Sabrina Kohrt, Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteer
When they say that it is the toughest job that you will ever love, they mean it. No matter how much you prepare for the Peace Corps, no one can ever prepare you for the unspoken hardships that you will face. Especially when one of those hardships is a pandemic.
On March 15th, the decision was made that all Peace Corps volunteers throughout the entire world were to be evacuated from their posts due to pandemic COVID-19. Representing 62 countries with over 7,000 volunteers, we were ordered to leave our sites and head home. This is the first time in the history of Peace Corps that they have evacuated every country and every post.
The evacuation process was a long one. Specific Peace Corps countries were closing their borders to prevent the spread of the outbreak, in doing so, Peace Corps had to get volunteers out of the country as quickly as possible while also adhering to the COVID-19 safety precautions. This made the situation even more anxiety provoking and strenuous than it already was.
Ukraine was one of those countries that felt the tightness of the border shutdown. Coming from various oblasts (regions) in Ukraine, volunteers were rushed to the capital to consolidate, to then fly to Washington D.C, and then to our prospective home of record.
Everything happened so quickly. From going through each stage of the evacuation process in the matter of 48 hours, frankly, none of it felt real. It felt as though it was a Peace Corps training, gathering, or maybe a big conference. Some were crying, many of us felt numb, not knowing how to process such an atypical situation. Being constantly surrounded by other volunteers also made it difficult to understand what was happening since everyone was riding their own rollercoaster of emotions.
In combination with feelings tied to evacuation, there are many strange emotions that come with reverse culture shock. Reintegrating into America after evacuation looks like some scary unrealistic dream that we all woke up sweating from. Unsure if it was real or not. Things as you know, are normal, but at the same time, not at all. The friends that you thought you were close to have changed just as much as you have. Your favorite places look a little different and you try to remember why, but can’t. Grocery stores, the availability and variety of foods is quite overwhelming. The amount of material things there are everywhere makes you feel claustrophobic. You can understand street conversations. Sometimes the overwhelming feeling reminds you of your first day at site, the first time you had to go to the market or navigate on your own. Everything was overwhelming. But at that time, you also felt a sense of happiness at the fact that you were doing this. You were navigating in a new country, doing this on your own, you made what seemed a distant dream a reality.
Now sitting at home, quarantined for 2+ weeks, although in a familiar environment, but nothing seems right, or comforting. Your new reality is waiting for Uber Eats, hoping that there will be toilet paper at the grocery store you go to, hand sanitizer, and your close of service documents looming ahead. Your new reality is the fact that you are now unemployed in an economic recession, much like millions of people. The uncertainty is agonizing. Should I get a job? A car? Should I look for an apartment? What will my next 3 months look like? All questions no volunteer has answers to.
What is difficult for volunteers is the feeling of unfinished business. The newest group that arrived at site feels as though they were just starting to get their projects developed, that they were just starting to make the right connections, grants were being written, and we were becoming more proficient in the language, and life, it seemed, was getting easier. Many feel guilty, that they gained way more than they ever could have offered or given to their community. That they did not get everything that the community wanted done. There was so little time for the number of things that we all wanted to accomplish for our community. The older groups feel as though they never got a proper goodbye to the people that got them through their 2+ years of service. They did not get to check off all of the last things they wanted to do in their country. They were not able to express their full gratitude to real stars of the show; the guy at the grocery store, the grandmothers, the counterparts, the kid that chases to hug you every day, the English club participants, and the host families that welcomed us dearly into their homes. Then there is another layer of worry and anxiety for the community’s health and the effect the pandemic will have there. No one can prepare for a pandemic, for such, unspoken hardships that are not outlined in our shiny Peace Corps manuals. We were all shocked.
Peace Corps volunteers of Ukraine hope to be reinstated once the times comes. Once the outbreak is contained and life is up and running again, volunteers hope to return to their posts and finish what they started. Life will look very different, but we are all determined to keep the work that we fought so hard for. I hope to return to my town of Uzhhorod, Ukraine and continue working in environmental education and advocacy for youth.
Although I cannot speak for all volunteers, what I can say is that we can learn a thing or two from the people of Ukraine. They set an example that we can all look up to. They are strong, they take care of one another, and are incredibly resilient. These are all things that we need in this time of uncertainty and anxiety. Peace Corps volunteers all over the world have the privilege and opportunity to share with Americans these kinds of values, and too, their favorite aspects they found in their host culture. Spread the culture. Spread the Peace. Keep traditions going in some way or form. It’s simple, but it’s important. It’s like bringing back a piece of home with you. Much like we did when we originally left for the Peace Corps.