Brian’s Adventure in Armenia
  • 13Jul
    Categories: Armenia Comments: 0

    Hello,

    It seems my blog got hacked and some idiot posted what I assume is an advertisement in a foreign language.  As most of you are already aware this blog is pretty much over since I am no longer in the Peace Corps.  I leave it up in case future volunteers want to read it and understand what to expect.

    Brian

  • 13Jul
    Categories: Armenia Comments: 0

    Censorship in the Peace Corps

    The Peace Corps actively censors volunteers communications. I know that this may come as a surprise to many, a United States Government organization censoring communications and preventing the Freedom of Speech by American citizens, it surprised me. It surprised me more since as volunteers we are required to take an oath in which we promised to “defend the Constitution of the United States of America against enemies both foreign and domestic”.

    So the Peace Corps tells volunteers that they must avoid criticizing the countries in which we work, the political systems and the people. This is to avoid problems that could get the volunteer into trouble or cause trouble for the Peace Corps in that country. I understand the sensitivity. However the Peace Corps takes that to include criticism of the Peace Corps organization and discussing their policies and rules that the volunteers have to live under. I know this because I have been called into the Capitol to discuss the criticism I have for the Peace Corps in my blog. I have even received a letter stating that the Country Director has the right to read my entries before I post them. Not really Freedom of Speech is it? I wonder if this rule was created during the Nixon Years?

    I have also found out that the Ambassador of the United States of America in Armenia also reads the Peace Corps Volunteer blogs and has requested that they be changed. I found this quite disturbing as she is a direct representative of the United States of America and someone I would have hoped believed in the Bill of Rights let alone supported it. I seem to have been wrong… another lesson learned. I wonder if they take the same oath that we took and if so, what they believe it means. To me it means I will support the constitution and all the amendments to the best of my ability. While I service I am under the laws of the county in which I serve but I am alto told that we are also subject to all the laws of the United States of America even thought we are serving abroad. I wish that applied to everyone.

    If you are asking “Why does he hate the Peace Corps”, or “did he have a bad time as a Volunteer” I will tell you I don’t hate the Peace Corps and I love Armenia, the People and the work I did. I do feel that myself and a lot of the volunteers could have done much more had we been supported by the Peace Corps office and the staff. What I would have written had I not feared the censorship and being sent home for expressing my opinions is that the Peace Corps office is set up to act more like police than as a support for Volunteers trying to help out a struggling nation. They are fast to act if they even perceive a rule has been broken and any potential problems are dealt with quickly, if not fairly. One volunteer was sent home because the staff believe he had a drinking problem, in fact he had a medical condition that was missed by the doctors and luckily caught after he arrive in the US. Another volunteer was sent home after being accused of rape, even though the investigation had just begun. So much for that axiom of “Innocent until proven guilty”. If the staff thinks you are guilty they act as judge, jury and executioner and if necessary bring up minor violations from the past to force you to Early Terminate in lieu of Administration Separation. I feel that this has generated a very definite “them against us” mentality among the majority of volunteers and has hampered the ability of volunteers to get things done.

    Another thing I would have liked to talk about it my blog is fiscal responsibility. Peace Corps Volunteers are not really purely volunteers, we receive some money every month to pay our living expenses. Peace Corps gives us money for rent, utilities, food, transportation and some other amenities as well as a little but for recreational activities. Now don’t get me wrong, we don’t make much and live at about the level of a normal family would in our countries. I think I get a little less than the equivalent of $300 a month. Peace Corps also sets aside about $300 a month in an account for us for when we leave the Peace Corps, the “resettlement allowance” which is taxable come to about $6,000 for the 27 months of service. Not much. Now in addition to the staff making very good salaries they seem to spend a lot of money on things that I can’t understand. Let’s take the vehicles as an example. There are three senior staff (Americans) in the Armenian Peace Corps. There are two doctors, one of which is always on call, 4 program managers and about 15 other people on the staff. Parked at the Peace Corps office is a large van that can accommodate about 12 people, a pickup truck and five four wheel drive trucks (Toyota Land Cruiser). In addition to the vehicles there are at least three full time drivers employed by the Peace Corps. I have never seen the pickup truck move in the 2 years I have been a volunteer. The van, which they purchased after my group arrives, is used primarily during the 11 weeks of Pre-Service Training but this is only one of about 6 that are needed during this time. The others are rented or contracted for when they are needed. It seems to me this is much cheaper than buying a new van and having it parked at the Peace Corps 9 months out of the year. This whole subject come up because in recent months a brand new 4 wheel drive vehicle showed up. Now I am sure these cost at least $45,000 and why is it needed? As near as I can figure the Peace Corps needs about 3 vehicles. One for the general staff to use when they need to travel, one for the Doctors should there be an emergency and one as a back up in case either are being serviced. Why they need 7 vehicles just doesn’t make sense. That money spent on the vehicles and the drivers could be used to provide many more volunteers either here or in another country that can use them.

    So let me conclude by saying that I am surprised that the organization that wants us to bring American values to the countries in which we service doesn’t really believe in supporting or defending the constitutional rights of the volunteers. I love my service here and I have great respect for the country and the people of Armenia. Unfortunately, I do not have the greatest respect for the way the Peace Corps program is run in this country. I think the overall mission of the Peace Corps is wonderful but I think there needs to be serious Peace Corps reform to eliminate some of the bureaucracy and strengthen the original mission and the support of the people who dedicate over two years of their lives to make it a reality. If I didn’t not believe so strongly in the Peace Corps I would have quit my service and given up, instead I want to help make it better, something I would even volunteer more time to do. Unfortunately I think the Peace Corps places value on what things cost them, and volunteers, being volunteers, are not treated as all that valuable.

    I do want to say one thing about emergencies. When a volunteer has an emergency in the Peace Corps it is handled quickly and efficiently. This includes medical emergencies, family emergencies and personal emergencies. Peace Corps staff are quick to respond and get a volunteer back to the States to deal with what ever is happening. I have see volunteers that had a family member die suddenly on a plane back home that same day. Now if they could just do a better job in the day-to-day support…

    These are my opinions and not that of anyone one else. I am basing these statements and opinions on what I have seen and experienced as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia from May of 2008 to August of 2010. I have not experienced any other Peace Corps programs so I can not say if these problems are systemic, though from letter I have read from volunteers around the world my experiences are not unique.

    Peace

  • 03Sep
    Categories: Armenia Comments: 0

    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…

     

    August 2009…

     

    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.

    Lee

    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.

     

    October 2009…

     

    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. 

     

    Brian