What I Learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Former Soviet Union

The Kazakh woman was walking sideways, trying to use the overhang of the dilapidated shop roofs as protection from the downpour. She caught my eye and waved. This lady had an inviting smile, and her hair with its henna color—the exclusive hair dye used by local women—was neatly combed. She looked just a few years older than me, which would put her in her early fifties. I could see loaves of unwrapped bread sticking out of her shopping bag. I took the bread as a sign that I wouldn’t go without the basics if she was to be my host family.  But  would that extend to hot water and toilet paper? (Both had been scarce during my first six weeks in Almaty.

“Hallow, Djoic! I’m Saulye. I have no car so I bring you to my home. My English not good. Do you speak Russian?”

“Very little…nimnoga.” It was a good thing I didn’t forget my Russian-English dictionary.   She tried to keep her umbrella over my head while we walked the several blocks to a building with large chunks out of the front steps and walls that hadn’t seen a paintbrush in a very long time. Yet when I entered Saulye’s sparse apartment, I felt at ease, and even more so when I saw my duffle bags in the tiny storage area transformed into my bedroom. That meant a Peace Corps staff person had been here earlier.

A pretty young woman was waiting for us in their kitchen. The samovar held hot water for our tea, and home-made jam was already spooned into little dishes. Tea came first, I could unpack later.

As we sipped our tea at a small, heavily marred table in a cluttered but clean kitchen, Saulye’s daughter, Anel, introduced herself. “I am on holiday from university in St. Petersburg one week only. Do you have children?”

“Yes, I have a daughter about your age and a son. My son surprised me with my first grandchild just before I came to Kazakhstan.”  Their confused looks told me I’d better pull out my dictionary.  Pointing to the words was easiest because my ability to pronounce Cyrillic letters had improved little in six weeks of  lessons. (Peace Corps has no language prerequisite and since we were the first group placed in Kazakhstan, they had yet to decide whether we would learn Kazakh or Russian.)

After we negotiated our communication process, I learned that Saulye also has a son, but her son has serious health issues. During most of his youth, he had lived with his dad in Semipalatinsk, a former Soviet nuclear test site in Eastern Kazakhstan. Now he desperately   needs hospital care but he won’t be admitted until he can deliver the prescribed medicine.

“Djoic, every day I call my druga [friends], ask for help. They want give, but tenge niet. Maybe Peace Corps help me?”

I said I would find out.

The next day I went with Saulye and Anel to the main Almaty bazaar to buy food. I nearly became a vegetarian that day because all the meat was unwrapped on tables with the head of an animal in full view, indicating the kind of meat for sale. Horse meat was second in popularity to sheep, although I never saw horse heads.

Saulye was successful in hawking a half-pack of loose cigarettes, three or four candy bars, and two bras (new) she had brought to sell at the bazaar, earning a few tenge that went into the collection for medicine. I couldn’t contribute much because volunteers are given a living allowance only slightly higher than the local “living wage.” But one of our benefits is an unlimited supply of condoms and of considerably more value, free medical care—something that is priceless in a country where the hospitals’ inventories of drugs are smaller than what most Americans store in their bathrooms.

I thought about how I’d feel if my son was as sick as Saulye’s. When I leave the Peace Corps, I will have no medical insurance, but at least my family and I cannot be denied hospital care. Thinking about this, I offered a silent prayer of gratitude to my ancestors who settled in the U.S. and saved me from this trauma. But what do I have to offer my Kazakh sister?  I can offer her my empathy as one mother to another, but that won’t save her son’s life. Peace Corps won’t help our host families beyond a stipend. I tried reaching out to people in the U.S. but no help came. I contacted USAID’s Kazakhstan office, but one family’s medical crisis doesn’t meet their funding criteria. The best I can do is pray that Saulye’s friends and family come through.

Thinking about that solution, I realized that she may be better off than me; she belongs to a generous community who will sacrifice to serve each other. They understand they’re all they have.

The author, Joyce Elferdink, is currently a writer and communications instructor, but was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers to go to Kazahstan. Her role during 1993-94 was to set up small business develop centers to assist people who for the first time could become entrepreneurs.

Blog: https://harmlessjoyce.wordpress.com/
Amazon Book Listing (Kindle edition): http://tinyurl.com/927am9u; (Paperback): http://www.amazon.com/Pieces-You-Ms-J-Elferdink/dp/0615664490/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

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15 thoughts on “What I Learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Former Soviet Union

  1. Kenneth Weene

    There was always such a wonderful naivete underlying the Peace Corps, the belief that Americans just naturally could solve problems for others. In reality, it was the volunteers who profited most, for they learned the beauty of humanity and often found that the simple caring of others was a powerful force in the human experience, much more to be valued than the materialism of American culture. If we are in the middle of the American era, it is not an era that demonstrates the best of which people are capable only how much we as a species can consume and destroy.

  2. Trish Jackson

    What an amazing experience, Joyce. A fascinating window into another world. It’s always an eye-opener to see how others live, particularly in those third world countries, and it most certainly makes one appreciate what one has.

  3. Micki Peluso

    Joyce, what a wonderful commentary on international relationships. Ken summed it up perfectly in his remarks. I dreamed of working in the Peace Corp all through my teens and especially when college was no longer an option due to my parent’s divorce. I longed to work in Africa and Australia and even South America. Now that my children are grown if the Peace Corp still existed and my health was better, I’d still love to do it. But our own country is a mess right now and I believe charity begins at home, so we can’t be effective or shouldn’t be, until we take care of our own.

  4. Bryan Murphy

    Very interesting, Joyce. Thank you. I guess your time in Kazakhstan has added to the wealth of experience you draw upon in your fiction.
    I spent a year working for the British equivalent of the Peace Corps, known as VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas). Their strategy was to send people to the poorest parts of the poorest countries, where they might make a real difference. In some cases they did. In other cases, they were valued primarily for the assets they brought with them – maybe a motor bike in a rural area, or money for a small local project.
    VSO was certainly interested in the effect on the volunteers and how they might influence their home societies afterwards. One strange thing was that they put us through courses in what might be termed “political correctness” before sending us to some of the least politically correct societies on Earth. I went to China, in 1991.
    Another of their aims, in which I hope and believe they succeeded, was to broaden the definition of “our own”. No doubt the Peace Corps can say the same.

  5. linniescorner

    Joyce – we have so much to learn from your experience which you have described so beautifully. Yes we do learn to count our blessings when we are exposed to societies whose lot in life doesn’t even come close to what we have here in the United States or Canada. Ironically though, those who have less tend to give more…have seen it many times. It doesn’t need to be money, just the goodness and hospitality from the heart and nothing can be more genuine than that.

  6. Clayton Bye

    We have many different cultures in our own countries (I am Canadian) that suffer from great poverty. The experience within these communities is the same Joyce experienced: people rally together, when needed, and willingly share the little they have.

    I can remember going to a First Nations POW WOW at one of the poorer reserves in our area. Worn bleachers along a sandy baseball field allowed people to watch the Jingle Dancers. One family sold bannock out of worn down shack. Yet a feast had been prepared. The people had been working hard to provide wild meats (Fish, Venison, Moose), wild rice and bannock to name a few items. No one was expected to pay. And all elders were served first and didn’t have to stand in line. I know, because someone noticed my gray hair, and they came up into the bleachers with a full plate for me–an outsider.

    Yes, I have found it’s the poorest of people who tend to be the most generous. Perhaps this is because they know what it is like to go without.

    Clayton Bye

  7. Harmlessjoyce (Joyce Elferdink)

    I love your comments–all of them! It’s especially nice to find that sharing my experience prompts others to share what they’ve been through. I also appreciate Micki’s reminder that charity begins at home. If we reach out as members of caring communities (doesn’t have to be as structured as VSO or Peace Corps)–even if it’s only to give up “our place on the bleachers”–we might cause the sun to shine a little brighter elsewhere. In what new ways might we serve our neighbors at home and abroad?

    After all, we may be all we have.

  8. Rosemary "Mamie" Adkins

    Joyce what a heart sharing piece presented so well.

    I have tried in my life to be involved with many fundraisers and the one that touched our lives so deeply was for orphans of Viet Nam. With just one other adult, two small children and myself, we gather so much from loving hearts. I was privileged to witness those that had nothing reach down for that dollar or share a small t-shirt from a child in their own family.

    Charity does begin at home but if you really care, you can find a way to help-even if just to take time for a prayer, a call to friends that can help, remembering that every dollar helps, most of us know where we can find that little extra. It’s a matter of choice and I commend you for such giving of yourself to help those less fortunate. Eyes wide open, we can always find someone needier than ourselves.

    Thank you for reminding us all that opening our hearts and eyes is the first step to charity.


    1. Harmlessjoyce (Joyce Elferdink)

      Mamie, I fully agree that we can always find something in our “storehouse” worth sharing because someone needs it more than we do. That does take opening our eyes to the needs all around us. I’ve also found that the less fortunate are often not the ones with less financial resources; instead, it’s those of us who don’t have a loving community of family and/or friends to support us when our path is rough and the way unclear. And those we label “poor” often have that in abundance–like the families I met in Kazakhstan.

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  10. Sharla

    Joyce, it is always heart-warming to read of the adventures of others who reach out with helping hands. There is so much sadness all across the world it is impossible for all the helping hands to meet everyone in need. Even in our own country of America do we find those that are poverty stricken but seldom without the offer to help others in just as bad, often worse, need. We are so blessed and it breaks my heart when I encounter those who truly do not appreciate what they have. Perhaps they should be the ones to visit a third-world country!

  11. Harmlessjoyce (Joyce Elferdink)

    I believe the problem of poverty (and sadness as Sharla stated) is getting worse worldwide because of systems that lead to social injustices. Here’s a quote I just found that expresses my thinking:
    In the end, poverty is a major cause of social tensions and threatens to divide a nation because of the issue of inequalities, in particular income inequality. This happens when wealth in a country is poorly distributed among its citizens. In other words, when a tiny minority has all the money.
    – See more at: http://www.poverties.org/effects-of-poverty.html#sthash.h4hMWFCu.dpuf ____________________________________________________________________________________________________
    It is obvious that this has been true for decades, maybe centuries, in some third-world countries. Is it also applicable to the U.S. in the 21st century? If so, how could we influence changes in systems that cause inequalities where we live…and beyond?

  12. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    Joyce, it’s people like you that make the world a better place. I learnt two important lessons from your wonderful narrative: that “count your blessings” is no cliché, and that we who live in the main cities of so-called developing or emerging countries should stop complaining and do something effective to help our brothers and sisters, conveniently rendered invisible by the powers that be and by societies who loathe losing sleep over the real world, “large and strange”. This is a fragment of the (mis)translated title of a novel by Peruvian writer Ciro Alegría: El mundo es ancho y ajeno.


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