, or either side could accuse him of being the enemy and kill him. In 1993 Jacobo left San Lorenzo, San Marcos for the United States where he applied for asylum. His case was denied in 2002.
His plan was to make money in the States, return when the war ended, and go back to school. “My goal was three to five years,” he tells the American students. “Being alone and away from my parents was very difficult. One wants money but there is something more important, the love of your parents.
“Learning the ropes in the United States was very hard. I did not know the language nor understood the currency.” He worked hard harvesting tomatoes in Florida for two years, and picking fruit for seven in Michigan where two of his sisters live. That is where he met Isabel, who had grown up in another mountain village near San Lorenzo.
Jacobo and Isabel married. When their first child was born, he bought some fake documents in order to get a new job. He later pleaded guilty to using the fake documents and that legal case haunted him for 10 years. “At that time returning to Guatemala or staying in the U.S. was the hardest decision I had faced in my life,” he says. They decided to move to Worthington, where he got a job working on a hog farm. He worked hard, planned carefully, saved money, lived frugally, raised their four children, and prospered. “I bought a house in the U.S.,” he says proudly.
He also sent money home to his parents and bought a plot of land to build a house in San Lorenzo. He paid U.S. federal and state taxes, became a leader in his local church, and was promoted to become the supervisor of the hog farm. In 2013, I filmed his children taking their first trip to Guatemala. In the church, Isabel sang lead vocals for Granito de Mostaza – Mustard Seed – one of the most popular music groups in their Worthington parish. The oldest of their sons will graduate from high school this spring, but his father will miss the ceremony.
Threat of Deportation
Four days after his children returned from their trip to Guatemala in 2013, Jacobo’s car was stopped by a Worthington police officer for “suspicious movement of the car passengers.” He was arrested and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued an immigration detainer to begin deportation proceedings. The group that sponsored the children’s trip, Abuelos y Nietos Juntos, organized a petition drive and, with the support of the Guatemalan embassy, Jacobo was allowed to stay in the United States under an Obama administration policy of “prosecutorial discretion” that required he report to authorities every three months.
All of that changed in 2017 when the Department of Homeland Security began to consider all unauthorized immigrants an enforcement priority. During a regular check-in, authorities said next time you come in, bring a one-way ticket to Guatemala or we’ll put you on a deportee flight.
Jacobo asked, can I go by land?
Yes, the ICE official replied. You are not a criminal, you can go by land.
“I felt split,” Jacobo tells his Quetzaltenango audience. “I had the option of hiding because they did not deport me, but I was tired of hiding and I had not seen my dad in over 24 years and wanted to spend time with him before he died.” He had missed his mother’s funeral, so deportation would at least give him time with his elderly father.
He also pondered the consequences of leaving Isabel and his four children. “I wondered,” he says, “what will happen to my children the day I leave? They can fall into drugs, disobey their mother. But if I make them go with me to Guatemala, I will be taking away the opportunity for them to study here in the U.S.
“And I put myself in their place. They are living a better life there. Taking them to Guatemala is to expose them to a place that is dangerous. Also, I asked myself, ‘How am I going to make a living in Guatemala?’”
“I realized that a family that lives without a father is sad. My children need their father. I need the love of my children.” Finally, Jacobo told his wife, “I better go alone and look around to see how things are, see what I can do. Figure out how the six of us can survive there. So, I’ll go by myself.”
With the authorization of ICE, Jacobo drove to Guatemala in September of 2017.
Building a Guatemalan Life
Jacobo is one of thousands of Guatemalans who are deported on a daily basis. They go back to a country they don’t really know. At best, they face indifference and, at worst, stigmatization and hostility.
To reduce irregular migration, its root causes must be addressed. Poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, and corruption need to be transformed with long term investment in education, health, governance, and environmental protection. To abate the recurrent migration of returnees after decades abroad, we must foster a true sense of belonging for them. A holistic reintegration program that focuses on mental health, access to necessary documentation and educational records, skills-certification, re-training, job placement and support groups, should be created for returnees. In addition, a public information campaign should be designed to present the true face of immigrants and fight social stigma and job discrimination.
“Today, after 24 years, I’m back in my country with my father but my family is back in the United States,” Jacobo tells the pre-med students. “I am in a country that I do not know. Of which I know nothing. I find my dad who is older and a country where I do not have access to a job.” When he finally told his father that he was deported, his father said he must be a criminal or the United States would not have sent him back.
Since he left 19 months ago Jacobo has talked with his family in daily video phone calls. Back in Worthington, 2,555 miles away, Isabel and their four U.S. citizen children struggle. Isabel cleans private houses and the parish house. She tries to manage an 11-year-old daughter and three teenagers. The oldest son, 18, works after school at a local supermarket and is grappling with his studies. The youngest boy, 14, is failing almost every class. When he comes home he stays in his room, playing video games. In one of their calls, Jacobo asks the 14-year-old, “Are you behaving that way because I am not there?”
In Guatemala, Jacobo has been busy. He and a nephew started a live video business which, via Facebook, transmits local family events like quinceañeras, baptisms, and other events to family members in the United States. One day someone dropped off a disposable phone to their office and told them they should expect a call. Within 24 hours a call came: pay 2,000 quetzales, $266, every week or face the consequences. Everyone here knows that the consequence is being killed. Jacobo and his partner paid for the first week, and closed the business the following day.
Jacobo’s wife, Isabel, and 11-year-old daughter, talk almost daily in video calls with Jacobo, who was deported to Guatemala in 2018.
Jacobo then enrolled in an automotive repair course at the Quetzaltenango branch of INTECAP, the national vocational school, making the two-hour commute from San Lorenzo for 12 months and began an internship in a Quetzaltenango garage. The garage is a franchise with armed guards at the entrance. The Guatemala City owners come rarely and they are driven in armored SUVs and are surrounded by professional bodyguards.
There is no automotive repair shop in San Lorenzo, so the opportunity seems to be there, but that is the place where he and his nephew were victims of extortion. Should he consider opening a shop in the state capital, San Marcos?
Fearful of more extortionists, Jacobo keeps his story to himself. He says, “Calladito me veo más bonito.” I look prettier with my mouth shut. “I don’t tell them I am a returned migrant. I never speak English. I never mention I have family in the United States.”
Jacobo is confronting his dilemma. Should he continue living separated from his family or bring them to live in Guatemala with him? Before leaving Minnesota, Jacobo told his oldest son, “You are going to live what I lived. I lost my parents and you’re going to lose your dad. With the difference that you have your mom.”
What Jacobo is Learning
To the North American pre-med students, he says, “My children have the opportunity to live 50 percent of what I lived. They have a comfortable home, an education and the love of their mother, even if I’m not with them.” But the survival of his marriage is also on his mind. “We know that a consequence may be a split of the family. As the popular refrain goes, ‘here there are many women, and over there are many men, and we are free to choose.’”
However, Jacobo’s defining characteristics include his optimism and his belief that love will conquer all. “Yes, we are free to choose,” he says, “but that is where love comes in. Do we love? If we do, we will suffer. But if we love we will achieve something better in the future. If I love my family I must respect them. And if I love my dad I should also give him some time because you never know how much longer he will live.”
Another of Jacobo’s key characteristics are the clarity of his goals and his unshakeable faith. “My desire has always been to be somebody in life. And, someday, to be complete. To have my heart complete. For me not everything ends here. This is my desire in life, to be a positive person and recognize we are all brothers and sisters.
“I am sad but will not give into sadness. My children have a future in the United States. I am not sure how long I will be here but I look forward to one day finding a way to go back to the U.S. legally.
“I understand that here in Guatemala there are a lot less opportunities. But the possibility exists of making one’s opportunities. I look forward to creating a new life. We must keep going with hope. And even if hope ends, faith will not. That is what I have lived.”
Today Jacobo lives in a big, sturdy, yet empty, house, built with his work and forethought, and is able to accompany his father in his waning years. He misses his wife and children, but he is determined to find a way to get ahead in the country of his birth.
Jacobo celebrated his birthday in April with his father, his sister, his niece, and a couple of close friends around him. The cake, the refreshments they served, and the decorations were made possible with money sent by his sister, who lives legally in California. Isabel and the kids participated via video call. He and his kin exemplify the resilience and solidarity of immigrant families even when separated by distance and time.
Luis Argueta is the award-winning film director and producer of Guatemala’s first Oscar submission, “The Silence of Neto,” and the immigration documentary series, “aBUSed,” “The Postville Raid,” “Abrazos,” and “The U Turn.” He has been selected the 2019 Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award winner and is the recipient of The Order of the Quetzal, Guatemala’s high honor.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Summer 2019 issue.
On the broader issue of immigration, we need to change the either-or nature of the dialogue see more
The migrant caravans that have wound their way to the southwestern border of the United States from Honduras through Guatemala and Mexico have their roots in the failure of reform to our immigration policies. Despite two previous attempts during the George W. Bush administration and another during Barack Obama’s tenure in office, our politicians have preferred the path of bloated, fear-mongering rhetoric than one of serious, complicated policy reforms that would address the situation.
Our current President knows that demeaning immigrants helped launch him on the path to the presidency, and he clings to the old tried and true slogans about building a wall, calling in the military, blaming the Democrats, and cutting off aid to countries that allow the caravans to pass. While those sound bites seem to help sustain his core political constituency, they are unworkable, perhaps illegal, and, more to the point, they don’t get us any closer to addressing the challenges of large flows of immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees coming to the United States.
It would not be too far-fetched to say that his deterrent approach to the many facets of immigration has worsened the situation. First, by denigrating other countries and pounding on about “America First” and nationalism, he has undermined other countries’ willingness to cooperate on issues like migrations that cross borders and cannot be addressed alone. After all, the sending countries, transit countries, and receiving countries need to work together to address the causes that propel people to leave, the dangers of undocumented crossings, and orderly transitions to a new home.
Second, his draconian solutions of terminating protected status for thousands of Central Americans in this country and separating children from families is not only inhumane; they have done little to stem the flow to this country. According to the New York Times, the “total number of families that entered the country in the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, exceeded 100,000 for the first time in recent history.” This record comes in the face of other numbers that show a pattern of overall declines in migration and specifically, in illegal crossings, since the early 2000s.
Third, the President continues to stand by his own catch-all immigration answer – the Wall. Besides overtaking the Statue of Liberty as the symbol of global perceptions towards the United States, the Wall does absolutely nothing to deter migrants in the caravans. Most of this group are asylum seekers who head right to a legal border entry port on arrival and directly petition immigration officers entry based on violence in their home communities. In addition, the Wall diverts resources that could actually make a difference. In 2014, when there was a previous spike in children arriving from Central America, the Obama Administration helped launch the Alliance for Prosperity, a collaborative program with the Central American countries and the InterAmerican Development Bank, to strengthen their criminal justice systems and promote economic opportunities for potential migrants. It’s important to add that those countries have put up most of the funding for this effort; our financial support, at a lower level, but still substantial, gave us a seat at the table to mold the effort. President Trump’s budgets have called for drastically reducing aid to that initiative. His response to cut off all aid to those sending countries doesn’t punish only them; it will increase the number of people fleeing to our border.
The President’s recent shutdown of the federal government and then his declaration of a national emergency continue to propel the Wall on to the national agenda, a distraction from the real issue of trying to reform our immigration policies. The current situation does not rise to the level of a national emergency; the Administration’s own Worldwide Threat Assessment of February 2019 devoted limited attention to irregular migration from Latin America, with one eye-popping admission that “in recent years, Mexican U.S.-bound migration has been net negative.”
Migrants file across a bridge from the violence of Mexico’s Ciudad Jaurez to El Paso in 2010.
While not a national emergency, there nonetheless is a problem, a specific one related to asylum requests and a more general one related to treatment of all newcomers to the U.S., immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. The most pressing issue is the backlog of adjudicating asylum requests which has reached a crisis of almost 750,000 cases. However, immigration officials have reduced backlogs in the recent past without reducing refugee admissions so that government officials from that area could work on the asylum requests. A study by the Migration Policy Institute released in September 2018 noted the reduction of the backlog of asylum cases from 464,000 in 2003 to 55,000 just three years later and even further to just 6000 in 2010. The Institute offered a series of recommendations that helped reduce that backlog, mostly through streamlining processes in the Homeland Security division responsible for asylum. These are policy-wonk solutions, such as moving credible fear cases out of the immigration courts that take years and allow DHS asylum officers the discretion to adjudicate them. Such solutions don’t make for great campaign sound bites, but they have worked in the past when we faced similar backlogs.
On the broader issue of immigration, we need to change the either-or nature of the dialogue: either you are anti-immigrant and racist or you’re for open borders and chaos. We can start with appealing to three characteristics of sound immigration policy as outlined by the United Nations: safe, orderly and regular. A system that would incorporate those three basic values would move to: Reduce the dangers of illicit crossings and living in the shadows of our society; help integrate all newcomers – immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers – quickly and fully; and return to the cooperation needed with sending countries to address the causes that drives people to leave their homes.
The hope and altruism that drove Americans to join the Peace Corps and the subsequent interactions with foreigners at the grassroots level place the RPCV community in a unique position to advocate for the kind of sound, reasoned debate the nation needs on immigration. Our best hope is to use the focus on the caravans or the Wall as the poster child for a system that cries out for fixing.
John Dickson taught health and education in a school in Lastourville, Gabon from 1976 to 1979. He worked as a Foreign Service Officer in Nigeria, South Africa, Peru, Canada, and Mexico. He is member of the Peace Corps Community for Refugees. His opinion was first published in the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and on PCC4Refugees.org. This story was also published in WorldView magazine's Summer 2019 issue.
The art of traveling far, going alone see more
I can distinguish three different eras in my life on the road. The first focused on Getting the Furthest with the Most Stops at the Least Cost. My first overseas adventure started in 1956 thanks to Icelandic Air and Holland-American ships both offering dirt cheap student fares. We were contemptuous of that new book, Europe on $5 a Day. Why, we puzzled, would anyone spend that much money? There were great hostels for $1 a night, hearty meals the same. So that philosophy was pretty well settled by the time I arrived in Nigeria on New Year’s Day, 1965 as a freshly minted Peace Corps Volunteer.
It wasn’t long before we knew how to “dash” the railroad guy who would permit us to sleep in the “Post” car on top of reasonably comfortable mail bags anywhere Nigerian Rail was headed, or hitch a ride with lingering ex-pats to any corner of the nascent Republic. Midway through my tour, PC/Washington sent me to Ethiopia to which I added a swing down the continent to South Africa by boat and returned north to the Congo by train and then boat, back to Lagos, and, naturally, the mail train back to my post.
The final orgy was, of course, The Trip Home: Up the West Coast by freighter to Casablanca; a hitch hike to Cairo that included one long bus ride in which I was employed as a scribe for immigrant workers needing their papers filled out in English; free passage through the Suez Canal and up the Gulf of Aqaba after persuading the German merchant ship captain; an overland trip to Beirut; a third-class train to Vienna via Istanbul to England; and home. And still keeping it at that $5-a-day option.
The Second Era of travel, with more cash available, was to entwine overseas jobs with side-trips aimed at stimulating the heart and mind. A gig in Iran allowed picnics on the ruins of that step-pyramid of Chogha Zanibel which was destroyed in 640 B.C. While ensconced at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jedda, it involved trekking into the heartland of Saudi Arabia to “liberate” pieces of one of the locomotives T.E. Lawrence had blown up, laying in the sands the other side of Mecca (via The Christian By-pass). It also included having Aggie Grey, who was author James Michener’s model for Bloody Mary in South Pacific, bake my 29th birthday cake in Western Samoa.
Perhaps this is a better example. I finished a job in Ahwaz, Iran in May 1970 and was not scheduled to start another in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, until October. My choice was to take a two-hour plane ride between the two or go due east to Afghanistan, India, and Southeast Asia on a route that included Australia, Tahiti, Easter Island, and Chile. From there I took a train over the Andes to Buenos Aires, a boat to Uruguay, a plane to La Paz, a train to Lake Titicaca, an overnight steamer to Peru, a bus to Machu Picchu, a plane to Bogota, a bus up thru Central America, and finally home by plane to Traverse City, Michigan for some cherry pie. After the pie, I flew to Spain, then Greece, arriving a day before work began in Jidda. The cost was considerably more than $5 per day but was the kind of safari for the young and able adventurers for whom sleep, food, and energy never seemed to be an issue. I confess that I reverted to earlier habits when riding in 1962 on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Vladivostok to Moscow, paying for my travel by trading Kennedy half-dollars with fellow passengers for the far more valuable rubles.
Phase three: the concierge
This third phase carries a serious level of difficulty when getting into the remaining countries on my list. Call it: Engaging Others.
I thought I had found the best approach to this by badgering friends-of-friends assigned to Hard-to-Fill Embassy posts in places like Central Asia, West Africa and various, increasingly numerous war-torn countries. The best of those contacts were modestly helpful. But, of late, I’ve settled on a far better approach: I book into a 4-star hotel, but not those 5-stars which are an embarrassment, as is this whole business of inflating “stars.” Once unpacked, I make an endearing friend of the concierge. If there is a team, take some time to choose the one with the most interest in a challenge. Of course, carefully applied baksheesh may need to be part of the package, but not until the game is afoot.
For instance, my embassy contacts had warned that Djibouti was off limits, and Somaliland was definitely a no-no. In an earlier era I might have taken a pass but at my age one doesn’t have time to follow all the rules. So, I booked into the Hilton in Doha where I passed some time seeing how vast sums of money can be ill-spent in designing extraordinary ways of ruining our planet. After engaging each of the four concierges, I judged Marcellus, a brilliant young Ibo from the Eastern region of Nigeria, to likely be the most helpful.
I explained not only my need to go to Djibouti but that I wanted to also see some of this new “Somaliland” for myself. His response was the best, “I like the idea. Give me a day.” He cancelled the hotel I had booked in Djibouti, moved me instead to the Sheraton, where the concierge, Mohammed, was a pal of his, and dealt with all the paperwork. Marcellus found great joy in having pulled all this off in a day and laughed that mirth-filled West African laugh in showing how easy it all could be.
I found that Mohammed was equally keen. He hired a trustworthy cabbie with a broken-down hack. “You don’t want to draw attention,” he told me. I bounced around the pot holes of Djibouti, first to the “Embassy” of Somaliland for signed papers, then to a pock-marked building for another couple of imprimaturs, and finally back behind the barricades of the Sheraton, all accomplished in a day.
As an aside, the hotel’s breakfast room was reminiscent of the bar scene in the first Star Wars film because of the array of seemingly intra-planetary creatures, all hovering over laptops, whispering behind hands the size of baseball mitts, deals being struck and unstruck. These were the war lords of the Horn of Africa, our boys in cameo in the heart of it all.
Mohammad drove me into Somaliland where I saw nothing but relentless heartbreak. Thankfully, my departure from that unhappy place, a fiction created by a complexity of interests beyond my understanding, was only held up three hours because the chief in charge of the barricade had to have an aching tooth pulled.
Another rich source of assistance in outings such as these are the missionary nuns and priests, still busy in nearly as many countries as is the Peace Corps. During the early days of the Biafra War in Nigeria, three nuns violating every rule in the playbook drove me through road blocks and skirmishes to a prison holding a Nigerian friend of mine. Even to this day, a woman in a religious habit makes a great body-guard.
You may have noted at the beginning of this third phase of my travel life the mention of “my list.” A little explanation is in order. In 1966, during a chance meeting with my Notre Dame mentor Father Theodore Hesburgh, himself an avid traveler, we compared our country “count.” It was not dissimilar and over the following 47 years, whenever we would meet, he would greet me with, “How many have you got now?” We declared a gentlemanly tie in 2013 with 146 countries each. Since his death I’ve continued my list.
I count voting members of the United Nations, although I keep a list of “Others.” Our rules were to have a hotel receipt and send a letter from the country before we counted it. “Airport Only” was not acceptable. Other more-than-frequent travelers play by an assortment of rules but we considered ours The Gold Standard. I have continued the quest with other players, but the remaining countries aren’t exactly pleasure domes.
One other bit of travel advice Father gave me was always to make friends with the Papal Nuncio when in a capital city. The only one of the Seven Deadlies the Pope’s ambassadors dare approach is the one related to food and drink. “Get on their guest list,” he urged, “They always have the best cooks and the best cellars in town.” When this strategy has worked, it has been a memorable night out.
That level of dining is a far cry from my origins, although maybe by not too great a stretch. Travel came early, easy, and unlikely in my family. Among the first tranche of Europeans to settle on the northern shore of Lake Michigan to raise cherries, we were a rural, one-room-school-house, Saturday-night-square-dances-in-the-township-hall community. The country church bell ringing in mid-week to herald the end of World War II was one of my first conscious memories.
Shortly after that, two things happened which may have determined much of what followed. In the school room was a very large map suspended on pulleys. When you finished your work, you could pull it down and study it. The peninsula we lived on was an 18-mile finger of land jutting out into Lake Michigan. It was outlined on that globe and I remember thinking, “I could always find my way home.” That was because my home could be seen even from outer space. That childish notion has always stuck with me, and it worked. I’ve always managed to find my way home.
And secondly, my father loved the AAA Road Atlas, so even before Route 66 was of note, he would bundle the five of us into the car and, in successive years, drive us to Tucson, New Orleans, Miami, Canada, and Mexico. We made no reservations, stopped at every roadside museum along America’s two-lane highways, and were allowed one song each in the jukeboxes of our diner stops. This was capped by my being chosen at age 15 as a 4-H Exchange Student to the largest hog ranch in Iowa. An immersive cross-cultural experience never to be matched.
So travel was in my bloodstream. My high school graduation present was an eight-country European outing headed by my mother; after my Bachelor’s degree, it was a year of study in Ireland. Most summers found me back in Europe, including a bus trip to Russia in the midst of my Masters study. Peace Corps opened the vein further. Travelling alone and with an undying interest in the lives of others, I continue toward the last of this life-long quest: visiting each of the 193 countries with a vote in the United Nations.
To celebrate my 80th birthday I booked a little outing to Bhutan, my 179th country to visit under the Hesburgh/Carroll Accords. If you haven’t tried it, let me suggest “The Happy Nation.” They have chosen not to build consulates around the world to control their immigration issues. Think of the overhead they are saving. Instead, you book your stay through their government tourist agency, pay them
50 percent immediately and they send you a paper which you hand to Customs plus $20 upon arrival and, bingo, you’re in. No standing in lines with two photos and uncertainty. The altitude must be good for them.
I climbed to Tiger’s Nest on one of the more modest of the Himalayans, still 10,420 feet, and declared victory. Increasingly, I’m finding the borders of my 18- mile peninsula enough of a challenge and as satisfying as my outward-bound experiences. And it may not be all that long before I test out the premise that you can see it from outer space.
Following his Peace Corps service as a television production advisor in Nigeria from 1962 to 1964, Timothy Carroll was the first executive director of the then-National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers; Peace Corps country director in Pakistan, Poland and Russia; and served as protocol officer at the Justice Department. He received the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service in 1986 for co-founding the non-profit Eye Car, Inc. in Haiti.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2019 issue.
President's Letter from WorldView magazine Spring 2019 issue. see more
The question over the phone unsettled me. “Will Senator Wofford be joining you?” I was calling to make a reservation for a regular group of Peace Corps friends at Ristorante La Perla, our preferred lunch spot on Pennsylvania Avenue.
It was logical that Vincent, the restaurant’s host, would ask. This was Harris Wofford’s preferred meeting place for lunch or dinner, just a short walk from his Foggy Bottom apartment. Peace Corps people usually didn’t gather there without him. But this time was different.
I hesitated and collected myself before telling Vincent that Senator Harris had passed away. With reverence Vincent thanked me for the news. “I’m so sorry” he said. “He was a dear friend to all of us and we will miss him.” Vincent and the restaurant staff were among thousands who regularly spent time with Harris and considered him a dear friend. Harris would have expected it. He was just that way. He always took time to visit with La Perla’s chef and all the service staff. He made them feel important. People mattered to Harris.
I won’t forget the crisp sunny March day in 2013, my very first day on the job as NPCA president and CEO, when I first met the Honorable Senator Harris Wofford. He had come to help us advocate for the Peace Corps in the halls of Congress on NPCA’s 9th annual National Day of Action. Everywhere we went, Harris was met with admiration and respect. Capitol Hill police called him by name. “Senator Wofford, it’s good to see you again.” Congressional staffers stopped us to thank him for his statesmanlike leadership. Senators gave generously of their time for our small group of citizen advocates. Senator Wofford was with us.
Whether one has known him six years or 60 years, everyone who knew Harris legitimately called him a friend. From the Washington, D.C. taxi driver from Ethiopia who shared a five-minute Amharic chat with him to President Obama, who shared a podium with him, thousands of people looked up to him and called him friend.
Losing a friend is difficult. Losing a giant like Harris leaves a tremendous void in the Peace Corps community and the voice for national service.
Michael Gerson gave this tribute to Harris Wofford. “We are a nation that talks a great deal about who should be a citizen. There is less emphasis on how to be a citizen. And that is often learned in the company of others who share a public goal. Bonds of common purpose become ties of civic friendship, reaching across political divides. In a time of bitterness, choosing to serve others offers a kind of healing grace.”
My wish is that we all will become more like Harris Wofford in these challenging times. Take time for the people like Vincent along life’s path. And may we find healing grace in serving others just as Harris did, for a lifetime.
With great respect.
Glenn Blumhorst, NPCA president and chief executive officer. He served in Guatemala from 1988 to 1991 and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2019 issue.