Last Tuesday, Yan Blair was supposed to be visiting a school in a village in the Republic of Georgia, observing teachers there as they walked their students through English lessons. After class, he was supposed to talk to those teachers about how to set up an after-school English language club.
Instead, he was sitting in a hotel in Tbilisi, the nation's capital, waiting for a flight back to the United States.
"I still don't know where I am flying to or when I am flying or how many layovers I will need," Blair told the Observer via Facebook chat.
Blair was one of thousands of Peace Corps volunteers who were pulled out of their host countries last week because of the coronavirus pandemic. Blair had expected to be in Georgia for at least another six months, teaching English in Kvemo Kartli, a province in southern Georgia on the Armenian border. Instead, he was headed to his parents' house in Flower Mound, where he expected to spend the next two weeks in self-isolation.
Now, he, like many other Peace Corps volunteers, is trying to figure out what to do now that he's returning to the United States earlier than he'd planned, and unexpectedly jobless.
In a letter to volunteers last week, Peace Corps director Jody Olsen said she was suspending all Peace Corps activities worldwide to prevent a situation in which volunteers wouldn't be able to get back to the U.S. because of coronavirus-related border closures. The worldwide suspension followed a previous announcement that the agency was pulling volunteers out of China and Mongolia due to outbreaks in those countries.
In the letter, Olsen said the suspensions were temporary, and that the agency would resume normal operations once it's safe to do so. But in a frequently asked questions section on the agency's website, it notes that those volunteers who are being brought home "will be classified as having undergone a Completion of Service," meaning they're effectively dismissed.
Blair arrived in Georgia last September. He worked as an English teacher trainer in a branch of Georgia's Ministry of Education in Dmanisi, a town about 60 miles southwest of Tbilisi. He worked with English teachers in schools around the district to implement more modern teaching techniques in their classes.
Over the last few weeks, Blair began hearing that the Peace Corps was pulling volunteers from Moldova and Ukraine as the virus began to spread across Europe. Then, on March 15, he got an email notifying him that he was being pulled out of Georgia.
The initial email said he needed to be in Tbilisi in two days. But the following morning, he got a phone call saying he needed to be in the capital city that day. So he packed his things, said goodbye to the host family with whom he'd been living for six months and caught a ride to Tbilisi. He later learned that his host family hadn't understood that he was leaving forever, not just going away for a few days. When they found out he wasn't coming back, they contacted him on Facebook to say goodbye.
"Lots of tears and emotions now," he said.
Blair said he thinks the federal government made the right move by bringing Peace Corps volunteers home, especially those who were based in Europe, where COVID-19 has spread rapidly. In the event that he contracted the disease, he wouldn't want to take up limited medical resources and a hospital bed in a country where he doesn't pay into the healthcare system, he said.
Still, he said, it's a major disruption, both for him and for the schools he worked with. He was in the middle of several projects, like setting up reading clubs and creating educational videos, that came to an abrupt stop when he left, he said. He hopes some of the local teachers will be able to continue those projects now that he's gone.
Blair is also not sure what he'll be doing once he's done with his two weeks of quarantine. He wants to go to grad school to study urban planning. He's waiting for financial aid letters from a few schools and had expected to make a decision next month, but he believes that process will be put on hold. In the meantime, he'll try to find work where he can.
"I'll try to look for local work, but I might end up just doing odd jobs," he said. "Many of my friends in the food service industry have been laid off because of all the restaurant and bar closings around the country."
Jazz Sykes, a Peace Corps volunteer from Flower Mound, arrived back in Texas late last week. She'd been based in South Africa's Limpopo province, where she was training to do HIV prevention outreach work.
Sykes said she started to hear on social media that volunteers in China and Mongolia were being brought home days before the move was announced officially. Then, a few weeks later, word started to spread on social media that the Peace Corps was pulling volunteers out of every country worldwide. On Thursday, about two weeks before she was scheduled to complete her training and go to work, Sykes was on a plane headed back to the United States.
Last weekend, Sykes was back in Texas, spending her two-week self-quarantine period at a friend's house. She couldn't stay with family, because any relatives who might otherwise offer her a place to stay are 70 or older, meaning they're at increased risk, she said.
Coming back before her term of service was scheduled to end has left Sykes at loose ends. She's certified to teach English as a second language, so she said she might try to teach online classes. She worked as a teacher before she joined the Peace Corps, but she's coming back into the country about two months before the end of the school year, at a time when school districts are shutting down their buildings and moving classes online.
Sykes said she has mixed feelings about how the Peace Corps handled the evacuation. Leaving volunteers in their host countries as the pandemic raged all over the world probably would have put at least some of those volunteers at risk, she said. But on the way back, she passed through three airports: Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo, Dubai and Dallas-Fort Worth. Moving thousands of people through three or more airports each on their way back to the United States just means more opportunities to spread the virus, she said.
Sykes said she understands that some volunteers are angry about the fact that the Peace Corps dismissed them once they returned home rather than placing them on paid administrative leave until their terms were out. But she thinks placing them on leave would have given them false hope that they'd be sent back sometime soon.
As upsetting as it's been to be pulled out of South Africa before her training ended, she said it would have been even more heartbreaking to be waiting for months for a final decision, only to have the Peace Corps dismiss her anyway. It's a difficult situation, Sykes said, and one that left agency officials with only bad options to choose from.
"I don't think there's a right or wrong answer," she said. "I think it was the best possible answer they possibly could have had."
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