Janet Curiel, Mary Helen Gomez and Lindsay Salem found themselves on a flight out of Botswana’s capital of Gaborone, in Southern Africa. Now they are trying to help back home.
Together, three Southern California women made a heart-wrenching journey back from Botswana last month, part of the unprecedented evacuation of 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers from 61 countries. Just days after the Peace Corps’ March 15 order, calling back all of its volunteers to the United States because of the COVID-19 outbreak and related travel constraints, Janet Curiel, Mary Helen Gomez and Lindsay Salem found themselves on a flight out of Botswana’s capital of Gaborone, in Southern Africa.
They’d been uprooted abruptly from the communities they’d become entrenched in, yanked away from projects that included counselling youth, boosting English comprehension, conducting AIDS and HIV education, and in Salem’s case, helping to prepare for the very outbreak that forced her back to the United States. They were returned to Los Angeles in the midst of a pandemic, unable even to embrace their loved ones, sad, sleep-deprived, in the throes of reverse culture shock, and without jobs.
In Gomez’s case, she feared she’d be without even a place to stay because she couldn’t return to a household where her stepdad is recovering from a stroke and her mom has diabetes. After some panicked phone calls, the Peace Corps covered the cost of a two-week quarantine at a hotel near LAX. Now, emerging from self-quarantine, the volunteers are compelled to find ways to assist their California communities — and to continue to do what they can to help people in Botswana, too. For all they’ve been through in the past couple of weeks, Salem — whose interest in global health was piqued by curriculum at El Segundo’s Vistamar School — said she feels fortunate. But that’s not a notion that has helped ease her mind much.
“There’s definitely been a lot of mixed, complicated emotions,” Salem, 24, said by phone. “That privilege of being able to be evacuated, you are leaving the people who adopted you as one of their own and you are leaving them in an uncertain situation.
“I’m someone who, long-term, wants to work in crisis and outbreaks and disasters and situations like that, so that side of me wanted to stay. In addition to the fact that … I felt that I was abandoning my community and my team at a time when there’s so much uncertainty and they really needed all hands on deck.”
As of Friday, there were 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Botswana, and one death – in the district where Salem was stationed. After enacting social distancing guidelines, Botswana’s government requested Wednesday that legislators to approve a six-month state of public emergency. On Thursday, the entirety of the country’s parliament, including the president, went into quarantine after a nurse at a special session the previous day tested positive for the disease.
But there were no confirmed cases when the volunteers left, and so their friends there were worried because the three women were being flown – through South Africa, Qatar and England – back to L.A., where there were almost 8,000 confirmed cases in the county as of midday Thursday.
“A lot of them were scared for us,” Salem said. “For them, these were their daughters and sons being taken away, so it was traumatic for us and for some of our families. Just as our families in the U.S. were worried about us, our families in Botswana were worried about us traveling to L.A.”
Salem has taken to sending screenshots of articles and news updates to Botswana that she thinks might help her colleagues prepare. And while quarantining in a section of her aunt’s house, she’d already taken steps toward getting her EMT license in L.A. County so she can assist with the response here. On Wednesday, she started volunteer work at a COVID-19 testing site. Gomez interviewed this week to volunteer at a similar testing site, hopeful that the work will turn into a paying position that would allow her to support herself and, if necessary, transfer funds to friends in Botswana to help if they get sick.
And after spending the time making face masks while camped out alone in her family’s Airstream travel trailer in front of their Hemet home, Curiel planned to visit local food banks to inquire about volunteer opportunities.
“Who’s going to get a job right now? I might as well be useful,” said the 31-year-old former program manager at Cal State San Bernardino.
To help returning volunteers get on their feet in the challenging environment, the Peace Corps and the National Peace Corps Association (a nonprofit organization that works on behalf of volunteers), are offering a variety of resources, including promoting virtual job fairs and sharing links to job listings at a host of government agencies, including FEMA.
“I’m sure a lot of (FEMA’s) efforts are going to fighting COVID-19, and volunteers can plug right into that,” said Marjorie M. Wass, a senior press specialist for the Peace Corps, by phone.
“It’s still dependent on them to apply for the jobs and interview, but we have a lot of resources available to volunteers — in any time, but certainly now.”
There’s also legislation in the works to extend health insurance benefits and provide some form of unemployment compensation for evacuated volunteers who find themselves jobless several months from now, after they’ve exhausted their initial Close of Service financial support. Also, the Returning Peace Corps Volunteers’ non-competitive employment program has been opened to even those who’ve served fewer than 12 months.
“These are individuals (who are) used to working at a community level on issues that are challenging, so they’re willing and able to get in the trenches and do work that needs to be done,” said Glenn Blumhorst, the president and CEO of National Peace Corps Association, by phone.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that many of them are getting involved in issues related to the COVID virus and helping out in any way they can.”
Wass said the Peace Corps’ goal is to get volunteers back into the field as soon as possible, and lawmakers are working to institute a prompt redeployment and re-enrolment process whenever it’s practicable. But it’s impossible to know when countries will reopen their borders or be comfortable with volunteers returning, or what the needs on the ground will be then, Blumhorst said. Still, all three women said they want to return to Botswana.
“I had planned to extend my stay there and live there permanently,” said Gomez, a 32-year-old social worker who’d previously worked at UCLA hospitals before landing in Botswana in July 2018.
“I had built a life, I had a family, a relationship, the best friends I’d ever met. So coming back here, where I don’t have a job, don’t have a car … I’m trying to decompress and think about what I want to do. But I’m going back as soon as I can go back.”
Until then, Curiel said the United States could benefit from the sudden influx of returning Peace Corps volunteers.
“Being in the Peace Corps has made us very resilient and more able to adapt,” she said. “We’re 7,000 people who have already volunteered two years of their lives to service, so it’s an untapped resource that could be useful to our own communities right now.”