Thursday, November 24, 2011

Peace Corps Kazakhstan is closing

Peace Corps Kazakhstan is officially suspending the program. This week all of the volunteers left their sites to gather in Almaty. I think they will be leaving the country before the end of next week.

The reasons for this have not been stated officially. Generally, it seems to be a combination of security concerns and growing government resistance. My friend Becca does an excellent job writing about the closing of the program here which goes into a better explanation of the situation.

For me, hearing the news of the closing was particularly tough. I just left the country two months ago, and I had to leave suddenly. I had intended to stay until December; I guess even had I stayed there, I would not have met that original goal. I know what the volunteers there are going through in some way. Imagine you are living your life. You have friends. You have a job. You have plans for next month, for next spring, even for next year. Then someone tells you that you have to leave. You have a week to say goodbye, and it is likely that you will never come back. All of your plans, all of your life, you just have to leave it behind. That feeling of loss and sadness is what most of the volunteers in Kazakhstan are facing. It's something most of us probably never thought of when we entered the Peace Corps. I knew there would be challenges, but I think a sudden departure was probably the least expected and most difficult of those challenges.

I don't know the exact reasons that the program is shutting down. The ministry of education is spinning it. The embassy is spinning it. One goal of PC is obviously diplomatic, so neither side wants to make the other look bad. The Ministry of Education has said that Kaz income has increased greatly over the past two decades, and PC leaving is a natural progression. However, this is really not true. The urban/rural divide is still a huge issue in Kazakhstan, and rural schools are bad. This problem isn't unique to Kazakhstan. Schools in poor neighborhoods in America are also generally bad. America is one of the richest countries in the world, and we still have a gigantic problem with the quality of education.

This past year, the Kazakhstan government began hiring more foreign teachers to work in the best schools in Kazakhstan. The salaries for these teachers is reportedly as high as $60000 a year. That is crazy money in Kazakhstan. Despite the hiring of these teachers, some Peace Corps volunteers were working in these same schools. Is Peace Corps needed if the government is willing to pay that much money for teachers? Probably not. BUT, those are the elite schools. The best of the best. Once Kazakhstan is willing to invest the same money in the village schools that the majority of volunteers are at, then the ministry's statement becomes credible. Until then, why turn down FREE native speaking English teachers?

Either way, Peace Corps is leaving. Is it a good decision? Maybe. Honestly, it was always a hostile environment. I never realized this until I was talking to an RPCV friend from Ecuador. Apparently, it is not necessarily a global volunteer phenomenon for everyone in your community think that you are all spies, to worry that your phones are tapped, and to have the state police regularly calling your boss to inquire about you. In some countries, they just accept Peace Corps without a Soviet-influenced mentality. Of course, every country has its challenges. In Kazakhstan, dealing with state police was one of those challenges. However, if a volunteer got to go to a country where that was not an issue, that'd probably be better.

I was rather surprised that they are pulling out all the volunteers. Once government resistance increased, I thought they would just phase out the program. If someone were to ask me if KZ was a good place for a new volunteer, I would have to consider the other possible countries the volunteer could go to. If in those other countries, the volunteer was less likely to be forced to move from their home community, have the police break into their apartments, or be accused in the media of being spies, then I'd have to go with the other countries. If someone were to ask me if the volunteers should all leave immediately, then I'd have to weigh the cost of those risks with the pain caused by sudden departure. I assume that PC considered that, and it still chose for the volunteers to leave early.

Right now is a tough time for a lot of people in Kazakhstan associated with Peace Corps. Host families and workplaces are left confused. PC staff must now find a new job. Volunteers must say goodbye to the country they had probably fallen in love with. My heart goes out to all those people.

Knowing that in the almost two decades PC was there, it made a real difference in the lives of some of the citizens of Kazakhstan makes the feeling of sadness a little easier to stomach.