I couldn’t post this before the end of my service because I am sure it would have gotten me in serious trouble with the staff in Armenia, but here it is now.
Let me start by explaining what the TTT is. TTT stands for Tsave Tanem Times, Tsave Tanem means “I take your pain”, a common expression in Armenia. The Times was a satirical “paper” written by persons unknown. It is completely anonymous and for the most part does not reference the Peace Corps, it is completely underground. I have received a total of 3 copies of it since arriving in Armenia and frankly I found it to be about 1/3 funny, 1/3 stupid and 1/3 offensive. Some of the articles were very negative toward Armenia and Armenians while others were critical of Peace Corps, Staff and Volunteers. I will say that the last issue was released prior to the last group of volunteers (A-15’s) leaving the country. As far as I am aware no one in my group had anything to do with the TTT and most of us thought it needed to change direction to be more funny and less bitter. That said here is the story of another great Peace Corps Screw up and why I lost respect for many people in the office…
There were rumors that Peace Corps Staff were going to call a meeting of all the A-16 volunteers in county but no one knew why. Nothing major had happened and it costs a lot of money to get us all together. In fact having us all meet in Yerevan forces the Peace Corps to pay for transportation for 35 people and put most of them up for one, two or three nights depending on where they are coming from. That makes it an expensive thing to do.
September 2009 …
We all received the following letter:
Dear A-16 Volunteers,
A matter of great importance has come to our attention which requires discussion face to face as a community and also your participation to resolve. We regret that we must ask you to disrupt your schedules to come into Yerevan, but the issue that needs to be addressed is both sensitive and serious. To that end we have rented space at the American University of Armenia business center (located near the office on Alek Manukian Street) for Friday, October 2nd. The meeting will take place from 2:00 to 5:00 on the 5th floor in room 501. Your travel expenses will be reimbursed and for those of you who have 2.5 or more travel hours from Yerevan your lodging costs will also be reimbursed. If you need to spend Friday night for travel purposes, it will not count against your two overnights in Yerevan.
Thanks for your time and attention to this important matter.
Now let me tell you one thing that really bothers me about this letter. When our Volunteer Action Committee meets with the staff to discuss problems and issues they are required to submit a list of the specific issues well in advance of the meeting so that the staff can prepare their responses. This email from Lee Lacy intentionally kept the topic of the meeting secret. I personally feel that is a lack of respect on the part of the Peace Corps staff, they demand one thing from the volunteers but fail to show the same respect or courtesy to them.
Before the meeting we all pretty much knew what it was about but we were still a little in the dark because while some of the A-16’s were aware of the TTT there were several who had no knowledge that it even existed and had never seen copies. Furthermore, we knew the staff was aware of its existence, hell I personally had mentioned it to the Program and Training Officer. Finally I believed that no one from our group had anything to do with it and no copies had been released since the last group left.
We entered the room that Peace Corps had rented for the meeting and when everyone had arrived we were told the reason of the meeting and how horrified and upset the staff were about the TTT. One member of staff had opened the mail box of a departed volunteer and found two issues, they then passed these around to the other staff members to read. We were given copies of the issues and then we were given letters from the staff to the volunteers saying how horrible we were and that we should go home. Many of these letters used the word “Hate” to describe their feelings toward us. I was a bit shocked to be accused of something that neither I nor any member of my group was involved in. The American staff along with two “representatives” of the host national staff put a bunch of questions on the board and then left us to discuss things amongst ourselves. I will summarize those discussions. Many people were surprised at the existence of the TTT since they had never heard of it before, others were upset by the contents, others were angry at the Peace Corps for their behavior. We talked about how it can be hard to serve here and that the paper was an outlet for dealing with the stress. How it was in fact like “The Onion” in the USA making light of serious matters, in fact one person brought a copy that had an article about 9/11 written just a few days after the tragedy. We talked about all this then decided that we wanted to talk to the American Staff alone first and called to invite them up. When they came they brought the Armenian staff as well saying they decided it was appropriate. Again they ignored the wishes of the volunteers and did not have the courtesy to at least come up alone and say the Armenian staff needed to be included, they just did what they wanted.
They asked what we talked about and I asked them to guarantee what we discussed would not be used against us to kick us out of the country or punish us. I was told that they would not make that promise so that cut out most of the conversation. It was too bad because a lot of what was discussed was the lack of support we feel from the staff. But they didn’t get to hear much of that. They accused us over and over of being bad volunteers. I told them that I was not aware of any A-16 having anything to do with the TTT and was told by the Country Director that “I just don’t believe you”. Now I have never lied to the staff about anything but I decided then and there that if that was their attitude then I might as well start since they had so little trust in me anyway.
I would say that volunteers who had been very dedicated and positive about the Peace Corps had their eyes opened that day and the general attitude toward the staff hit an all time low. I would say every volunteer who left there was angry or upset. We were required to shred the copies of the TTT that we were given and the copies of the letters from the staff. We were also asked to destroy any copies we had at home, I did not.
After the meeting the Peace Corps was on a Witch hunt for anyone involved in the TTT. In fact in one funny story the Safety and Security Officer called an A-17 and grilled her about the TTT. This baffled us because the TTT last came out before they even got in the country and to think they had anything to do with it was ridiculous. We later found out why she was grilled and it made me laugh pretty hard. On the back of an old issue from 2008 there was a note about Anna Nicole Smith once writing for the TTT. This volunteers name is Nicole Smith. Every copy of the TTT had the date of publication on it so it is damn funny that they called her and grilled her, giving her a hard time about something that came out months before she was even invited to come to Armenia as a volunteer.
The Peace Corps staff sent out follow up email to the volunteers offering to go light on anyone involved and asking people to come meet with them. I don’t know if anyone did meet with them but I know that since no one was involved the witch hunt came up empty. I also know that several volunteers, myself included, seriously thought of terminating our service early because of crap the Peace Corps staff pulled on us.
I felt that this whole episode represented a general theme I saws during my service, a lack of trust and respect toward the volunteers by the Staff and primarily by the Senior staff. The treated us poorly and with a great lack of trust and respect. Before arriving I would have expected staff to support the volunteers and to try to make their service as comfortable and productive as possible. I now say that they were more like wardens in a prison. They wanted to control every volunteer tightly and they considered a service successful if you didn’t do anything to cause waves or get in trouble, even if you did not do one thing to help the community you were in.
So, that is the story of the TTT from my perspective. I debated whether to include the copies of the TTT that I have in this blog as scanned pictures but decided not to. I am not ashamed of them, I take them for what they were intended to be, attempts at humor by people living in difficult situations. I took an oath when I was sworn into the Peace Corps and that oath requires me to “Defend and Protect the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic”. The last time I checked the TTT would be protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the USA, so I ask myself why others, namely the staff, did not feel the need to protect that right.
I hoped you enjoyed this story more than I enjoyed experiencing it.