Giving Back

I was a science writer for much of my career before serving as a volunteer with Peace Corps Moldova. Several months ago, the magazine editor for the National Association of Science Writers asked me to contribute an article for a series on “Science Writers Giving Back.” She just published it and I’m sharing it here, hoping it may inspire some readers — both science writers and others — to apply to the Peace Corps themselves. As the article notes, for me this decision “changed my life [and] broadened my perspective about the world, about America and about myself.”

Here’s a PDF file of the magazine; the article is on page 8.

screen shot 2019-01-26 at 12.33.28 pmThanks to NASW’s Lynne Friedmann for inviting me to write this!

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Vaccinating for ‘Fake News’

Parents considering whether to vaccinate their children shouldn’t trust the medical establishment, which wants to take away their kids, their rights and maybe even their organs.

Health officials in Moldova and Romania are familiar with such nonsense. As they’ve struggled recently to contain outbreaks of measles, they’ve encountered assertions like these spread by a small but determined anti-vaccination movement. 

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Local journalists who report on the situation face a similar dilemma of countering this “fake news” with the reality that vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical advance in recent history and are extraordinarily safe. Vaccines save nearly three million lives annually worldwide and reduce healthcare costs by $16 for every dollar spent.

This past week, four months after I completed my Peace Corps service in Moldova, I returned to the region to participate in two workshops dealing with vaccines — one to help health professionals communicate more effectively about them, the second for journalists who cover vaccination efforts. The Sabin Vaccine Institute organized the two gatherings in Sinaia, Romania, home of the famous Peleș Castle, which I visited before the meetings.

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Drawing on my background as a science writer, I encouraged the health professionals at the first workshop to interact more with the news media and public, and to share their personal stories along with their expertise. Two other speakers and I then led them through mock interviews where they could practice answering questions and speaking without jargon to the public.

The second workshop provided reporters from the two countries with a quick course on how vaccines work, together with discussions about regional challenges to immunization, why some parents are skeptical and how the anti-vaccination movement fosters distrust. Moldova’s health minister, Aliona Servulenco, told the group “vaccines are the most controlled and inspected product compared to all of the other pharmaceuticals on the market.”

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“The public needs to evaluate risks based on facts rather than opinions,” agreed Oleg Benes, who helps coordinate immunization programs for the World Health Organization regional office in Copenhagen.

IMG_0252Ovidiu Covaciu, who manages a large Facebook group and produces materials that promote vaccination, was among several speakers who called on reporters to resist what he termed a “false balance” between actual facts and the false claims promoted by vaccination opponents. Mihai Craiu, a pediatrician who uses social media to communicate with the public, said he discusses vaccination regularly but not exclusively, preferring to mix it with other topics.

Freelance journalist Octavian Coman, who wrote an extensive article about the measles outbreaks, and Ioana Avadani, director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, spoke at both gatherings. IMG_0219Other speakers discussed topics ranging from the factors affecting “vaccine hesitancy” among parents to Moldova’s efforts to increase HPV vaccination. Reporters at the second meeting covered a wall with ideas during one session and broke into groups during another to develop media strategies for responding to a possible new outbreak of measles.

The Sabin Vaccine Institute, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization, previously organized similar workshops for journalists in Latin America. One of the Romania event’s highlights for me was joining Amy Finan, the institute’s chief executive officer (left), and Tara Hayward, an institute vice president, for a dinner at a local restaurant that featured many of the foods I’ve been missing the past four months: sarmale, friptura, mamaliga, brinza and more.

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North Carolina’s Partner

Kate Hughey usually teaches fourth graders in Charlotte, N.C., but on Monday she taught a crowded room of English teachers in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. She described her collaborations with fellow teachers on student projects that blend multiple subjects and demonstrated how to make videos easily with homemade “green screens.”

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“We don’t do cross-disciplinary projects in Moldova, so this is really interesting for us. It’s a model we can adapt for our situation,” said Daniela Munca-Aftenev, president of the Academy for Innovation and Change through Education (top photo, left), which hosted the talk at Biblioteca Hasdeu along the city’s main boulevard.

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It was Kate’s first day in a week of activities in Moldova and the latest in a partnership that has linked North Carolina and this East European nation since 1999.

IMG_3709I was invited because I recently assisted the partnership as it prepared to ship hundreds of English-language books to Moldova with two NGOs. I worked with Bob Gingrich, Peace Corps Moldova’s director of management and operations and a fellow North Carolinian (left in photo), who will soon distribute the books among PCVs to share with their host communities.

IMG_3827I ate lunch with Kate before her talk so she could tell me more about the partnership and I could answer some of her questions about Moldova, which she is visiting for the first time, thanks to a grant from World Affairs Council of Charlotte. Kate, who teaches at Charlotte Latin School, is among the pioneers of a school-to-school program that connects teachers and students in Moldova and North Carolina. Her students recently collected 50 boxes of reading books for schools here.

IMG_3778Also arriving here this past weekend was Willow Stone, a student from Clayton High School who will live with a Moldovan host family and study Russian.

Elaine Marshall, North Carolina’s secretary of state, has guided the partnership as it has expanded beyond its initial collaboration between the N.C. National Guard and the Defense Forces of Moldova to include private firms, civic organizations, non-profit agencies and individuals, with planning committees in both North Carolina and Moldova.

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Its projects have ranged from education to medicine, culture and the economy. The Greensboro Jewish Federation assisted a Moldovan Jewish community. Officers of the U.S. Armed Forces helped build a playground for the children of Moldovan military families. The University of North Carolina School of Dentistry sent teams to assist an orphanage. My former colleagues at Duke University and others have sent medical supplies. When I tried to help someone here find information for the local wine industry, an expert from North Carolina State University responded to help us.

The exchanges have gone in the other direction as well, with Moldovans spending time at schools, universities, companies and other institutions in North Carolina.

Kate will be giving several presentations this week, visiting the Ministry of Education and touring some of Moldova’s touristic sites. IMG_3784The Moldovans who attended on Monday picked up not only new teaching ideas but also armloads of free books to bring back to their schools. Some of them have also interacted over the years with Peace Corps Moldova’s English Education program, in which Champa has served.

The two of us have only a week left in Peace Corps Moldova, where we’ve served alongside volunteers from Asheville, Charlotte, Boone, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Gastonia, Rocky Mount and other parts of our state. We look forward to working with the partnership ourselves after we return to our home in Durham.

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Infrastructure

And now, a few words in praise of infrastructure.

No, please, keep reading!

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Back when I ran a campus news office, we used “infrastructure” as shorthand to describe a story that was important but boring. Today, though, I want to discuss a different kind of infrastructure, namely the Moldovan staff that’s made my Peace Corps service possible. They include:

  • The program staff that taught us a new language, arranged our work assignments, identified our host families and trained us before and after our swearing-in.
  • The administrative team that transported us to our sites, processed our grants, replenished our bank accounts, monitored our safety and publicized our work.
  • The medical team, whose professionalism and skill I’ve described previously. IMG_1527I’d consider myself lucky to have Dr. Iuliana as my primary physician back home.

I’ve been reminded of all these people as I’ve begun gathering many of their initials for the “COS Checklist” we need to fill out for our “completion of service.” On Tuesday, we made a good start, getting eight Moldovan staff members to check off 15 of the 36 boxes.

  • Did Champa and I each submit a detailed “description of service”? Check.
  • Site reports about our host community? Check.
  • Final “volunteer reporting forms” with “data indicators”? Check.
  • Financial sign-off for our grants? Check.
  • A security questionnaire? Check.
  • Our post-service travel plans? Check.

IMG_8155I returned our smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. I returned one of our medical kits. I picked up the last of our medical prescriptions. Check. Check. Check.

Everyone was helpful as I briefly interrupted them to ask them to sign our forms. Several took the opportunity to say nice things about our service and wish us well. The interactions as a whole reminded me how much they all have done on our behalf. 

Champa and I will miss them — after we get through the list. We still have our final medical check-ins, financial close-outs and departure interviews. We need to return the Moldova SIM cards for our phones and confirm we’ve closed our Moldovan bank accounts. Our computer accounts need to be shut down, our residency documents reviewed and our lockers emptied. IMG_1376

Only after these and other boxes are checked will the head of administration for Peace Corps Moldova sign the bottom of our forms and officially return us to civilian life.

All 36 boxes seem reasonable and necessary to me, an accurate reflection of the complex infrastructure required for thousands of Americans to volunteer as Peace Corps Volunteers every year in less developed parts of the world. The single-spaced, two-sided list is a visual reminder of how many moving parts keep the machine running, and it doesn’t even include everyone working with Peace Corps back in the United States.

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The staff’s work is less glamorous, and certainly less recognized, than ours, but it undergirds everything we do. PCVs like me come and go but the local staff remains, mastering the occasionally arcane rules of both the Moldovan government and Peace Corps itself. They deal with unreliable host families, unsettling security situations, unhappy volunteers and more, usually with grace and effectiveness, and they rejoice in our successes. They are the human glue of Peace Corps, in both Moldova and more than 60 other countries.

If their quiet dedication and professionalism is boring, well, so be it. That’s how infrastructure is supposed to work. 

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A Book of Memories

We surprised our Peace Corps host family on Sunday afternoon with a photo album filled with memories of our past two years together. You can see some of its pages showing trips, dinners and celebrations we’ve shared, as well as quieter moments in the garden or playing with the family dog.

They loved it.

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I produced the album online with Shutterfly several weeks ago and shipped it to one of the new volunteer trainees, Andy, who arrived here recently. He gave it to Bob on the Peace Corps staff, who gave it to me. IMG_3688It was a complicated journey for a special gift. Thanks again, Andy and Bob!

Champa and I planned to give the book to our host family this coming Saturday, when we’re having our farewell dinner. IMG_3685However, while we were all hanging out this past Sunday, our host sister, Alisa, told us again how much they enjoy the photo album we brought with us to Moldova two years ago, showing our family and life in America. She asked whether I could send her images of its pages before we left.

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Champa and I looked at each other and I asked her in Nepali whether we should go ahead and give them the new album immediately. She agreed. Happiness ensued.

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We’re so glad we made both albums, an idea I recommend to anyone joining the Peace Corps or otherwise spending extended time overseas, such as with study abroad, a company or the diplomatic service. We’ve shared our original book many times with Moldovan friends, who have been curious to see what our lives were like in America, especially with our family. I’ve found the Shutterfly system easy to use, the quality high and the prices reasonable. Other companies offer similar products but I have not used them.

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Our host family, the Bordeis, now has its own book of memories to share. Its title, “Champa and David at the Chateau Bordei,” is based on the French-sounding name I used on a Thanksgiving menu to describe the delicious house wine they produce. We’re wishing la mulți ani — many years — for the residents of Chateau Bordei.

Champa’s Full Circle

Champa is part of an exclusive group: She was taught and inspired by Peace Corps Volunteers long before growing up to become one herself. Among the more than 230,000 Americans who have served since 1961, she has a special perspective on how volunteers can touch lives.

Her identity as a Nepalese-American has made her service — and mine — much richer. On Friday, for instance, we hosted a dinner party for some Moldovan friends, serving them Nepali curries and rice with an American chocolate chip cake and ice cream for dessert. We’ve also made Nepali food several times for our host family, shown below saying “namaste.”

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Champa especially remembers two volunteers, Susan Gibson and Janet Moss, who taught at her school in Ilam, the town in eastern Nepal where much of her family still lives. Another mentor was Dorothee Goldman, a PCV who befriended Champa at a training workshop after Champa became a teacher herself. Susan, Janet and Dorothee all taught Champa new skills and encouraged her to keep moving forward, helping her become the excellent teacher I encountered when I was posted as a volunteer to Ilam a few years later.

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After Champa and I got married and moved to the Washington, D.C., area to start our lives together, Dorothee reappeared in Champa’s life. The two of us were invited to a reception at the Nepalese embassy. We were dressed up and chatting politely with people when I noticed Champa staring at a young woman across the room. She went up to her and said, “Dorothee, what are you doing here?” Dorothee gasped and replied, “What am I doing here? Champa, what are you doing here?” The two of them embraced tightly, introductions followed and Dorothee and her husband, Mel, who also served in Nepal, became our dear friends. That’s them in the photo below, at their vineyard in upstate New York.

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With almost everyone in Moldova, Champa is the first person from Nepal they’ve ever met. Only a handful of other people from Nepal live here, one of whom married a Moldovan woman and now runs a restaurant, Himalayan Kitchen, that has become popular among PCVs looking for a change from the food served by their host families. The photos below show why they keep coming back.

Moldovans know almost nothing about Nepal but, then again, neither do most Americans. As people here have gotten to know Champa, they’ve asked about how she grew up, how Nepal compares to Moldova or whether she can see Mount Everest from her house. (Answer: No.)

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If we serve them Nepali food, we make it mild and they generally like it — although not always. We bought most of our spices, and the chocolate chips and brown sugar, when we visited home last summer. One of our guests on Friday was surprised we didn’t serve bread, a staple of every meal here. We hadn’t included chapatis, naan or puris on our menu, just rice.

Champa and I gave the Ganesh statue you see here to our host family and a few other local friends. He’s a symbol of good fortune with new ventures. We also brought some other Nepalese handicrafts, which have made great gifts.IMG_3676

The two of us are obviously foreigners but our unusual marriage has made us stand out even more in Moldova. “Diversity” here means someone is from, say, Ukraine instead of Moldova, or primarily speaks Russian instead of Romanian. There is a small Roma population but almost no people of African, Asian or Hispanic heritage. Moldovans are familiar with American diversity, such as from our music videos, but Champa and I are the first interracial couple many have ever seen, much less gotten to know. We’ve been aware from the beginning that our very presence would be as impactful in some ways as our teaching or projects.

Peace Corps has come full circle for Champa, who remains grateful to Susan, Janet and Dorothee for helping to change the path of her life. As she now prepares to return to her adopted homeland, she’s hoping she may have done the same with someone here.

Decluttering Anew

Once again, we’re decluttering.

Before we began serving as Peace Corps Volunteers, we spent months giving away books, clothes and other stuff, reducing our possessions to what we could cram into a small storage room in our house and the two suitcases we were each allowed to bring to Moldova.

It was exhausting but liberating — good mental preparation for leading a simpler life. As I wrote then, “We feel like we’re unloading the excess baggage of our old lives. Already we can sense how this lighter load will give us more flexibility to seek adventure and embrace what life has to offer.”

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Now we’re going through a similar process anew, sifting through boxes of language materials, teaching materials, tourist brochures, souvenirs and other things we’ve accumulated during the past two years. Once again we’re making three piles: “Keep,” “Give Away” and “Trash,” plus some books and other things we need to “Return” to Peace Corps or our work sites.

IMG_3620As before, “Keep” must fit into two suitcases each. It’s a lot easier this time since we’re leaving behind many of the clothes we brought — worn-out socks, yes, but also shirts and other items we’re now placing into our second pile.

That’s “Give Away,” which we’re doing with local friends and a nearby donation center. IMG_3628We’re also placing items in a special room of the Peace Corps lounge where departing volunteers leave things for those still serving. We found some great things there ourselves and now it’s our turn to pay it forward.

Pile Three, “Trash,” is smaller since our host grandmother will welcome anything flammable to burn next winter in the small fireplace in her room. We already have a couple of boxes of paper for her.

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Champa and I will store our four suitcases at the Peace Corps office while we travel for two weeks with carry-on bags before heading home. We’ll hope to keep the recluttering under control after we get back.

Join us on the journey.

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