Peace Corps workers 'lucky' U.S. is home

7/4/2008
BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Rebecca Gehring of Toledo, poses with her little 'siblings' from her Moroccan host family, Mohammed, left, and Eham, right, in a village where she served as part of the Peace Corps.
Rebecca Gehring of Toledo, poses with her little 'siblings' from her Moroccan host family, Mohammed, left, and Eham, right, in a village where she served as part of the Peace Corps.

Last year on the Fourth of July, Rebecca Gehring was halfway through her two-year visit to a mountain village in Morocco, and living like the locals.

Her apartment was without air conditioning, had running water only in the mornings, and its bathroom was unlike anything she had seen in her native Toledo. The "Turkish toilet" was little more than a hole in the floor to squat over.

"That was the hardest thing," recalled the 25-year-old Peace Corps volunteer. "But you get used to it."

Yet it was just such extreme difference between the typical lifestyle in Imilchil, Morocco, and that of her hometown that helped to make her trip so memorable.

"I may have had some rough days, but I always knew I would be able to come back to America, so I made the best out of the situations that were thrown at me," said Miss Gehring, who returned home last month and is now celebrating Independence Day with her family.

"By living in a developing nation, I have learned to be proud and lucky I was born in America."

Her experience is not uncommon among Peace Corps volunteers and others who have spent time overseas working for nongovernmental organizations with charitable missions. For them, the Fourth of July can be a time for reflection on what it means to be both a U.S. citizen and a citizen of the world.

Andrea Messmer, 31, is visiting her parents in Ottawa Hills on a 12-day vacation from her Peace Corps work in Cambodia.
Andrea Messmer, 31, is visiting her parents in Ottawa Hills on a 12-day vacation from her Peace Corps work in Cambodia.

Andrea Messmer of Ottawa Hills has spent the past 3 1/2 years in Cambodia working with various relief agencies. Her present job is with a United Kingdom charity, Schools for Children of Cambodia, which works to improve families' access to quality education.

"It has made me very grateful for what I had growing up," said Miss Messmer, 31, a 1995 graduate of Ottawa Hills High School who has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan.

Miss Messmer recalled how she recently gained greater appreciation for the U.S. democratic process while making election night plans for her nonprofit agency.

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy, and 11 of the country's political parties are contesting in the July 27 election for the 123-seat National Assembly. The winning party can form the government for the next five years.

The results of last year's regional "commune council" elections brought some civil disturbances, as well as cell phone service disruptions, so Miss Messmer prepared her agency's contingency plans - food, shelter, evacuation - in case this month's election brings widespread unrest.

Although election night in the U.S. has been known to raise emotions, rioting or unrest is seldom a concern.

Alicia Bower, 24, of Wauseon, returned last fall from her two-year volunteer Peace Corps mission in South Africa, during which she taught computer classes to children in the country's northernmost province of Limpopo.

South Africa was under an apartheid system of racial segregation until the early 1990s, and Miss Bower said she was startled to witness the wide discrepancy of wealth that still exists between its largely upper-class whites and much of the country's black population.

Most of the villagers where she stayed were women, as the males had gone off to find better-paying work in cities or in diamond or platinum mines.

"My first impression was that the people there in the villages have almost nothing," said Miss Bower, a graduate of Pettisville High School and Ohio Wesleyan University.

Yet despite such poverty, the villagers still seemed happy with life, Miss Bower said.

All three young women said they were treated warmly by the citizens of their host countries, and seldom, if ever, had people directly criticize them for being U.S. citizens.

"They love Americans because a lot of the television shows they see are American shows," Miss Bower said of the South Africans in her village.

"I did see this kid once, about 12 years old, and he said 'next time you see Bush, can you tell him to leave Iraq,'•" Miss Gehring recalled. "But he said it very nice."

And as grateful as she is for the opportunities afforded her as a U.S. citizen, Miss Messmer said that she no longer feels guilt when comparing her life to those Cambodians she meets through her relief work.

That is because she became part of the solution. Before undertaking her relief work, Miss Messmer had quit a lucrative job in the technology industry in the San Franciso Bay area.

"Once I knew how other people are living in developed countries, I couldn't come back to my own little world and not do anything about it," she said.

There are nearly 20 Toledo-area residents presently in the Peace Corps, which was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy to promote world peace and friendship. Participants work throughout the world on education, health, and other projects.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.