Friday, February 24, 2012

Post #193 - A Mile in Their Shoes

Hon. Donna Shalala
In 2009 (April 24), Howard Cincotta wrote the following article entitled "For Many, Ties to Peace Corps Service in Iran Remain: Former volunteers recall transformative experiences." It began with a focus on former secretary of health and human services (under Clinton), Donna Shalala; she is now president of the University of Miami. She had been a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1962 to 1964, like me a teacher of English. The article captures some of what all of us experienced and what we continue to feel about the country we visited at a young age.

"Donna Shalala felt like many students after graduating from college. 'I was tired of school and I wanted adventure,' she recalled...'I still think of myself as a Peace Corp volunteer...My service in Iran was one of the most important experiences of my youth.'

"Iran was one of the first countries to welcome the Peace Corps in 1962, a year after President John Kennedy announced what would become one of the signature programs of his administration.
Although the Peace Corps has evolved over the years, its three overarching goals have remained unchanged: provide trained personnel for countries requesting them, promote a better understanding of America, and help Americans gain a better understanding of the world and its peoples..."

I have highlighted the last goal, one that is frequently overlooked as a rationale for the establishment and continuance of the Peace Corps. One cannot help but feel that if more Americans had the kind of opportunity that Shalala, myself and nearly 1500 other Americans had -- to know Iranians up-close and personal -- that our foreign policy would be better informed and more balanced. One learns not only language and customs, but the role of history and poetry in Iranian lives and the very way Iranians communicate with one another.

The article continues: "The Peace Corps in Iran initially focused on education, eventually working with more than 150 teachers and teaching more than 6,000 students in subjects ranging from English to science, according to an official Peace Corps summary. Volunteers helped organize evening classes, started kindergarten programs, and established more than 30 school libraries with donated books. In the late 1960s, Peace Corps volunteers began several environmental projects to combat pollution and depleted resources in the Caspian Sea. In Tehran, volunteers teamed with urban planners to draw up guidelines for the city’s rapid population growth and helped create 45 urban parks. By the time the program ended in 1976, a total of 1,748 volunteers had served in Iran alongside several thousand Iranian colleagues."

"For some volunteers, Peace Corps service has been only one chapter in a lifetime of study and engagement with Iran. For Michael Hillmann, professor of Persian studies at the University of Texas at Austin, his Peace Corps years at the University of Mashhad changed the course of his professional and personal life. Hillmann was already headed toward an academic career, but Iran led him to a lifelong engagement with the Persian language, literature and culture. He met his wife, Sorayya, at Mashhad, and their daughter was born in Tehran, where Hillmann was working as a Peace Corps trainer.

“'When I teach [T.S.] Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, the experience and the enjoyment of thinking and talking about poetry seem the same as when I teach the ghazals of Hafez,' Hillmann told

Amb. John Limbert with wife Parvaneh
"Retired Ambassador John Limbert [the principal trainer for my own Peace Corps stint, AP] taught English in Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan Iran, from 1964 to 1966. Limbert served as a U.S. diplomat throughout the Middle East, including as ambassador to Mauritania. Despite the brutal experience of being an embassy hostage in Tehran from 1979 to 1981, Limbert’s affection for the Iranian people remains undiminished. 'Iran has been part of my life for 40 years,' Limbert said in a 2006 interview on National Public Radio. His wife is Iranian and both his children were born there; he and his wife still speak Persian at home.
"Both Limbert and Hillmann are proponents of increased dialogue between the United States and Iran. Limbert has written a report for the U.S. Institute of Peace called Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran [which became a book of similar title.] Hillmann has proposed a low-key exchange program with former Peace Corps volunteers fluent in Persian.

"Hillmann says, 'The greatest service the Peace Corps provided people like me ... was its readiness to let me do my own thing, my job, my social life, my travel, and, most importantly, my changing into the person I became when my Peace Corps days ended.'

This is not a question of "going native," as the British Foreign Service used to fear regarding their officers posted abroad for extended service. Peace Corps volunteers usually spend only two years on their assignment. The degree of immersion that Limbert had -- he was in-country before and after his Peace Corps service -- is the exception. The impact, however, stays with each of us for a lifetime, because once you have perceived the world through more than one set of eyes, it is nearly impossible to go back to more limited vision. Our State Department and National Security Council are replete with persons that have never had that kind of exposure. Sadly, their policies show it.

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