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Peace Corps Volunteers are Leaving Turkmenistan

The United States Embassy in Ashgabat announced recently that the Peace Corps – a US government-run volunteer program – would close its programs in Turkmenistan and leave the country by the end of 2012. The August 31 announcement reads:

Since 1993, more than 740 health and English-language teacher volunteers have lived and worked in every region of Turkmenistan. Peace Corps considers its program to have been extraordinarily successful in terms of achieving its development and cultural exchange goals. Currently, there are 18 serving volunteers in Turkmenistan. They will complete their service in September and the Peace Corps administrative office in Ashgabat will close in December.

Limited education opportunities

A Peace Corps Volunteer shares a meal with her community members in Turkmenistan. Image uploaded by Flickr user Peace Corps on October 31, 2007 (U.S. Government Work License)

The author contacted several Turkmen students studying abroad to ask what they thought about Peace Corps operations in Turkmenistan. Most of these students said that the Peace Corps volunteers used to run community development projects, summer camps and English language clubs.

Through this engagement, the volunteers encouraged many Turkmen students to apply for scholarships to study abroad, thus offering them a rare window to the outside world. In addition, the volunteers opened NGOs outside Turkmenistan to work with Turkmen students and continued to contribute to community development projects even after leaving the country.

One of the Turkmen students at the American University in Bulgaria, who asked not to disclose her name, said [ru]:

когда я училась в школе я и не мечтала о том, чтобы учиться за границей. но волнтер корпуса мира поддержал меня, вдохновил изучать английский и подать документы на учебу. я смогла поступить в колледж только через 4 года после того как окончила школу, но все же у меня получилось. он помог мне найти стипендию и подать заявление. но самое главное, это то, что он изменил мой взгляд на мир и мое отношение к тому, что творится вокруг

When I was at school, I could not even dream about studying abroad. But a Peace Corps volunteer gave me support and encouraged me to learn English and apply to a college. It took me almost four years after I finished school to get into college, but I did it. He helped me find a scholarship and submit an application. But most importantly, he changed my vision of the world and my attitude towards everything around me.

The Peace Corps’ withdrawal is yet another development aimed at limiting foreign education opportunities for Turkmen students. Other U.S. government-funded programs such as Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX) and Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (UGRAD) have also been restricted in Turkmenistan, effectively leaving the Caspian state cut off from global educational networks.

“Foreign agents” or useful service providers?

The announcement of the Peace Corps’ imminent closure triggered a discussion among Turkmen internet user about the role played by the program's volunteers. Some netizens opine that the volunteers are “agents” of the U.S. government. Writing on the Turkmen Chronicles, Tushkan announced [ru]:

Давно пора было выгнать из Туркменистана эту ячейку ЦРУ с её «скаутами-волонтёрами».

Turkmenistan should have kicked out this CIA cell with its “volunteer-scouts” a long time ago.

Other comments indicate that this view is far from being dominant. Adalat Seeker responded [ru]:

Балбес ты, тушкан, и лузер. Волонтеры принесли огромную пользу Туркменистану, молодежи, учителям и врачам.

Tushkan, you are an idiot and a loser. Volunteers have benefited Turkmenistan, its young people, teachers and doctors.

Mary added [ru]:

Огромная польза была от Американцев..народ Туркменский просвещали. Вот их и бояться…

Americans were of great benefit… They enlightened the Turkmen. That is why they are being feared…

And Merdan chimed in [ru]:

тушкан, в туркменистане у цру есть другие, гораздо влиятельнее и информирований источники получения информации чем волантеры корпуса мира, твое умозаклюние полный абсурд …

Tushkan, the CIA has other, much more influential and well-informed sources of information inside Turkmenistan than the Peace Corps volunteers. Your conclusion is absolutely absurd…

Within Turkmenistan which remains one of the most isolated countries of the world, many people remain highly suspicious of the role of foreign volunteers in their communities. [Read Global Voices September 21, 2011 post for more background].

Lasting legacy

Peace Corps volunteer learning to use the clay pot for cooking with a Turkmen woman.Image uploaded by Flickr user Peace Corps on October 31, 2007 (U.S. Government Work License)

Following the announcement of the program's withdrawal, neither the government of Turkmenistan nor the U.S. embassy offered any explanation. In fact, the Peace Corps’ problems in Turkmenistan are not new. Already last year, its volunteers had problems extending their visas. In neighboring Kazakhstan, the program also had to close in 2011.

Despite the imminent departure, the Peace Corps seems to have left a lasting cultural legacy in the country. As Maya Saryeva recalls in a backdated post on the Friends of Turkmenistan blog:

I still remember the feeling of anxiousness and excitement that I felt when I exchanged my first English words with a PCV named Matthew. In that sense, I think Peace Corps Volunteers  help Turkmen youth the most, in providing them with an opportunity to better their English and offer them a window into a world of real knowledge about United States. Undoubtedly, many PCVs bring a positive contribution to the lives of young student participants who get to enjoy taking part in summer camps or other educational activities organized by PCV. If Peace Corps ceased to exist in Turkmenistan, the majority of the population will probably never notice, however the youth will lack that personal interaction with a person from a different part of the world, and many kids will never get to experience the feelings I felt when I first had to speak to a Peace Corps Volunteer at the age of nine.

 

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  • The lucky one

    That’s sad that PC is closed in TM. When I was 12 years old I spent 10 days at Serdar camp in Turkmenabat. It was great experience joined interesting classes and played games etc. young learners need interaction with different kind of people. After that I kept learning English with our PCV who lived in our etrap. When I was 15 or 16 can’t remember I was part of FLEX test. Passed two rounds but here comes third round “get a signature from school director”. What she said was “it’s not allowed to sign”. Man U gotta be kidding me! This happened everywhere and oh I remember what said after that “Students who go abroad drink and smoke and they become bad girls!!!” It’s astonishing cause I smoked and drank where I lived I mean in my town. Smoking and drinking got nothing to do with studying abroad u douchbag. Anyway I didn’t get sign and handed my last application to turkmenabats English corner. Didn’t get a feedback after that. I had lots PCV friends and they were cool people to hang around with. The have been called CIA and agents its all freaking bullshit. Why on earth they would to Turkmenistan and search for some secret stuff? All they do is wherever they travel they share their experience and its normal things to do. That’s what I do as well! They are volunteers who help turkmens to learn english for FREE and I think some Turkmen assholes need to get a real translation of what Volunteer really means!!! There was one volunteer who inspired me of being volunteer and help people. Well right now I’m studying in British uni abroad. Internet and good British friends was my source of getting the best uni. Every one us deserves to get an education!!!!

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