“Peace Corps is not about living without electricity, it’s not a contest to see who suffers most. Peace Corps is about relationships. It is not about building a well or a sewer, it is about building understanding and friendship. I hope that Posh Corps will change the way volunteers approach their service, and that it will ensure that suffering is no longer a metric for volunteer success.”
~Alan Toth, Director & Producer of the Film Posh Corps
I write this from my computer with working wifi, where I have 4G reception, electricity, running water, and a hot shower. If I want to go to Carrefour, I just take a 10-minute taxi ride and a 1.5-hour bus ride into Marrakech. Some Morocco Peace Corps Volunteers don’t have these things, and live ten hours from a big city. And some have even more than me.
Poverty & Peace Corps
Whereas traditionally or stereotypically, PCVs were all living in extreme conditions with thatched roofs, well water, and a call home once a year, the term “Posh Corps” implies that PCVs now—especially in higher-income countries and at larger sites—are living a less valuable, even inauthentic, experience than ones in more isolated areas. Posh Corps makes poverty or lack of access a central component of being a Peace Corps Volunteer.
But like Toth, I believe that using physical, emotional, or mental hardship as a metric for volunteer success is not only misguided, it is also problematic. No matter what, moving to a new community, country, and culture, and creating your own work with the ambiguous task of youth development is going to be challenging. While these challenges produce growth, suffering just for the sake of it doesn’t do anything to help PCVs or Moroccan youth.
In fact, the idea that the poorer the site, the more meaningful the Peace Corps experience perpetuates “a mindset of superiority [of the West] and inferiority [of the rest], whereby the betterment of peoples elsewhere cannot be thought of outside of a Western presence,” as Dr. Olivia U. Rutazibwa said. In reality, poor or rich, no community in Morocco actually needs Peace Corps Volunteers to improve. PCVs are added value; they are no one’s saviors. Morocco is and will continue progressing because of capable and resilient Moroccans.
Morocco’s economic development doesn’t hinge on Peace Corps Volunteers at all; but the idea of Posh Corps v. Peace Corps ensures that when PCVs return home, they get to use their time living in what is seen as a poorer area to gain credibility and show off their “grit” in the international development community. Instead of the Third Goal teaching Americans about the amazing people, promising innovation, and cultural richness that Morocco holds, the “PCV suffering competition” turns this dynamic country into a passive tool of the Peace Corps Volunteer showing off how strong they are.
Youth Development & Peace Corps
It’s not that poverty doesn’t exist in Morocco. In fact, with a Gini Coefficient of 40.3%, Morocco has higher inequality than any other North African country (please note that the Gini Coefficient for the U.S. is not far off from that number at 36%). Almost 19% of Morocco’s population lives on less than $4 a day, despite the growing number of billionaires in the country. Just one hour away from me, in a village near the tourist-beach town of Essaouira, 17 people died last year in a stampede for food-aid from a local association.
But just sending Americans to live in high-need areas for two years is not going to help Moroccans living there, or the American volunteers, to grow. With Peace Corps Morocco’s renewed focus on Youth Development, volunteers are rightly expected to cooperate and collaborate with other young people seeking to make positive changes in their communities through trainings, classes, and clubs. These activities can happen in an isolated village, a small town, or a big city—but it is enthusiastic work partners, not poverty, that are prerequisites for a successful Peace Corps service.
With such work partners, in Peace Corps lingo, “counterparts,” Americans can contribute the things they can do well—such as adding new perspectives, connecting people to resources, or encouraging others—to produce sustainable projects, support youth, and work towards common goals. These humble goals, that are more focused on people-to-people ties rather than poverty alleviation, are ones that don’t require a village or town to be “needy” in order to get a volunteer.
Progress ≠ Westernization
Indeed, no matter how big or small the site, I’ve never met a Peace Corps Volunteer who didn’t witness social issues in their community. Where a small rural village might have low literacy rates, a bigger town might have more harassment and crime. Where an isolated site might have low access to resources, a more connected one might have more disengaged youth.
My experience with Peace Corps revealed how I used to view the term “development” as linear and synonymous with “Westernization.” In reality, having such a narrow view of progress blinded me to social issues that exist in every community, in every country, no matter how “Western.” For example, while my site, Sidi Bouzid, is more rural than the nearby town Chichaoua, the people here have a higher sense of safety and community.
Every place in the world has problems that are in need of solving. As a relatively privileged person seeking to “make the world a better place,” my role is not to solve other people’s problems, but rather, listen to others, find partners, and support them. I could do this from a site that is big, small, isolated, or connected, as long as there are people and institutions on the other end with whom to cooperate.
Sidi Bouzid as a Peace Corps Site
During my two years living in Sidi Bouzid, I did find those people. Together, my incredible counterparts and I started afterschool activities for the first time ever in Sidi Bouzid, put on a training for associations, started a “mobile patisserie,” and repainted and re-equipped a youth center. We also faced plenty of challenges, such as low participation rates, lack of sustainability, and drama between associations.
Despite challenges and plenty of things that could be seen as “failures,” the projects I helped with were worthwhile. The youth center we worked on continues to be used despite people fighting over ownership. Other women have carried on our “mobile snack” idea in the women’s center despite internal drama. Two participants started a cooperative that they conceived of during our capacity-building training; another association even re-created the same training but with higher attendance.
Yet once I leave, Peace Corps has decided not to place another Volunteer in my site—I will be the first and last PCV in Sidi Bouzid. Instead, they will place 1-2 Volunteers in the nearby town Chichaoua, where associations and institutions are more active and experienced than they are here. Even though I love Sidi Bouzid and I know that there are enthusiastic and talented people here—both work-wise and just in general—I do think that the incoming Volunteer will be able to better support associations in a place where there is already so much going on. She or he will not be the one initiating projects, but rather, adding value to them.
Because of the people I met here and what I learned from them, I wouldn’t change my Peace Corps experience in Sidi Bouzid. That being said, I will never call the Volunteer placed in Chichaoua a member of Posh Corps instead of Peace Corps. Because the term “Posh Corps” assumes that his or her experience in the bigger and less rural community is less valuable, challenging, or “real” than my time living in the village just 6 kilometers away. If Peace Corps is to stay relevant in an ever-changing world and social sector, the misguided and problematic term “Posh Corps”—and the judgment of PCVs that “have it easy”—should cease to exist.
“I came into my Peace Corps site ready to change it—but instead, it changed me.” I heard this refrain from way too many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) before heading off to Morocco. I thought I was so self-aware by contrast, with no illusions of an ability to save anyone or change anything during my time here.
I was determined not to take after “savior Barbie” or be fooled by the “Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” I was primarily driven, like most other PCVs, not by the desire to improve Morocco, but rather, the desire to improve myself so I could be a better person and professional afterwards. I thought I had hacked Peace Corps, and I wondered what I had left to learn over two years.
But the joke’s on me. Knowing and understanding are two different things, and the conclusions I thought I had so cleverly reached back in DC were just some words I knew. Indeed, with 24 months down and just two more to go, I still have so much left to learn.
As the Jewish and Islamic New Year ends and Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of forgiveness approaches, I am coming to realize that this learning can’t happen until I recognize my mistakes and forgive myself for them. Even if I can already verbalize what I need to learn, true understanding won’t be evident in my blog but rather in my behaviors, feelings, and daily interactions.
I recently went on a day trip with our Model UN group from site. Walking around the local shops with two students, the shopkeeper asked us where we were from. Not feeling like engaging, I answered for all of us – “Chichaoua.” The shopkeeper replied that he knew my students were Moroccan, but I was clearly not.
After two years of living in Morocco and learning Moroccan Arabic, being called out on my foreignness and Western-ness feels like an insult. When someone switches from Darija to French/English, or calls me a “Gaouria” (the Moroccan word for Westerner/European) I can’t help but get offended.
Yet my offense is greedy.
See, I already have the ability to move through the world freely with my white and class privileges and strong passport. I am able to live in Morocco and not suffer real consequences when I break with local norms and often-unfair expectations. Checking in on me often, the police and gendarme value my own life and safety far more than the life and safety of the local citizens here. As a native English speaker, I could have a well-paying teaching job here without really investing in any relevant education. As an American, things that seem expensive to most people seem affordable or even cheap to me. And in general or when I make a big mistake, people go easier on me or are nicer to me since I’m a Gaouria.
Enjoying these privileges, I also want the same “insider” status that Moroccans have, when it’s convenient for me, in daily conversations and interactions with one another. I want to speak the language without anyone commenting on my accent or asking me where I’m from. I want to feel like the most beautiful aspects of this culture—the dancing, food, traditions, art, symbols, and stories—are my own. I want to live in a Moroccan city and get a fulfilling job in a region where youth unemployment is three times as high as it is in the U.S. I want to criticize and analyze the social issues—such as the rights of women and girls—with the same credibility and stakes as someone who is actually affected by them.
Me getting offended when someone knows I’m not Moroccan is the essence of cultural appropriation. Wikipedia defines this as “the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from an equal cultural exchange due to an imbalance of power, often as a byproduct of colonialism and oppression.”
Many Peace Corps Volunteers might tire from the ongoing conversation about cultural appropriation, since it comes up so often with such little clarity. In fact, at our Close of Service conference, I noticed a lot of PCVs rolling their eyes when the subject was raised. Indeed, sometimes getting into the nitty-gritty of what does and does not constitute cultural appropriation takes away from the bigger point of policing yourself in the first place.
The intention behind cultural appropriation is to call out unequal power dynamics and how Western cultures have been exploiting other cultures. As one article so aptly argues, “…the cultural appropriation issue markets itself as fighting social injustice that is racism—but it entirely detracts from the issue of racism.”
So, is it cultural appropriation as a non-Moroccan to wear a djellaba (traditional Moroccan robe) or get a tattoo of the Amazigh “free man” symbol? While these are important questions to pose, the reason for thinking about it is the bigger, overarching dynamic that as a white American, my own people have been Orientalizing, inferorizing, and exploiting people from this local culture throughout history up until today.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer with the explicit goal of “integrating,” it’s important to remember that even if I feel like I’m part of my community, the very mobility I had in choosing to come here prevents me from actually being “maghribia” (from Morocco), chichaouia” (from Chichaoua), or “bouzidia” (from Sidi Bouzid).
Gaouria Privilege & Peace Corps' Third Goal
My desire to spend more time in Morocco is complicated by the fact that it is more normal and expected for Peace Corps Volunteers to go back home once they’re done with their time in their host country. While Peace Corps doesn’t mind if I stay in Morocco longer, participants of U.S. State Department exchange programs are sometimes required by the U.S. government to return to their home countries for at least two years after their visa end date.
When I return home then, I will be returning to a society in which I’ll be expected, welcomed, and given “credit” for living in Morocco, without being marginalized for my race, religion, or origin. When I complain about aspects of Morocco to Americans, I am in danger of reinforcing harmful and simplistic perceptions Americans have about this country or region. Especially given that perceptions about Morocco don’t affect me personally, it’s not my place to criticize Moroccan society as a whole.
Talking about my two years here, in a way that avoids generalization or prescription, will be challenging. But there will be people in the U.S. who care enough to listen to my full stories with all their uncertainties, caveats, and complexities. I have such a loving, patient, and open-minded community in the U.S. that I feel confident my re-adjustment will be easy. In a similar way, people in Morocco, too, eased my adjustment here, taking me in not just as an American, but as an individual with unique quirks, hopes, and anxieties. It’s because of this warmth that I feel so welcome in this community.
Yet it is naïve to think that my foreignness in general, and my Americanness in particular, didn’t play a major role in my time here. The longer I stay in Morocco, and the more I learn about this country, the more I have come to understand that I am not and never will be Moroccan. And when engaging in international exchange as a white Westerner in a postcolonial country, acknowledging and accepting this fact is essential in recounting my experience accurately.
“Jews both in the Diaspora and in Israel should always play a part in the survival and welfare of Israel, whether by living there, donating money, serving in the IDF, or representing Israel globally. The ideal Jew should live in Israel, but should always remember their identity as a global citizen, representing Israel around the world.”
This is a direct quote from a paper I wrote as a senior in high school while studying abroad in Hod HaSharon, Israel. My mom recently dug it up and sent me a picture. “Never show this to anyone,” I told her. As my worldview and social network has expanded, it’s hard for me to reconcile my old goals and conceptions with my current ones in both personal and political contexts.
But if I want to find my part in confronting global injustice authentically, I first have to confront how I’ve helped perpetuate that injustice in my own life. And as I begin to spend what may be my last Ramadan in Morocco and the world’s eyes turn towards President Trump, Jerusalem, and Gaza, there is no more prudent a time to do so.
A Simpler World
Unlike many children in Israel and especially in Palestine, my upbringing was blissfully apolitical. I learned about Zionism (the movement supporting a Jewish State in Israel) before I learned about how extreme nationalism can hinder empathy; and I learned about it not as a contested movement but as a mere extension of who I already was and the community from which I came.
As a young girl active in my Jewish youth group, I learned that Judaism and support of Israel, even from afar, went hand-in-hand. My first time out of the country was going to my cousin’s wedding in Israel. We hosted lovely Israelis in our home; neighbors hosted young soldiers just out of the army. I sang the Israeli national anthem at Hebrew School, helped plan Israel’s 60th birthday celebration on the National Mall, and donated my Bat Mitzvah money towards the purchase of bomb-sniffing dogs for the IDF. Supporting Israel felt less like a decision, and more like a tradition that I’d never think to question.
Finally, I embarked on a two-month study abroad quarter in Israel in 2009. The trip was important for me; it was my first time being in a foreign country for a long period of time without my parents. It was one of the first things I did without any good friends. Most of all, it was the first time I felt politically engaged in and intrigued by what I finally thought of as a call to defend Israel against Palestinian and Arab opposition.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the first international issue I had ever closely followed, leading to leadership roles and a broader interest in global affairs. After the High School in Israel program, I began attending AIPAC conferences and co-founded the first AIPAC chapter at my university. As a cohort, we lobbied our Congressmen in support of AIPAC’s talking points, created a petition to partner with Israeli universities, and even presented this case for the partnership at a Board of Regents meeting. As a white girl from Potomac vaguely interested in politics, I had never fought for anything before; I felt like I had a purpose.
College & The Freedom to be Uncertain
Yet one seminar, called “Women and War in the Middle East,” changed everything for me simply by calling into question the perspective from which I learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By night, I was preparing to represent my university at the next AIPAC Policy Conference. By day, I was reading about human suffering at the hands of American and Israeli military action and policy.
The next year, driven by my interest in the seminar, I decided to study Arabic instead of Hebrew. And from there onwards, my increasing involvement in the university's Near Eastern Studies department seemed to directly challenge my extracurricular activities.
I’d bump into a friend from Arabic class at a SAFE (Students Allied for Freedom and Equality) anti-apartheid-wall demonstration on the way to an AIPAC meeting. I’d eat hummus with my Jewish sorority friends then attend an event on the colonization of Palestinian food. I’d take a picture with my then-role model Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren only to have a crying argument with my parents over the The Lemon Tree and the Palestinian right of return the following week.
The unwavering Zionism I had so eagerly adopted early on was making it dizzying to negotiate between being the “ideal Jew” and an open-minded student of Arabic studies simultaneously. So I took a class on “Middle Eastern Memoirs” which focused especially on autobiographical works from Arab and Jewish writers. The seminar’s professor was also my professor for Elementary Modern Standard Arabic; she was Jewish and had also lived in the Arab world for many years. At the time, she embodied a resolution to the confusion I was feeling; her life path captivated me.
In my final paper for her class I compared the Palestinian documentary Paradise Lost and the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, asserting that both authors had “found a way to use art as a means of escaping the stagnant choices of who to be and how to act under polarizing circumstances...In the end, people want freedom--freedom to be themselves, to be happy, and to be uncertain.” Yes, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan and not Palestine or revolution-era Iran. But clearly, re-reading the paper, I was projecting my own role and search for truth in a global conversation.
The Privilege of Slacktivism
I wrote ten years ago that it’s my duty to play a part in the survival and welfare of Israel, before realizing that unconditionally accepting this duty can come at the expense of innocent people. And so it came to be that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the platform on which I finally learned how to critically think and form opinions independent of my upbringing and family. It is the reason I got involved in international affairs, studied Arabic, and eventually, got to where I am today.
As my understanding of justice and peace evolved, I could not reconcile my newly-developed worldview without denying my former activities and opinions in defense of Israel. Eventually, without consequence, I distanced myself and decreased the mental energy I spent thinking about the issue altogether.
And therein lies my privilege as an American Jew. When the opposing posts on my Facebook newsfeed regarding Jerusalem and violence in Gaza overwhelm me, I can just stop reading. Back in college, I exercised my own influence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the conflict itself has no implications for or influence over me. The same is not true for my Palestinian friends. My intermittent "slacktivism" will make me complicit in violence until I decide to reclaim my own share of my community's collective responsibility.
The Ideal Jewlie
Under the backdrop of decades of violence and diplomatic stalemate, intensified nationalism, terrorism, a complex web of economic and political interests, revolutions, civil wars, nuclear threats, Trump’s election, the Jerusalem announcement, and most recently, violently quashed protests, it seems like there is nothing I can do to end injustice and fight the inhumane blockade in Gaza and killings of Palestinians.
But I do know I have a voice in my own communities. If I could start a politically pro-Israel student group and create university-level partnerships as a student ten years ago, I can also push friends, family, and colleagues to think more critically, acknowledge injustice, and recognize the complexity of such an iconic conflict that continues to cause so much pain today.
As a Jew in the U.S., I can call out Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in my own community and amplify Palestinian and Arab voices to the people who I know wouldn’t otherwise listen. I can stand up for a more nuanced Jewish education, one that does not compel students to support Israel's military or take up a particular political position based on religious identity. As a Jew in Morocco, I can encourage Palestine-loving Moroccans to understand that just like Donald Trump does not represent me, Benjamin Netanyahu does not represent Israeli people, and faith and nationalism don’t have to go hand-in-hand.
Above all, I can keep reading about daily realities in Palestine and Israel with urgency and an astute mindset. Because before I even knew about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I learned from Judaism the same values on which Ramadan rests: the lifelong pursuit of knowledge, self-discipline, humility, empathy, and coexistence.
An American and Moroccan dog switch places. The American dog asks his Moroccan friend how he likes the U.S. “It’s great,” the Moroccan dog replies, “everyone is so nice, the food is amazing, and there’s lots of comfortable places to rest. How do you like Morocco?” The American dog replies, “Well, everyone here treats me like a dog.”
I just received news that my dog of 17 years, Corki, will be put down today, and I thought about that story after heading to my host family’s house, which is on a farm (a place where the circle of life for animals is well accepted, if you catch my drift). My host family knows how much I love my dog, so they’re sympathetic as I hold back tears telling them. Just outside, there are four newborn puppies sleeping peacefully besides their mother.
My dog, by contrast, got spayed early so she could become a member of our own family instead of creating a dog family of her own. Indeed, I came from a community where we agonize over naming our pets, buy them presents for their birthdays, sleep beside them in beds, take more pictures of them than of anyone else, enter them into “cutest pet” contests in the newspaper, hug them after months apart, and seek comfort from them when we’re upset. When I was in elementary school, we even said Mourner’s Kaddish and held a formal burial service for my friend’s dog, Jake.
These two canine realities – the one in Sidi Bouzid and the one back home—seem to reconcile only in Corki’s passing. In telling me the news, my mom reminded me, “Corki is a dog. She doesn’t have a life. She’s not happy living like this, and keeping her around would be easier for us but harder for her.”
At the end of the day, Corki’s not a person; all she had was her health and the little joys each day. She measured her affection unintentionally based on who spent time with, protected, and cared for her (aka my mother). It was a type of instinctual and in-the-moment affection that only dogs can provide us with.
A lot has changed in my life since I was 10. Through making new friends, hanging out with old ones, long nights of homework, lazy days in, tears and teenage drama, graduation parties, long farewells, and airport reunions, Corki’s been there. I’d come home and talk to her in made-up languages, vaguely Slavic accents, or the broken Arabic and Turkish I’d been learning in college, because I knew it didn’t matter what I did or said to her.
My own feelings of love, loss, and nostalgia only come from the place I made for her in my own complicated human way over the past 17 years. But surrounded by stray dogs and cats, albeit none of who are as cute as her, I’m reminded that Corki, too, is one of them. And remembering that Corki's a dog helps me to grieve her in the same way that she loved me—openly, simply, and with unwavering acceptance and appreciation.
B’slama lorkadoo, seni cok seviyorum.
I received an email from a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer that began with the line, “thanks for your service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco.”
I’ve always felt strange about describing my time in Morocco as a “service,” but I could never put my finger on why. In fact, I have used the “service” multiple times on this blog, without truly examining the word’s implications.
Then I read this enlightening post called “The ‘Third World’ Is Not Your Classroom.” The title caught my eye especially because the last sentence in my very own last blog post was: “I want to learn to Sabr, and Sidi Bouzid is still the perfect classroom.” I wondered if I had been assuming, as the author so succinctly puts it, “that marginalized people are always at the ready to enlighten the privileged.”
Being in a ‘Classroom’ Is Not a Service
In a global context, given the “real, tangible benefits to having experiences abroad,” we “too often…celebrate the revelation without considering the labor that makes it possible.” It’s not a question that I am learning more than I’m teaching here; I already knew that coming in. When I use the word “service,” it implies a false, one-way street that fails to recognize the nuanced nature of my time in Sidi Bouzid.
More than that, the word “service” gives me all the credit, and my counterparts (who, by the way, unlike me don’t get paid) none of the credit. In reality, my infinitely generous counterparts, neighbors, and host families have taught me a lot—from how to set up a gas tank and cultural norms to planning a project and dealing with the administration.
They didn’t have to teach me, but they did anyway. And this teaching requires work. Instead of just assuming that my time here is a mutual exchange or a “service,” it’s important to evaluate the costs that my presence here has had on the community. After all (I can’t remember where I heard this quote) but, “whoever said doing no harm was easy was probably doing it wrong.”
Model UN Is Not a Service
That’s the quote I had lingering in my head today after telling my Model UN students that the conference is either cancelled or postponed until summer due to funding approval that got held up in Washington. These are the students that have been coming to the Women’s Center (Nedi Neswi) or our house every Saturday to learn about the UN, international affairs, and their assigned countries (Cote D’Ivoire and the Netherlands). My heart broke when I had to tell them the bad news.
Of course, this is not the end of the world, and last-minute funding issues are all too normal in "development"-related work. Still, the name “service” implies that I have brought only benefits to these students. I’m sure they’ve learned all the things about international relations and the UN (which is, by the way, an inherently unbalanced institution where my own country has more power than theirs). But also, they are all sitting at home right now angry and bummed out because of me.
And what has my counterpart gained from teaching the Model UN Club? One might say she has had the opportunity to learn more about a new program and gain facilitation experience. But at the same time, she has spent one of her two free days implementing a club that has proven to be a challenging and at times disappointing experience.
Changing the Paradigm is Mutually Beneficial
Changing “service” to another word removes unrealistic expectations that I have of myself. If I’m not able to deliver on a promise like the MUN Conference, I’m too tired to help students with English, or I’m on vacation, I try to remind myself that my assignment is not to singlehandedly change anyone’s life, get them an A in a class, or spend 100% of my time in my site. Instead, it is to try my best and do what I can to support. And I don’t have to sacrifice my own wellbeing or peace of mind to do so.
Likewise, changing “service” also removes unrealistic expectations that others might have of me. The administration in Chichaoua thought I would come in and turn our empty Women’s Center into a bustling one full of women. Instead, I spent the better part of my first year getting to know the local community and culture. The Peace Corps office recognized that was fine. But since the administration supposed I was “at their service,” they were confused why I needed so much time to “learn” and “adapt.”
It’s hard to explain the point of Peace Corps to other Americans, much less to people who come from a different country and culture. But at this point, I believe that many people in Sidi Bouzid are much clearer about my role here than they were when I first came. I don’t think that most of my friends here would describe my time as a “service.” They understand that I rarely do projects alone, I am not a miracle worker nor cash machine, I need time to myself, and most of all, they understand that I’m not just here to do work; I also came to make friends and learn about their culture.
It’s safe to say that “learning” and “making friends” are things that PCVs can commit to doing. Moreover, “teaching” and “hosting” are things that Moroccan nationals have been doing for PCVs since Peace Corps’ inception here in 1963.
If that’s true, then using the word “service” is simplistic because it ignores the local work of communities in supporting PCVs. “Service” is inaccurate because it assumes that Peace Corps Volunteers come here altruistically. “Service” is outdated because it de-centers the personal relationships that keep Peace Corps a relevant and worthwhile endeavor in the first place.
Peace Corps Volunteers: it is time to take ourselves off the pedestal on which the historically problematic development community has put us. Once we find ourselves on solid ground, we might be able to look at Peace Corps for what it truly is: a fun, challenging, crazy, perspective-shifting, unforgettable experience.
I always learned that the Arabic word “Sabr” translates to “patience” in English.
That's the translation I had in my head when over 14 months ago, I wrote That Cliché PC Post about Patience. I talked about patience as the value I needed to learn in order to finish my 27-month Peace Corps commitment through all the obstacles. Yet 18 months into my Peace Corps service, I've realized that there's a fork in the road where patience dead-ends and Sabr continues.
You see, waiting, or being patient, implies an eventual end point. If someone tells me to “Sabri” (female command form of Sabr), it’s never been clear what I’m waiting for—and there’s never any guaranteed payoff. As “Sabr” has become an ongoing theme in my time here, patience, or the ability to wait, increasingly felt like an insufficient translation.
So I consulted the Wikipedia page on the concept of “Sabr.” As it turns out, Sabr is a really significant concept in Islam. Sabr more accurately translates to “endurance,” “perseverance,” or “persistence.”
With Arabic, and perhaps other religiously connected languages like Hebrew, I sometimes observe a depth in words that English doesn’t have. Arabic’s system of root letters connects values, traits, and concepts that in English remain discrete. Indeed, in an entry for “Sabr,’ the Encyclopedia of Islam points out, “the significance of this conception can hardly be conveyed in a West European language by a single word.”
The root ṣ-b-r, according to Arabic lexicographers, means to restrain or bind. Again, Wikipedia says that “In the Quran, words that are derived from the root ṣ-b-r occur frequently, with the general meaning of persisting on the right path when under adverse circumstance, whether internal or external, personal or collective.” It’s mentioned when talking about fasting (Ramadan is the month of “Sabr”), internal struggle (in terms of finding Sabr when you want to give up), and the death of loved ones (Jacob exhibits Sabr in his acceptance of his son passing away).
Sabr and Shukr (gratitude) are the two major components of faith (Iman). In this vein, Sabr is associated with staying true to one’s commitment to faith with the expectation that you’ll be eventually rewarded; even if it’s not in this life. Thus, there is humility and hope—rather than any frustration—that is implicit in the waiting. This is one Hadith on the significance of Sabr:
In English, there is no verb for patience; there is only waiting. No one would ever say, “I’m just patienting.” When someone tells me to “wait,” or even to “be patient,” I assume that I’m only going to wait for a fixed period of time before getting upset. I grew up with the attitude that if waiting didn’t work, I should take matters into my own hands.
If I’m at a restaurant and my meal hasn’t come for an hour, I should speak up. If the bus doesn’t come when I need it to, I should take a taxi. If my friend keeps flaking out on plans, I should stop trying to set a date. If an employer is being unfair to me, I should look elsewhere for a job. In this case, I think my own understanding of waiting and patience is intertwined with my class privilege and an idea that I’m entitled to certain rewards in transactional relationships.
While I try to avoid generalizing, it is widely recognized that language affects and reflects culture. Aside from Arabic, other languages—including Turkish, Urdu, Pashto, Persian, Sindhi, and Uzbek—adopted the Quranic word Sabr as well in talking about patience. I wonder if these speakers understand waiting and patience from a completely different starting point.
In any case, a lot of people in Sidi Bouzid are used to rolling with the punches and enduring for long periods of time, with the understanding that there might not be a clear-cut payoff in the foreseeable future. Many times, there is no other choice.
Kendimi Suçlu Hissetmiyorum (I don’t feel that I am guilty)
In the context of work-related challenges, a few of my counterparts have a way of accepting realities, situations, and people, with a patience and persistent sense of empathy that I personally am still trying to develop. Some of our challenges include:
I specifically admire those friends who can resist the impulse to blame. One of my favorite singers, Nil Karaibrahimgil, writes in her song “Gençliğime Sevgilerimle…,”
When I start blaming others or myself, I lose sight of my commitment; not to God or faith, necessarily, but to certain principles. When I joined Peace Corps, I made a commitment to the idea that meaningful, impactful international exchange takes time, understanding, hard work, and even failure.
Each time I choose Sabr over blame, I’m honoring that commitment. After all, I don’t want to just “wait” for the next eight months to be over. I want to take whatever challenge comes at me, and meet it with patience, acceptance, empathy, and perseverance, all at the same time. I want to learn to Sabr, and Sidi Bouzid is still the perfect classroom.
In 8th grade, at one of my first youth group meetings, the beloved advisor Sue gave some sage advice to the high school girls going through finals. “There will always be someone smarter than you. There will always be someone faster than you, prettier than you, someone more talented than you, with better grades. The one thing you can do is to be a good person. That’s something no one can take away.”
The much-needed advice really stuck with me as I entered Winston Churchill High School. Still, I made some bad decisions, driven by the perpetual fear of mediocrity and not getting into a “good” college. I cheated in chemistry twice (and got caught, twice). To seem more “well-rounded,” I stayed in band for ten years—even though I dreaded picking up the clarinet each time. For me, high school was often more about succeeding than it was about learning, critically analyzing, or becoming self-aware.
The Dar Taliba of Sidi Bouzid
A performance-driven culture is something that Churchill, and Sidi Bouzid’s high school, Farabi, share. Churchill students are expected to get great grades, take AP classes, do extracurriculars, and get high test scores. At Farabi, 100% of that pressure and value is placed on a singular average of test scores, out of 20, at the end of every semester.
I have specifically been working with the students of the Dar Taliba (girls’ dormitory), who are from nearby rural villages without local high schools. The pressure the girls face to achieve high tests scores is clear as day. Upon entering the Dar Taliba, their exact scores next to their names and grades are hung up on charts. The girls who did well are at the top, highlighted in green, the ones who scored in the middle, in yellow, and the ones who brought the lowest scores are at the bottom, in red.
Everyone knows (and discusses) who got what score. The president of the Dar Taliba organized an event at night where the girls discussed how to improve their studying techniques and discipline. The ones with high scores were presented with gifts, certificates, and a free ticket for a day trip to a nearby tourist destination, Oukaimeden.
The Competition’s Rigged
In my personal case, the stress I felt at Churchill was tempered by a constant slew of encouragement from my two college-educated, involved, and employed parents. I had access to tutoring and guidance counselors. I had outlets like my youth group to explore the routine tribulations of adolescence. Not having to deal with racism and classism, especially at Churchill, also gave me a leg up.
Indeed, in high school, I never was challenged to think about how this racism, classism, or my own privilege played crucial roles in my ability to succeed within the very competition I bemoaned. I was so focused on just succeeding that I remember being stressed out about not having any hardships to write a compelling personal statement for college applications. While school should be a time to think critically about the world around us, and our own roles in it, the performance-driven culture in the U.S. and Morocco seems to just magnify the socioeconomic disparities that already exist.
I see this being true in Sidi Bouzid, where the pressure of school makes dropping out an appealing and feasible option for many students at Farabi, and especially the girls in the Dar Taliba. Staying in the Dar Taliba to study means being away from family and lacking any alone time and free time during the school week. Most of these kids don’t have any of the things that helped me get through high school. Their parents aren’t there to encourage or help with homework during the week. With a regulated schedule there is seldom time, much less money, for review sessions. Lastly, there is no room at all to explore and face shared challenges together.
Whereas school was the end-all-be-all for me, for these girls, it is as presented as something that’s just “not for everybody.” If the students fail a class, they have to repeat the entire grade. Students can only repeat the grade up to three times; after that, the school system kicks them out altogether. From what I’ve seen in my narrow experience, the pressure to bring good grades can be a dangerous last straw that convinces a girl that school is just not for her.
In an environment where your potential as a student and learner is completely wrapped up in your average out of 20 points, it is easy to decide to stay home. Out of the 50 girls I registered for Project Soar, 100% of their mothers dropped out before high school (if they were ever in school to begin with). Today, only 15% of first grade students in Morocco are likely to graduate from high school. In a local context, then, not finishing high school—specifically for girls and in poorer areas—can seem even more expected than finishing it.
Why I’m a Project Soar Advocate
My counterpart and I have so far implemented ten Project Soar empowerment workshops with about 50 girls. In the first Module of these workshops, the girls had the opportunity to discuss and explore “value”-related topics like resilience, self-confidence, potential, and uniqueness. We say affirmations of “I am strong, I am smart, I am capable, I am worthy” at the beginning of each workshop. At the end, we lead sessions to meditate and journal.
These are habits that I, as a 26-year-old, still would benefit from but struggle to get into. With all the pressure that these girls face to get good grades, it makes so much sense for them to have a space to develop the character and self-esteem they need to stay in the game. Of course, youth groups and workshops like Project Soar aren’t for everyone. Not every girl learns the same or has the same needs. But having that option available, for those that want it, makes for a more inclusive learning environment.
Unfortunately, after seeing that overall test scores were not up to expectations, the President of the Dar Taliba had been trying to stop us from continuing Project Soar, choosing to blame it for the girls’ low grades. After much discussion and weeks of waiting, we finally came to a compromise, where we’ll try and squeeze abbreviated Project Soar workshops into the girls’ schedules if they have breaks between classes before 6 pm. This way, the girls can ostensibly use the time after 6 pm to focus exclusively on the memorizing and studying necessary for success.
Project Soar and School Dropout
Over the school vacation, a few of the Dar Taliba girls had decided to drop out of school after getting discouraged by their grades. My counterparts and I have gone to three houses so far in an attempt to convince the girls to come back to school. Two out of three girls have agreed to return, and the third one is still thinking about it.
Regardless of whether or not these girls end up finishing school, talking with the girls and their families is only making me a stronger advocate for programs like Project Soar in the short-term, and diminishing or abolishing the importance of grades in the long term.
The two girls that have participated in Project Soar are the ones returning to school. When talking with them, I was able to reference the concepts we talked about from Module 1 on Value. Living in the Dar Taliba and hearing people gossip about grades constantly is tiring—but you are strong, capable and resilient. You may have gotten a low score this semester—but you are smart and have a value that is not defined by grades. It may be easier to stay home with your family now—but with education you have the potential to do anything you want in the future.
Of course, Project Soar by itself is not a solution for high school dropout among girls. School dropout, even within one village, is a multi-dimensional issue; every student that leaves school did so because of factors unique to them. For example, I heard that many fathers in my village do not let their daughters study—however, in the three homes I went to, the girls’ families were nothing but supportive. The mothers who never finished high school themselves are the ones that truly appreciate the options an education can offer.
Peace Corps Morocco and Moroccan School Attendance
There are plenty of people who want the best for Farabi’s students, but there are few people telling them that grades do not define their worth or potential to contribute to society. After all, graduating to the next grade level, and getting accepted into college, are exclusively based on test scores. In order for the social pressure on high marks to go away, the entire Moroccan education system would need to be completely restructured.
While this is a policy issue that warrants systemic change, the personal relationships I develop here can help on a short-term, individual level. Yet it is always a challenge to gauge where my own responsibility starts and ends. There are three more girls that I haven’t yet visited, and many more that dropped out last year. When I think about how I haven’t yet talked to them, or how we’re so behind on our Project Soar classes compared to other groups, I feel like a failure and lose my motivation altogether.
That feeling is a familiar one, the same feeling that kept me from avoiding math, or anything else I wasn’t immediately good at, back in high school. Ten years after graduating, I’m still trying to internalize the humbling notion that learning is more important than succeeding. I hope that in the future, both the U.S. and Morocco get to develop education systems that are founded on that same notion.
For now, even though it’s often hard to take my own advice, I will try and pass that message onto students and friends in any way I can. In a time when everyone’s trying to be their “#best self” and live their “#best life,” it’s relevant to remember Sue’s advice. Yes, there will always be someone better; but if all types of students could actually learn, our society as a whole would be better in many different ways.
I talked in a previous post about arrogance; how easy it is to think that the way I’ve learned about the world, and how to take care of it, is the best way. When I first came here, I noticed the great deal of litter on the ground, and especially outside my house. That’s because throwing trash away on the ground is not as taboo in this community as it is in the U.S.
Currently, I divide my trash into two categories—food-related trash, which I throw away in an open area next to my house, and non-food-related trash, which I bring to my neighbor’s fire pit so they can burn it for hot water in their hamam (sauna). Food-related trash is often thrown away in a plastic bag—so now there is a giant, communal pile of plastic bags, mixed with food trash just a few yards from my front door (see photo).
Since there’s more trash on the ground in Sidi Bouzid, you might think that my community full of trashcans back home is much more environmentally friendly. Yet given this topic’s complexity and scale, it is impossible to measure the environmental impact of an entire community on just one singular practice. After all, are our giant landfills in the U.S. any better than the little trash piles outside my door?
Indeed, many argue that litter is not the real trash-related “villain” in the U.S.; instead, it is how much trash we are producing (we are one of the world’s leading trash generators). The anti-littering campaign that was so “successful” in the U.S. was actually started by the very manufacturers who were producing the non-refillable packaging that still contributes to 1/3 of our trash today. The campaign, called Keep American Beautiful, is meant to “rail against bad environmental habits on the part of individuals rather than businesses.” But personally, I produce by far less trash here in Sidi Bouzid than I did back home.
Practicing Over Preaching
As an individual in the U.S., I ended up supporting climate change in words but ignoring it in actions. If I did recycle or refrain from littering, it was out of social obligation more than individual care. Because there are “green,” “eco-friendly,” and “environmentally conscious” people who have taken ownership of the global warming problem, it was just as easy to quietly position myself outside of those labels.
In Sidi Bouzid, removed from politics but not from reality, those labels are absent; no one here walks around saying that they are going green or trying to reduce their environmental footprint. The hour-long Earth Day activity I did last year was the first thing anyone here had heard about the UN-sanctioned holiday.
Yet in Sidi Bouzid, people wash fewer dishes, because everyone eats from the same one. At parties, they always use glass cups and plates—never paper or plastic. If someone does use something plastic, it is washed and used again, never thrown away. From water bottles to ziplock bags, everything has a second use. I have barely ever seen anyone throw away empty packaging. And thanks to Morocco’s Zero Mika campaign, almost everyone brings reusable bags with them to go shopping. Lastly—and I will get pushback on this—using the hamam once a week uses far less water than your daily showers.
My Personal Consciousness
I am not saying that people in Sidi Bouzid are overall better at taking care of the environment than my community back home. Yet on a personal level, I feel my own consciousness and perspective on climate change shifting. In my white collar DC bubble, where every coffee shop, office, and mode of transport had heating, it was easy to take a passive, surface-level responsibility in preserving the environment. As an American who does not understand the exact science behind climate change, I could leave taking care of the environment to a small, dedicated group of passionate people.
Now, in my relatively rural site, thinking about the environment has become a necessity in daily life. Without heating, I have taken to sitting in front of an electric heater that Peace Corps bought me. Yet since my electricity bill multiplied by five this month, I need to become more judicious with my energy usage. Living in farmland, I hear about how the long summer hurt the olive season; I see the difference in the wheat fields when we don’t have rain for a month. I can only imagine how villages further south, not equipped for the snow, dealt with their first snowfall in fifty years.
I am seeing now that even though youth in Sidi Bouzid are not trying to go green, it may be more natural for them to think about their environment than for someone living in a city. It was easy to hide behind my class privilege, and the fact that I’m not a “science” person, to join the bandwagon verbally and absolve myself of more active responsibility. But just as fighting racism should not be the sole responsibility of People of Color, preserving the environment should not be the sole responsibility of those in more rural communities affected by climate change in the U.S. and around the world.
It is positive that caring for the environment is the “socially acceptable” thing to do back home. Yet during a time when my country is the only one in the world to reject the Paris Agreement on climate change, the President does not take the threat of climate change seriously, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is lifting regulations on carbon and clean water regulations, it is time for me to stop hiding behind my ignorance and start actually learning more about how to make myself and my own country greener.
And as my time as a PCV has shown me, the first steps to learning more are humility and critical thinking. Just because I don’t litter, does not mean I’m any better at taking care of the environment than my neighbors. And a Whole Foods reusable bag that says, “I love my home, planet earth” is no better than the cheaper, striped ones that people use here.
It’s safe to say that caring for the environment is a global, borderless issue that merits personal awareness and political action in every country and every community in the world. While this dangerous reality is universal, there is no one-size-fits-all way to be an environmental advocate; there are admirable practices and people doing their parts all over the world—including in Sidi Bouzid, Chichaoua and Washington, DC. That is why I’m learning, in Morocco in a village, how as an American in a city I can finally claim my individual responsibility towards caring for the planet.
Please humor me and travel back in time, to when I was living in DC and working for the Program team of Atlas Corps, an overseas fellowship for skilled nonprofit professionals. It’s midnight, and I can’t sleep. I’m lying in my comfortable bed, thinking of a Fellow who had emailed me a few days ago about his creaky old mattress. It was on my to-do list to order a new one, but I don’t think I got around to it that day. I started sweating, thinking how, because of my own negligence, a person in my life was losing sleep or developing back issues right at this moment.
Anyone who has worked to support participants of cross-cultural volunteer programs could probably relate to the rewarding yet burdensome feeling of other people’s challenging intercultural experiences lying in your very human hands. I loved my job because I loved being able to interact with, learn from, and witness the journeys of the people I was responsible for. But what I was responsible for, exactly, was unclear. To what extent could I control the environment, wellbeing, or success of other people?
In so many ways, having worked for Atlas Corps has impacted the way I have approached my own Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) experience. I came in remembering the amazing support Atlas Corps Fellows would give to one another. I brought with me countless stories of Fellows staying resilient, and even optimistic, through trying situations. But most of all, I remember carrying the humbling knowledge that, no matter how hard I tried, I as a staff member couldn’t single-handedly change someone else’s Fellowship experience.
Subsequently, coming to Morocco, I had the distinct sense that my own success and wellbeing as a PCV was solely up to me. I looked at Peace Corps not as the organization responsible for me, but rather, the organization that got me here.
Today, I carry the humbling knowledge that, no matter how hard I could have tried, I would not have made it through these 16 months without the Peace Corps staff. From facilitating our pre-service training where we learned Darija, liaising with our local administrations, or just being our ally amidst a lot of uncertainty, I have relied on staff support more than I thought I would.
That’s why I was surprised when a leading question at our Mid-Service Training (MST) last week was “how can we improve the relationship between Volunteers and staff?” As an Atlas Corps staff member, I asked this question often. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had the luxury of not thinking about it until MST, where I realized that not all PCVs had the same, positive view of staff as me.
Will volunteers complain no matter what, or could staff really do better? My Atlas Corps-to-Peace Corps experience has given me unique perspective on cross-cultural volunteer support, and I’ve concluded that the answer to this question is more complicated than you’d think.
During the application process Peace Corps tries to set the expectation that, even though they take care of the basics like healthcare, language instruction, and site development, being a successful Volunteer will require a great deal of initiative. Still, without a clear role, the security of a formal job, a normal salary, or control over living environments, being a volunteer—especially an overseas volunteer—makes you vulnerable. In this vulnerable position, it is normal to expect the organization that brought you here to defend your existence and ease your experience.
Yet that organization is made up of human beings, ones that have their own lives, biases, and limits. It is hard to figure out, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, when to ask for help from staff, or when to rely on my personal support systems of other Volunteers, friends, and family. There were certain points where I could have smoothed out my challenges in Morocco much more efficiently had I communicated with staff first. For example, instead of advocating for myself, I waited a while before reaching out to my manager in regards to the local administration’s misperception of my role here. My focus on appearing independent hindered my ability to solve the issue quickly.
Some PCVs, no matter how adaptable they are, get placed in unsustainable situations. Others face issues related to their gender, ability status, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or age that I, with all my privileges, just haven’t had to deal with. In unsustainable situations, reaching out to staff for help is nothing less than a sign of admirable strength and perseverance in continuing service. Requiring staff attention does not mean that a volunteer is any less capable or independent; for that reason, each issue should be addressed with time, effort, and understanding.
Assuming Best Intentions
As an Atlas Corps staff member, it was sometimes hard to understand why Fellows waited to reach out to me with their issues when I could have helped out earlier. I remember telling Fellows that while I would always love to help, I wasn’t psychic and couldn’t assist with a problem I didn’t know about. At other times, though, it was hard to understand how Fellows wanted me to help in the first case. Here, all I could offer was personal empathy and an open ear on behalf of the organization as a whole; and sometimes, this was enough.
Overall, the lines are blurry between what the staff is responsible for and what the volunteers are responsible for in each individual’s experience. That is why the assumption of best intentions is key. Because maintaining clear expectations is perpetually challenging, mutual understanding and respect between all volunteers and all staff is crucial. While volunteers should know that staff does not have a magic wand to control every circumstance, staff should know that volunteers face a vast array of challenges related to circumstances outside their control.
Across the board, an improved relationship between staff and volunteers requires looking at one another as people; not just from staff to volunteer, but also the other way around. From a volunteer standpoint, we need to stop looking at staff as all-powerful caretakers. From a staff standpoint, volunteers should not be looked at as a monolithic group of (sometimes angry) customers. We’re all partners on the same team, trying our best, working towards an overall goal of meaningful exchange and service.
…At Least I Can Say That I’ve Tried
Especially today, international politics lies in the hands of people and forces that seem out of our control. Because of these politics, the student programs I benefitted from in Turkey are unfortunately not as available for Americans anymore. But the personal relationships I made there have stayed solid through ups and downs in Turkey-U.S. relations. Bringing individuals together across cultures and/or borders to learn from one another produces stories that are uniquely positive in the face of so much global injustice and pain.
Having conversations during MST about how to make Peace Corps better, I remembered how strongly I feel about making intercultural volunteer programs more sustainable and worthwhile for everyone involved (yes, I’m a nerd). Being a volunteer program staff means giving other people the opportunity and space to learn, grow, give back, and find their paths. Being a volunteer myself means learning, growing, giving back, and finding my path.
Even if my path leads me back to giving other people that opportunity and space, I have finally learned how to help and support others without staying up all night with feelings of guilt or worry. Empathy and genuine concern are assets I have that, if left unmanaged, will hinder me from helping anyone at all. Indeed, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’ve learned from experience that for the rest of my life, the only person I am fully responsible for is myself. This much-needed realization is perhaps the most empowering one I’ve had so far.
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!