My New Laptop Bag

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How do you like my new Toorbinka laptop bag?

I bought it from the guy standing next to me in the photo, at his small factory. The bag has a padded compartment, zippered pockets and a carrying strap. I bought it for 350 Moldovan lei — less than $18.

img_0474Dumitru Guzun and his partner opened the factory last year above a market in the town of Criuleni. My Peace Corps group stopped by for a look on Monday afternoon.

The company’s main business is denim jeans, sold under the brand name DAOS. Several of my fellow volunteers bought a pair, for the sales price of about $13 each. I wanted a pair, too, but they were out of my size.

img_0479As Dumitru showed us around, his eight employees barely looked up from their sewing machines and other duties. They were racing to fill an order. The company is doing well but, as Moldova’s first jeans brand, it faces intense global competition. It recently turned to a new Moldovan crowd-funding site to try to raise capital for new equipment and products. Dumitru also hopes to open a retail shop in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, 27 miles away.

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I hope he succeeds. As I’ve written previously, it’s tough to be an entrepreneur in Moldova, but people like Dumitru and his team are giving it a shot. They’re creating new jobs and showing it’s possible for companies to succeed here.

If people ask about my new bag when I return from two weeks of language training to my job on Monday, they’ll probably be surprised when I tell them it was manufactured not in China, not in America, but in Moldova. And when Dumitru and his team open a shop in Chisinau, I plan to be among their first customers. I still want those jeans.

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Immigration from the Other Side

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If you have kids in school, imagine what it would be like if the fathers of many of their classmates left town to seek work in another country. How would those kids feel?

Now imagine that some of their mothers left, too. Finally, suppose your own kids were among those going home every night to be raised by a grandmother, seeing you only online or during your occasional visits home.

If you have trouble imagining this, then come to Moldova. You’ll see it everywhere.

IMG_9899One woman we know is raising two energetic kids while her husband works abroad. In another family, the daughter and her husband are working abroad part-time, with two school-age girls at home. When Champa and I were sitting outside at a cafe, a guy sat beside us, said he was on a break from his job in England and asked whether we could help him get a green card to America. Lots of people want green cards. A work colleague told me he applied but didn’t get one. Someone I know through Peace Corps told me he wants one, too. One reason many adults are keen to learn English is to help them find employment abroad.

Moldova’s nominal gross domestic product per capita, as reported most recently by the International Monetary Fund, is just over US$1800. Good-paying jobs are scarce. People who want to start their own businesses face red tape and little capital. Banks are mistrusted. So are politicians. Many people are tired and discouraged.

So they go to Russia to drive trucks. They serve meals in Italy, build homes in Ukraine and raise other people’s children while their own grow up with grandparents or neighbors. According to the International Organization for Migration, one-quarter of Moldova’s working-age population now works abroad, a situation described here, here and here.

Many of these workers send money home and return for visits laden with televisions, laptops and toys. Their earnings pay for some of the loveliest homes in Moldovan villages.

None of this is unique to Moldova. Our own country is filled with immigrants looking for a better life, with children sometimes left behind. We’ve all been watching Syrian families flee from horrific conditions. Back when we were in North Carolina, Champa and I assisted a Rwandan family. In Nepal last fall, we met several families whose sons worked in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, all four of my own grandparents emigrated to America.

img_8409I’ve illustrated this blog post with some of the signs you see across Moldova. They’re from employment companies promoting legal jobs abroad. Every piece of paper torn from the bottom of a poster represents another person who may be leaving Moldova.

What does it mean for a country to lose, at least temporarily, so many of its citizens in the prime of their lives? What does it mean for this generation of children?

As a father and grandfather, I feel great empathy for Moldovans who make this choice. They are in a very difficult situation. They need to feed their families and they want to provide them with a few simple pleasures, like a nicer home or a modern bathroom. They love their children every bit as much as we do, and they do everything they can to help them. Those who return, moreover, may bring not only money and goods but also also a new perspective on what is possible for themselves and their country, something we saw in Nepal.

Spending time with these families has changed my own perspective on our immigration debate back home. Moldova doesn’t figure much in that debate, yet I’ve found it instructive nonetheless to watch here as a father calls home to ask his kids about their day. I’ve seen the kids run to the computer when they hear the Skype ringtone. I’ve heard the mother tell me later how much she misses him.

Her voice is but a whisper beside the angry rhetoric we hear on the campaign trail, yet it’s hers that speaks to my heart. Imagine that.

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Addendum, September 23: Lauren Jaeger, a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova who has been active in anti-trafficking efforts, responded on Facebook to this post with an important reminder about the potential dangers represented by the posters you see above. With her permission, I am reprinting her comment here as well. (Thanks Lauren!) Here it is: “I loved your piece, David, but just cringe when I see these posters. Because of the desire/necessity to find work abroad, support loved ones, and keep up with the ever-increasing living costs and stagnant incomes in Moldova, many people are tricked into unfair labor practices. While many great organizations are working to educate people on ways to verify work offers abroad, I still see many posters like this; no company name, no website, no real information, and many promising to cover document costs, transportation, or even living expenses. It puts Moldovans, and many others across the globe, in a very sensitive, dangerous situation that is the perfect breeding ground for fraud.”

Moving Beyond the Checklist

Take your time.

That’s what Peace Corps staff told us during training: Learn about your community, form relationships, win trust. If you do that, your projects and work agenda will emerge naturally.

They were right, of course. But I’ve had trouble letting go of old habits. I keep checking my cell phone for messages. I don’t go home until I’ve completed every item on my mental “to do” list.

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Checking the time on Thursday morning before entering my office, in the building behind me.

Back when I was at the university, I used to advise new communications employees to meet people and get the lay of the land before they rushed off to produce their articles and websites. You’ll be busy soon enough, I told them. Soon enough, they were.

During our training here, we were told essentially the same thing. You’d think I would have internalized the message. Yet, although I’ve been actively meeting people, attending events and learning about my new surroundings, I can’t get the checklist out of my head.

Champa finds this amusing. “I thought you were ‘not exactly retired,’ ” she told me.

She’s right, too, of course. My new life is not as hectic as my old one, but it’s rich and productive, like those of so many of the other volunteers here. On Wednesday, I had a great chat with the president of the raion council, or county government, where I work. He’s an impressive and thoughtful man, working long hours for little pay to serve his community. After I got back to my office, a colleague dropped by to tell me about a local archaeological project that needs support, leading me to spend time online exploring possible funding sources.

In my inbox was a message from a North Carolina State University expert on grapes and wine production. I’d written her to ask if she might have any training materials to share with a colleague here. It turns out she visited Moldova not long ago and has an entire website.

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Here’s my desk. Well, actually it’s my colleague’s desk. I’ve been using it while he’s been on vacation.

I got another message from the communications director of Dreamups, the local entrepreneurial hub I wrote about in my last post, setting up a follow-up discussion for us to share ideas about how they might reach out to the international news media.

A Peace Corps colleague contacted me, too, to answer some questions I had about an upcoming “Let Girls Learn” conference.

On my way home, I went to the local telephone store to upgrade my wifi account and to the grocery story to buy food for dinner. Champa and I splurged by buying several flaky  placintas — cherry-filled for breakfast, cheese-filled for lunch. The store has a plate for each kind, including one whose name we didn’t recognize. I asked the clerk whether she knew the word in English. “Halloween,” she said, which we eventually understood to mean “pumpkin.”

When you add it up, it was a rewarding day, even before I studied Romanian after dinner.

Starting on Monday, I’ll reunite with my training group for two more weeks. I’m expecting the staff to remind us anew to be patient and have faith in the process.

Once again, they’ll be right. This time, I plan to pay closer attention. Really. I may even put a reminder in my electronic calendar.

 

Startups Dreamup in Chisinau

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Sergiu Matei, left, interviews tech journalist Andrii Degeler at a gathering of the Dreamups Innovation Campus in Chisinau

Staring at laptops adorned with stickers, sipping coffee, tapping their sneakers, the young people who gathered for a talk from a visiting technology journalist Thursday evening looked like they might be at Durham’s American Underground or some other entrepreneurial hub in the United States. They nodded when the host said “awesome” and “cool.” They laughed at a joke about Pokémon Go.

But they weren’t in Durham, much less Silicon Valley. They were in Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, a country whose economy is struggling and whose people often voice skepticism about the possibility of making a change in the world.

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Almost all in their 20s and 30s, they gathered to hear Andrii Degeler offer advice on how to promote their startup businesses to reporters. Degeler, a Ukrainian native who now lives in Amsterdam, reports on the Central and East European tech scene for The Next Web and publishes a newsletter about the region.

“Salaries are much lower in Moldova,” he noted, saying this has the potential to provide “more freedom to experiment” to international companies that recruit Moldovan talent. The meeting’s host, Sergiu Matei, cautioned, however, that local entrepreneurs will succeed only if they are willing to fail, an idea familiar to U.S. startups  but challenging in a post-Soviet nation where many people are risk-averse.

img_0284Matei joined Degeler on the stage, both in armchairs, one wearing shorts, the other a black T shirt. A projected slide behind them showed the event’s sponsors — local companies, media partners, the U.S. government and others.

Chisinau’s Dreamups Innovation Campus organized the event. Founded only in March, the group calls itself “a community where young entrepreneurs learn, share ideas and launch global companies.” It hosts networking events, pitching sessions and discussions with mentors. It runs a startup accelerator program and helps sponsor local events such as Startup Grind Chisinau. Its website features quotes from Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and others.

Matei, 29, helped launch several companies when he lived in California’s Bay Area, returning to Chisinau to be with his family and work with the local office of a London-based language translation company. He also wanted to “give back to my community” by sharing his expertise with young Moldovans interested in starting their own companies. About 3,000 people have already participated in Dreamups activities, he says.

img_0289Back when I was in Durham, I interacted with the thriving local startup scene, which I helped publicize through articles such as these. Durham’s entrepreneurs face many challenges but these now seem small compared to the ones in Moldova, where venture capital is scarce, collaborators are few and the entire system can seem stacked against a bright young person with a great idea. Yet here was an entire room of them on Thursday evening, determined to make an impact. It was impressive.

I hope to write again about Dreamups and some other programs here that are promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, especially among girls and women. Peace Corps is working with two of these, Diamond Vision and Technovation. If you’re interested in this topic, I hope you’ll share a comment or words of encouragement here with Sergiu and the others. I’m sure they’d appreciate it. Perhaps someone might even want to send them some stickers for their laptops? That would be cool, possibly even awesome.

 

Reprogramming A Retirement

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Brent and Deeporn Beardsley, married for 39 years, work together in the Peace Corps volunteer lounge in Moldova.

When Tucson residents Brent and Deeporn Beardsley walked away in their 60s from long-time jobs at IBM to join the Peace Corps, they thought they were saying goodbye to software development projects.

Instead, they ended up applying their programming and project development skills to assist schools across the Republic of Moldova. As they now wrap up their two years as volunteers in the east European nation, their free class-scheduling program is spreading rapidly with the active support of the country’s education ministry.

Class scheduling is much more complicated in Moldova than in the United States, where students generally take courses every day for a semester or a year — English first period, biology second period and so forth. In Moldova, a student may take six hours weekly of the local language, Romanian, four of math and two of English. Some teachers only work on certain days. Others split their time among two or more schools. Still others leave school unexpectedly for personal reasons. Some teachers have their own classrooms; others move around.

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 4.29.08 PM“It’s a nightmare to juggle everything,” says Dee, who discovered the problem during her first few days as an English teacher in the small Moldovan city of Calarasi. Her own schedule kept changing along with everyone else’s. School officials could use existing software to develop new schedules, but they had to pay high fees to print each version — this in Europe’s poorest country.

After discussing the problem with Dee’s colleagues, Brent began developing a new class-scheduling system with the coding language Java, eventually writing more than 20,000 lines of code. He completed a prototype within three months. The program worked so well that neighboring schools installed it as well. Dee and Brent then reached out to Peace Corps education volunteers throughout Moldova, many of whose schools also adopted the software, which Brent and Dee kept refining.

A local Peace Corps official, Eugenia Iurco, brought the program to the attention of friends working in Moldova’s education ministry. One of them, senior consultant Inga Cruciescu, recognized the program’s potential to solve a long-standing national problem without incurring new costs. She embraced it and began teaching regional workshops with Brent and Dee, training administrators how to install and use the latest version of the program.

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Inga Cruciescu from Moldova’s national education ministry, left, is taking the lead in promoting the program.

“The program really simplifies the process of planning lessons and improves the quality of education,” Cruciescu says. “”We’ve piloted it in 150 schools and plan to take it to the national level next year.”

Ionela Titirez of the U.S. Agency for International Development got behind the effort, too, providing transportation and refreshments for the workshops and arranging to translate the user’s guide and other materials into both Romanian and Moldova’s other main language, Russian. A small grant from the Peace Corps Partnership Program covered some of the project’s other costs. Brent’s work partners — Victor Ambroci, Valeria Ambroci and Evgheny Tinonov — assisted as well.

“Brent and Dee have done tremendous work,” Cruciescu says. “It’s been amazing to observe how much effort and personal time they’ve dedicated. At first glance you might have expected a language or age barrier, but both of them were very flexible and open. We’ve had an impressive collaboration.”

While working on the project, Brent also helped Stacy Chong, 49, a Peace Corps small enterprise volunteer working to assist Moldova’s fashion industry.

“Brent was an integral part of our project to develop Moldova’s very first textile library,” says Chong, who recently completed her service and began attending graduate school in Boston. “He built the database that enabled us to store information about all of our swatches and books. That enabled us to create an online textile library to assist Moldova’s fashion industry, which is growing rapidly and employs more than 20,000 women. Brent did all of this for no other reason than to help us.”

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Brent Beardsley assists high school officials at a training session in Moldova’s Leova district.

Both projects have been “totally different” from Brent’s previous work in a corporate setting back home. “I used to enjoy working with our customers and, of course the company might give me promotions or financial rewards. Here I feel like I’m really making a difference in people’s lives.”

“We’re not living in poverty as Peace Corps volunteers, but we’re certainly not living as multimillionaires. We’re getting a heck of a lot more than money,” agrees Dee, who grew up in Bangkok before moving to the United States decades ago.

She and Brent encourage other older Americans to consider Peace Corps service. “You get more respect as an older volunteer,” Dee says. “If you still have your health and you have the yearning to help others, you should do it.”

With two adult children and four grandchildren back in America, the couple is looking forward to returning home. However, they don’t expect to stop seeking new challenges and ways to help others.

“Am I just going to sit around on my couch or my porch, waiting to die?” Dee says. “My experience in the Peace Corps has shown me there is so much more I can do.”

 

 

 

Video: First Bell Ceremony

Every school in the Republic of Moldova celebrates its opening on September 1 with a colorful ceremony called Primal Sunet De Clopoțel, or First Bell. Local leaders and school officials give speeches of encouragement, students perform songs and dances and, finally, bells are rung as everyone cheers. This brief video shows highlights from the school in Ialoveni where Champa has begun teaching.