A little bit about me...

Hi my name is Raechelle, and I lived in the secular Muslim country of Azerbaijan as a Youth Development Volunteer for the Peace Corps for three years and three months. I am now the Administrator of the official Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Friends of Azerbaijan group. As such, I am working to promote Peace Corps third goal of helping promote a better understanding of Azerbaijani people to Americans.

I created this blog as a way for future Peace Corps Volunteers, my friends and family, and Americans in general to understand what life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is like. As part of the pilot program for Youth Development in Azerbaijan, my work in Azerbaijan was diverse to say the least. I took on a role as youth educator, mentor and promoter. I helped with academic advising, established informal youth service clubs, encouraged youth to be proactive in their communities, promoted volunteer-ism and making a positive contribution to their communities.

I served as an extended volunteer, meaning that I served a third year instead of the traditional two year and three month service. During that time, I got married to my community counterpart and embraced many parts of the Azerbaijani culture. It is my hope to provide you a sense of understanding of life as a Peace Corps volunteer, life in Azerbaijan, and a bit about Azerbaijani culture through my experiences. Please feel free to comment or email me if you have any questions or suggestions for topics you'd like to hear more about.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

3rd Goal Project - Language Learning Preservation

Ray Blakney an RPCV from Mexico is currently working on a 3rd goal project with the PC regional offices, and the main office in DC, to try to create an online archive to keep the language training material made all over the world from getting lost. He has created a sub-section on the website he and his wife run -http://www.livelingua.com - with all the information he has been able to get to date (from over the web and sent directly by PC staff and PCV's). He currently has close to 100 languages with ebooks, audios and even some videos.

There should be something there for almost everybody. It is all 100% free to use and share. Here is the specific page of the Peace Corps Archive:

http://www.livelingua.com/peace-corps-language-courses.php

If you, or anyone you know, has some old material to scan or already have in digital form, and want to add to the archive, please don't hesitate to contact him by email.

Ray Blakney
blakney.ray@gmail.com

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Life of Service After PLU

Austin Goble '09, Ruth Tollefson '09, Raechelle Baghirov 05, listen while Sallie Strueby '11, speaks during an Alumni panel discussion on service opportunities at PLU on Thursday, March 22, 2012. (Photo by John Froschauer)
By Katie Scaff '13

Volunteer service is about taking what you're learning in the classroom and making it bigger, according to four recent PLU graduates.

The grads, Sallie Strueby '11, Austin Goble '09, Ruth Tollefson '09, and Raechelle Baghirov '05, shared their experiences in a panel discussion on paid service opportunities on Thursday, March 22nd.

"The phrase 'a life of service' was thrown around a lot," Baghirov said of her time at PLU. "It made you look at what you were learning and how it could be taken to a higher level. I may not have thought of it as 'this is my wild hope component' but it was."

Baghirov studied abroad in London during J-term her last year at PLU and knew she wanted to spend more time abroad. She applied for the Peace Corps after graduation and spent three and a half years volunteering in Azerbaijan.

"Every volunteer service is different and it is what you make of it," Baghirov said. "Meaningful service not only changed the life of those I worked with, but it changed my own life as well. You get more than you give."

For some, like Baghirov, volunteering was a way to fulfill two passions, serving others and traveling. For others though, like Goble, who volunteered with Lutheran Volunteer Corps and Americorps, volunteering was a way to transition from college life to the "real world."

"I was excited about the opportunity to slowly move itno something else," Goble said.

Goble did two years of service. He spent his first year working with Lutheran Volunteer Corps affiliate Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership in Omaha. His second year was with Peace Community Center, an Americorp affiliate in Tacoma's hilltop neighborhood. The relationships he formed during these years had a large influence on him.

"I'm the one gaining from their life experience," Goble said. "It's a lot of personal growth, a lot of self examination and getting a better understanding of who I am -- that has shaped me immeasurably."

Though they had different experiences, the other panelists echoed Goble's words.

"It's self-sacrificing but it's so worth it," Strueby said, who is currently volunteering with Americorps at Federal Way Public Schools. "I went into this experience hoping to mentor, inspire, and teach these students and I know I'll leave with it being the other way around."

Volunteering is sometimes seen as a detour on the way to a career, but often it can lead to an better prepare you for your career, according to the panelists.

"It's mind-blowing how much you change," Baghirov said. "It forces you to look at yourself and imagine what you're capable of. I took away this sense that I was self-sufficient. I have the power to change my own life and my own world in everyday decisions."

For Tollefson, her service at Peace Community Center turned into a job. She's now the elementary programs and public relations director for the center. Looking back, she recognizes how her experiences at PLU prepared her.

"When I was a student here I was really really involved in student leadership and I think that is what helped me feel confident enough to go off and do service in a different community," Tollefson said.



Reposted from: http://www.plu.edu/news/2012/04/volunteer-panel/

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

An Open Letter (Reposted)




Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,

I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.

But should you? Is it right for you?

Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site. 

I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change - for the better and for the worse - because of your time in Peace Corps.

‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.

Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.

The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen. 

Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.

You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.

You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. 
Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.

You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing your forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.

You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes will hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.

Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.

You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.
Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.

You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.
You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.


Reposted from: http://peacecorps.tumblr.com/
http://thesharpiemarkerapproach.tumblr.com/post/42420977797/an-open-letter

All credit goes to the amazing RPCV that wrote this as clearly as anyone could have said it.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Stuck in Samoa: The US refuses to take back this ‘stateless’ man


VIENNA, Austria — Mikhail Sebastian’s trip to American Samoa redefines the term nightmare vacation.
Instead of a five-day holiday to the lush, tropical US territory in the South Pacific, the 39-year-old has spent more than nine brutal months there caught in an immigration law hell. Experts agree it’s an unprecedented illustration of America’s broken immigration system.
The key sticking point: Though he’s lived legally in Houston and the Los Angeles area for years under a special arrangement with the Department of Homeland Security, Sebastian is stateless, with no citizenship at all. The federal government argues that during his vacation he “self-deported” from the United States — despite the fact that American Samoa is a US territory.
Now the part-time travel agent and barista is stuck on the 76-square-mile island as federal and local officials hash out what to do with him. Though the local government is putting him up with a local family and giving him a $50 weekly allowance, Sebastian can’t work under American Samoan laws and can’t travel off the island.
Most days, he can be found at the local McDonald’s using an internet connection to post online appeals while drawing the sympathy of doting locals, who have been circulating petitions to get him back home. He’s living a sweaty Pacific island version of “The Terminal,” the movie in which Tom Hanks plays a traveler who loses his citizenship and is stuck in an airport.
“It’s horrible here, it’s hot it’s making me sick, I can’t stand it anymore” Sebastian told GlobalPost over Skype recently. “I just want to go home.”
Charity Tooze, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office in the United States, which is advocating for Sebastian, said: “There’s a big gap in the legal structure of the United States when it comes to stateless people, and Mikhail has fallen right through it.”



Stateless in America
To understand Sebastian’s case, one has to grasp the problem of statelessness in America.
At least 4,000 people in the United States don’t have citizenship in any country, through no fault of their own, according to advocacy group Refugees International.
In some cases, countries use nationality as a political tool, stripping people of their citizenship when they’re abroad. Other times states simply cease to exist, and no one will recognize their former citizens.
That’s what happened in Sebastian’s case, which is no simple matter. He is an ethnic Armenian born in what is today Azerbaijan, but when the Soviet Union broke up, Azerbaijan refused to issue him a passport because, he claims, of his Armenian background. 
But Sebastian adds that he has been unable to convince Armenian authorities to grant him a passport either. The explanation, he says, is that Armenia isn't convinced of his ethnicity and won't grant him citizenship under its laws.
The US immigration system can offer stateless people a path to legal residency and possible citizenship if an asylum claim is accepted.
But often, as in the case of Sebastian, stateless people end up in a legal twilight zone of sorts. His asylum application was rejected in 1996, the year after he came to the US on a business visa in his USSR passport and decided he wanted to stay in the country.
After a judge ruled in 2002 that he should be deported, Sebastian was jailed for six months. But since no country would accept him, officials released Sebastian with a work permit and the stipulation that he regularly check in with immigration authorities, records show.
“People like this find themselves in a very precarious position, where there aren’t really any remedies for them at all,” said Maureen Lynch, an expert on statelessness affiliated with the International Observatory on Statelessness in the United Kingdom.

They can end up living in permanent quasi-legality — often until their deaths, Lynch said.


More than 70 countries have signed on to two international conventions that bind them to provide a way for the stateless to regularize their legal status.
But the United States never has.
And though lawmakers have introduced legislation in the past to offer a pathway to immigration regularization, it has failed each time.
Seeing the world
Because he can’t travel outside the United States, Sebastian says he’s been visiting the most exotic American destinations he can find — Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, among others. To facilitate his travels, he has a so-called “World Passport” from the World Service Authority, which David Gallup, the group's president, describes as a global-governmental organization. A World Passport is a document that’s supposed to confer world citizenship; it can be issued to anyone, other than criminals, terrorists and citizens of certain countries, like Cuba and Iran, Gallup says.
Last December, Sebastian decided, the South Pacific was next on his list. He says he checked with US immigration authorities and was told that visiting American Samoa wouldn't cause him any problems. The American Samoans sent him an authorization to travel with the World Passport — because of American Samoa’s unusual relationship to the United States, everyone traveling there and back passes through customs.
Here’s the chain of events no one disputes: After visiting American Samoa, Sebastian took a side trip to the neighboring independent country of Samoa before crossing back into the US territory. When he tried to board a plane on the way back to the mainland, airline officials called US immigration authorities. They decreed that a World Passport wasn’t a valid travel document and he couldn’t board the flight back.
That doesn’t make sense to American Samoan officials, who wonder how Sebastian can be considered deported from the United States if he is now on American territory.
In a written statement to GlobalPost the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency wrote that Sebastian had, in effect, self-deported himself: “In 2002, an immigration judge with the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) ordered Sebastian to depart the United States. At that time, he was not in ICE custody as the agency had deferred action on his removal. In the meantime, he had been granted employment authorization. In December 2011 when Mr. Sebastian traveled to American Samoa and Samoa, he was prohibited from returning to the United States due to the immigration judge’s order.”
Stuck forever?
On the island, authorities have been appealing to the highest levels of the federal government. The territory’s governor, congressional delegate and the local Office of the Attorney General have all begged the US to take Sebastian back.
And a thick web of pro-bono immigration attorneys and UNCHR have taken up Sebastian’s case.
But Homeland Security won’t give in and Sebastian’s supporters worry that he could be stuck forever. If that happens, American Samoa would have to change its laws to allow Sebastian to work or own land, officials say.
“As a US territory we can’t tell the US what to do. And we don’t have the same influence a state does,” said Vincent Kruse, a lawyer with American Samoa’s Attorney General who has been working on Sebastian’s case. “It’s definitely very frustrating because we just want to help Mikhail go home but we’re starting to think about the possibility that he may be here for the long run.”
In August Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, American Samoa’s delegate to the US House of Representatives, appealed directly to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in a letter, calling the situation “unprecedented.”
“There are no pre-existing cases that would provide a better understanding in addressing his situation,” Faleomavaega wrote, asking her to resolve the situation.
But in a Sept. 13 letter, the Department of Homeland Security rejected that appeal, prompting strong words from Faleomavaega as he once more demanded Napolitano’s personal intervention.
"It is clear to me that the US Department of Homeland security has no sense of compassion for Mr. Sebastian," he wrote Napolitano last week, citing Sebastian's "extreme" living conditions and calling his treatment by federal authorities "inexcusable."
Sebastian just wants to get back to California to reopen his asylum case — records show federal officials had previously approved its reopening but rescinded the offer after they realized he was stuck in the South Pacific.
Back in McDonald’s, Sebastian says he isn’t reveling in his mini-celebrity on the island of just 55,000 people. He’s feeling powerless and at his lowest points has even contemplated suicide.
“This whole situation is like a hell for me,” he said.


Article republished from:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Coming Full Circle

As Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) one of the things we are asked to do is to take back what we have learned and experienced in our host countries, and share these things with people in our own community. Often, this can be difficult for RPCVs, as most people don't want to spend hours looking at photographs of strangers, or hearing stories of how we sat next to a sheep on a mini bus for seven hours.  At a certain point, we have to re-examine what it means to bring the world back home with us.

Kennedy asked us to "strengthen Americans' understanding about the world and its peoples."  For me, this took on a unique opportunity to not only strengthen my home community and America's understanding of other cultures and people, but to continue helping to develop youth from around the world. My husband and I recently signed up to become Area Representatives for a non-profit organization called Pacific Intercultural Exchange.  The very same organization that my husband studied abroad though when he was an exchange student in Florida in 2003-2004.

As a non-profit organization focused entirely on secondary student exchange, Pacific Intercultural Exchange (PIE) offers both American and international high school students the opportunity to spend a semester or year abroad. "PIE is a not-for-profit corporation that prides itself on facilitating the exchange of cultures between young people, their host families, and host schools through semester, year long, and summer programs (outbound only). Like Peace Corps, PIE believes that only through knowledge can the fear of the unknown be eliminated and true cooperative unity be achieved." 1

PIE is open to any American or international high school students interested in foreign exchange. In addition, it is constantly searching for host families and volunteers to help expand the program by acting as the local area representatives in cities, towns, and rural areas throughout the United States.

"As RPCVs we have the advantage of knowing both the stress and benefits that come as a result of living and learning in a foreign country, opening our minds to new cultures, lifestyles, and flavors as well as what it is like to become a member of someone else’s family in the process." 1

For those of you who have never considered the impact of hosting an exchange student, it is never too late to participate!  PIE has some of the highest standards for its' students, and for families we expect you to treat students as a member of your own family, provide them with a room (students may share with another of the same gender provided the family member is aged 10-17), and provide three meals a day. Although host families are not paid, students bring their own spending money, and the impact of hosting an exchange student far outweighs any financial compensation.

If you are not interested in being a host family at this time, there are other ways that you can help. Like myself, you can volunteer to be an Area Representative for students in your area. Even if you don't have a lot of time to commit, you can volunteer to be the representative for even just one student.  Area Representatives assist host families with the placement process, and act as the primary contact for students placed in your area for the duration of their host stay. "PIE is seeking to break the model of the assumed American lifestyle portrayed to international students by the media, and show participants that there is no “typical” American or family." 1

I never expected that after returning from my time in the Peace Corps, that I would now be the one helping to find host families that treat international students as well as my own host family treated me. I only hope that those you who are considering the impact you can have on a student, are willing to reach out and contact PIE for more information. My host family will always be a part of my life, and I will always remember how they made my time and experiences in Peace Corps so much better than I ever imagined. I only hope that we can do the same for these students.

If you are looking for more information or want to get involved, call 1-888-743-8721 or visit the PIE website at: http://www.pieusa.org

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A thought on Christians and facebook...

Let me preface today's blog by telling you that I am a proud Christian married happily to a Muslim man. I lived and worked for three and a half years side by side with Muslims in a Muslim community. They were open, accepting, and genuinely gracious to me about my religion. The image that American media paints of the Muslim world is not the reality that I have seen with my own eyes.

"The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,[c] 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him." Acts 17:24-27




If as the Bible says, that all human beings come from one man, and that he created all nations, and that he gives to all mankind life and everything in our lives... then why do do so many Christians in America treat Muslims as if they were not created by the same God that made Christians? Why do Christians feel they have the right to discriminate, judge, put down, harass and ridicule a race of people created by God himself? What makes us so arrogant as a nation to think we are more loved, or better than anyone else that God put on this earth?


This week I've finally gotten back on facebook. I've tried to stay a way for the last two to three months, as every time I got online I would see posts and comments from my fellow Christians about Muslims and Islam. Honestly, it took every ounce of my willpower to just stay off the internet and not fight back. I hate that so many people make assumptions and judgments about millions of people they've never even met before. These human beings who want nothing more than to lead a good life, raise their children to be good people, to live a life dedicated to God (yes the same one that Christians worship, and if you think that is inaccurate maybe you should read Islam for Dummies).  These are people that God created too. It hurts me to know that we are teaching the children of America to hate. We are openly and actively discriminating Muslim exchange students, and our own Muslims who live in America. Whatever happened to love thy neighbor? Do we get to conveniently pick and choose what passages of the bible to believe? Do we no longer believe that racism is against God's desires for us? (IF you don't believe that, here is a list of passages in the Bible that tell us God wants us to love each other, to accept each other, and to coexist together: http://www.openbible.info/topics/racism


Look, I know I'm one person. I know that this blog may no longer even be read by anyone. But it hurts my heart to know that there are people I love who have no problem advocating for hatred against other people that I love, in the name of Christianity. The television show West Wing once used an analogy that the Terrorist Muslim groups are to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. So why are we still acting like all Muslims are terrorists? Stop blaming it on Christianity and saying it is what the Bible says, because it isn't and presuming to know God's mind and heart is offensive. Presuming that God doesn't want us to love the Muslim brothers and sisters he put on the planet with us is offensive. Just stop it and learn to accept those people that God puts on this planet. No one asks to be born. We don't choose to be born. You can't honestly think that there are different Gods who create babies to burn in hell for being born into the wrong region of the world... really, are we that arrogant? Wake up and try living a life by example instead of trying to spend all your time telling everyone else how to live. If Facebook has become a way for Christians to justify their bullying then I want no part of it. We ask our children to not cyber bully, yet we have no problem using Facebook to publicly proclaim superiority. God shows no partiality. ( Romans 2:11 )

1 John 2:9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Baku State of Mind


One of the best parts of being a Peace Corps volunteer is sharing with the rest of the world all the things you see and do while in Azerbaijan. Two industrious volunteers, Tim McNaught (Az 7) and Brad Kessler  (Az 8) calling themselves the "Baku Dreamers," have produced a video that is set to the tune of Jay-Z and Alicia Key's song Empire State of Mind.... but this one is entitled Baku State of Mind. In 2012, the capital city of Azerbaijan, will host the biggest and most widely televised music contest in Europe, Eurovision. Since Azerbaijan won first place this year, Baku will naturally host the next contest, and Azerbaijan is earning it's place on the map. These two volunteers have made what I feel is one of the best PR pieces I've ever seen for Azerbaijan... showing some of the places that are actually enjoyable for expats, volunteers and foreigners to visit while in the capital. Please watch the video, and if you can, rate it! These volunteers did an amazing job, and my hat is off to the two of them for promoting Peace Corps third goal in one of the most creative ways I've ever seen!