- Associated Press - Saturday, April 4, 2020

STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Brooks Armstrong counted seven months left to finish her teaching in a small village in Kyrgyzstan as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Then, an evacuation order came.

As the Peace Corps announced mandatory evacuation for all its volunteers overseas on March 16 — for the first time in its history — amid the coronavirus pandemic, Armstrong’s time overseas abruptly ended.

“That Monday (before the evacuation), we had no cases of coronavirus confirmed in the country,” Armstrong said. “By Saturday, they were cancelling all flights out of the country, and now it’s on lockdown.

“It was kind of a chaotic time,” she added.



Boarding one of the last flights from Kyrgyzstan in late March before the lockdown, Armstrong felt down about what she had left behind — a 20-month experience born out of her curiosity toward an unfamiliar culture and a friendly, tight-knit community that dispelled certain negative stereotypes held by many Americans.

ADVENTURE UNFOLDS

For Armstrong, a 24-year-old West Point native, her Peace Corps assignment to Kyrgyzstan began in 2018 as a trip into the unknown.

“I’d never heard of that country before, and I was like, ‘That’s the country I’m going to go to,’” Armstrong said.

Before arriving in Kyrgyzstan, Armstrong said she had done little research on the country.

“I really like the idea of going there with no preconceived notions,” she said. “I really appreciate the fact that I didn’t know (about Kyrgyzstan’s reputation) beforehand. I was able to go there with a much more open mind.”

Although she was equipped with limited knowledge of the Kyrgyz culture, exploring the central Asian country was never a daunting task, Armstrong said. She had attended high school in Vietnam and traveled to several foreign countries, and the Peace Corps offered her the most basic language training before and upon arrival.

After a few months of pre-service training, Armstrong started her English-teaching career in the small Kyrgyz village she stayed in.

Staying with a host family of two — a Russian teacher at the local school and her 12-year-old grandson — Armstrong said the original feeling of awkwardness dissolved and the bond between them deepened as time passed.

She felt the barrier between them drop as she helped her host brother with his math homework once, Armstrong recalled. Still foreign to the Krygyz language, she mixed up the word “plus” with “neighbor.”

“I kept confusing them,” she said. “After maybe the fifth time after I said, ‘five neighbors five equals ten,’ my host family was just laughing and trying to get me to say the correct word.”

The warmth of the entire local community, she said, was striking.

“One of the biggest things I learned about Kyrgyzstan is how community-centered it is,” Armstrong said. “If I’m walking down the street, it would not be unusual for me to just walk into someone’s house and be like, ‘I’m here, let’s have tea.’

“In America we are so individualistic,” she added. “Coming to this heavily community-based culture, it’s something so different from what I had experienced before.”

That “community-centered” culture, however, could sometimes get in the way of education, Armstrong said. At a village where teachers are already scarce, she said, some would cancel classes to accommodate community gatherings.

“There’s this idea that once you are there (in the community),” she said, “you don’t leave.”

Sometimes, Armstrong would claim small victories by keeping students in her class.

“To be the shiny volunteer English-speaking foreigner,” she said. “I think that naturally draws curiosity, which I definitely took advantage of.”

Reflecting upon the kindness she received from the locals, Armstrong said many negative assumptions made by Americans of the country did not stand. Many believed Kyrgyzstan to be a base for terrorists, she said, and some associated the country with bride kidnapping.

“When I first got there, it was a little jarring to hear (the stereotypes),” Armstrong said. “They are so nice, so welcoming … the terrorist sentiment is not something that is prevalent there.”

COMING TO A HALT

Even with the coronavirus pandemic raging across the world, Armstrong did not expect the evacuation order to hit so soon — and at such a big scale.

The schedule for departure shifted so much, she said, she didn’t even get a chance to bid proper goodbye to her students.

“The goodbyes you thought you could have didn’t end up getting to happen,” Armstrong said.

Coming home was a strange feeling, with mixed emotions, Armstrong said. Reunions with family involved no conventional hugging, she said, just elbow bumps with her parents.

For her fellow evacuee, Will Tomlin, 23, of Starkville, the trip overseas was canceled before he even had a chance to serve. The first-time volunteer had been living in Ghana for just eight weeks of training, he said.

Tomlin, who studied wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture at the Mississippi State University, already had several project ideas in mind. He wanted to help the villagers set up community gardens and raise rabbits.

To keep the locals from overfishing in the Oti River, Tomlin said he planned to teach them to build fish ponds as another source of income.

But the evacuation put everything on hold, he said.

“It was hard to think that we have put in so much effort and we’ve been to our communities, and we have met people who are so excited and so dependent on us to help them improve their lives,” he said.

“Everyone had made promises,” Tomlin added. “Just to think that we essentially lied to these people and not be able to come back was heartbreaking for everybody.”

Now both in self-quarantine, Armstrong and Tomlin have different life plans ahead.

Tomlin, who was sworn in as a full volunteer before coming back to the United States, said he looks forward to going back and fulfilling his assignment.

Armstrong, on the other hand, said she plans to apply to grad school or look for a job.

The most imminent plan, though, is for her to go shopping at Walmart.

“That’d be real exciting,” she said. “There’s just nothing like Walmart back there (in Kyrgyzstan).”

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