Refugees and My Mom

This is my mother’s passport photo taken in Berlin before escaping Nazi Germany to be warmly welcomed into the United States. You can see the swastikas on the stamp.

If the U.S. Government had banned her and she had stayed in Germany, my mother would have been murdered. You would not be reading this because I would not exist. Nor would my children and grandchildren. Instead, my mother grew up to become a proud and productive American citizen who contributed to her society in countless ways. She gave birth to my sisters and me, and we were followed by our children, their cousins and the next generation behind them.

Thanks to one of those cousins, my niece Juliana Collamer, for reminding us of this photo, which our family treasures. We have always been grateful to America. Today it is hard to feel proud of it.

#NoBanNoWall #NeverForget

Reposted from my Facebook page, http://bit.ly/2jiI9H3

Team BUK

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Forget the upcoming Super Bowl. What I am super-excited about right now is whether the three teenagers you see here will win the final round of Diamond Challenge Moldova on Saturday.

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That’s Elizabet on the left, Lucia and Victor. They are three of the most talented and inspiring young people I have ever met — anywhere. I’ve been mentoring their team and will be cheering for them as they vie for the top prize in Moldova’s showcase for aspiring entrepreneurs.

If they win, they will receive $1,000 and a chance to compete in April at the international Diamond Challenge for High School Entrepreneurs in Delaware.

img_2024I’ve been meeting with Team BUK regularly for several months, helping them develop and refine their business plan. However, they came up with the ideas and have done all of the work — lots and lots of work. Like the five other finalists in their category, they will now deliver their final pitch in English before a team of judges. They and the other teams attended a training sesson two weeks ago where I described how to do this effectively. All of the teams were impressive and it was fun to work with them.

I’m not discussing our team’s business idea or pitch strategy until after the finals. For now, I ask you to join me in sending good wishes in their direction. That’s what two Duke students, Kiara and Sydney, did with my former colleague Sonja Foust several weeks ago when they unexpectedly sent me this special version of The Week at Duke in 60 Seconds, which I helped to create. Play it to the end for their surprise for Lucia, Elizabet and Victor. It’s been a joy to work with the three of them, no matter how the competition turns out. (The video is also at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lj5zHX_S7CY.)

The Women’s March

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My sisters Ruth, left, and Nancy at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.

Almost all of the Jarmul women took part in Saturday’s women’s marches: my sisters, my nieces, my daugher-in-law, even two of my granddaughters. You can see some of their photos here. Our friends were protesting, too, in North Carolina, New York, California and elsewhere.

Not Champa and me. We are in Moldova. We sent messages of encouragement but felt like we were missing in action.

I’ve written previously about how hard it is to be away at moments like this, noting after the Orlando shootings in June that “it’s strange to be so distant when something momentous happens back home.” Champa and I felt this frustration even more on Saturday. We were eating placinte and preparing lesson plans in Ialoveni while our family and friends back home were out in the streets.

Here in Moldova, there were no protests in solidarity with the Washington march, as there were in Sydney, Berlin, London, Paris, Nairobi, Cape Town and other cities around the world.

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On the other hand, how many Americans noticed or cared who was standing next to Vladimir Putin at his press conference this past Tuesday during Putin’s widely reported remarks about Russian prostitutes? It was Moldova’s new president, Igor Dodon, visiting Putin at the Kremlin. For people here, Dodon’s trip was a big deal. (Even if you don’t speak Russian, watch his amusement when Putin is asked about prostitutes.)

One of the great gifts of Peace Corps is perspective. I am reminded every day that people around the world care about different things, even though they are connected in more ways than they may realize. Through Peace Corps, we and our fellow volunteers are trying to promote friendship and understanding among them. We also remain nonpartisan in our official roles.

So, although Champa and I wish we’d been there on Saturday, we hope our American friends will give us a pass. We were quietly cheering for you. Perhaps you heard us.

Preparing Their Pitches

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The students you see in this post represent Moldova’s brightest hopes for the future.

They are optimistic in a country where many people are pessimistic. They want to start businesses and help others. They are overflowing with great ideas, and they are brave enough to present them on a stage in front of a group of judges — in English.

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They are the finalists in this year’s Diamond Challenge Moldova, a competition for high school students interested in becoming entrepreneurs. On Jan. 28, seven student teams will vie to be named the best “social venture,” and six others will compete for the best business idea. Both winning teams will receive $1,000 and a chance to compete in April at the international Diamond Challenge for High School Entrepreneurs competition in Delaware.img_8650

On Sunday, I led a workshop to help the teams sharpen their public speaking skills and pitches. Joining me were several other Peace Corps volunteers who have been mentoring teams, helping to select the finalists and organizing the competition as a whole. I have been mentoring one of the teams myself and will be cheering for them in the finals.

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Nearly 2,000 students from around the world have participated in Diamond Challenge since it launched in 2012. Moldovan students have done very well in the competition, with two teams making it to the finals last year. Do It For Bunica won the $10,000 grand prize in the social venture competition with its project to connect expatriate Moldovan workers with teenagers back home who can help care for their aging parents.

Another Moldovan team won the social impact prize a year earlier with its idea of producing clothing with reflective thread that can be seen by seen at night by cars driving along dangerous country roads.

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Peace Corps volunteer Chris Flowers, center, and Ana Mirza of A.O. INVENTO organized Sunday’s workshop and many of the other activities for Diamond Challenge Moldova.

Both of those earlier teams gave excellent pitches, which I showed on Sunday, helping the current students learn the best ways of persuading judges, investors or others. My other sources ranged from the television show “Shark Tank” to President Obama to Guy Kawasaki, the renown Silicon Valley entrepreneur. The students will be making their own final pitches before a new group of Moldovan and American judges at the Dreamups Innovation Campus, the local entrepreneurship center about which I’ve written previously.

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Peronally, if someone had asked me when I was in high school to speak publicly in a foreign language, I would have been terrified. That’s why I also showed this hilarious video with Steve Martin, to help the students relax. I’ll post again after the finals to tell you how their presentations turned out. Based on what I saw at the workshop, I expect them to be terrific.

Honoring St. Vasile

One of the joys of being a Peace Corps volunteer, here in Moldova and around the world, is that you never know what’s going to happen next. You’re surprised regularly by holidays and events that people forgot to tell you about.

The four people you see in the video above proved this again on Friday evening when they appeared unexpectedly at our home in Ialoveni. [The video is also on YouTube.]

As you can see, they chanted and sang after our host mother, Doamna Nina, invited them into the living room. (That’s Nina in the video between Champa and our grandmother, or Bunica.)screen-shot-2017-01-13-at-8-03-22-pm It turns out our visitors were celebrating St. Vasile, or Basil the Great, a religious figure born in the year 329. He lived virtuously, established monasteries, served the poor and was canonized by the Orthodox Church shortly after his death.

On the evening of his special day, children across Moldova walk from house to house to sing carols and chants in his honor. The holiday coincides with the Orthodox Christian new year, which occurs shortly after our own new year back home.

Nina gave them all fruit, candy, money and loaves of the traditional round braided bread called colac. She was very generous, and we contributed something, too. Our visitors made out well.

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As they left, the older woman you see in the photo crossed herself and then wished Champa and me good luck in the new year.

On Sunday, as Americans prepare to celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., people here will commemorate the birthday of Mihai Eminescu, a famous Romanian poet. This time I plan to be ready. Well, at least until Monday, when some Moldovans will celebrate still another holiday, this one involving howling wolves. I’m still unsure about that one.

Our Digital Divide

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Are today’s Peace Corps volunteers over-connected? That’s the question I explore in this article just published by WorldView, the international magazine of the National Peace Corps Association. (A digital image of the article follows, with a link to a PDF version.)

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Here’s a link to a PDF version of the articleworldview-winter-2016_ourdigitaldivide.

Funny Peace Corps Videos

It helps to have a sense of humor if you’re a Peace Corps volunteer. Over the years, volunteers around the world have produced funny videos about their experiences. Here are three of my favorites. If you know of other funny Peace Corps videos that could be added to this list, please add a comment and share your suggestion.