Sophie Mills was waiting to be picked up for her first day of student teaching in Albania when she heard the news: the country was reporting its first cases of COVID-19.
Mills, a Peace Corps volunteer from Asheville, brushed off the news, hopped in the car and went to the eighth grade classroom where she was co-teaching. It had been two months since Mills arrived in Albania, a small country on the Balkan Peninsula, to start her Peace Corps training. There, she had attended language classes and developed skills she’d need to be successful during her two-year posting as an English teacher.
The class went smoothly and the kids loved her. Mills was happy.
But on the way back to her host family’s house, Mills learned that Albania had closed all schools for two weeks because of the coronavirus.
From there, the situation rapidly changed.
Two days later, President Trump announced a 30-day travel ban from several European nations. The next morning, the Albanian government announced it was placing major cities under quarantine.
At 11:30 p.m. March 12, the official email came: the Albanian Peace Corps volunteers were going to be evacuated.
“It really hit me that we had left a mark on our places, and we couldn’t even tell them if we were coming back, and if so, when,” Mills said. “It was a terrible goodbye.”
Three days after that, the Peace Corps announced it would temporarily suspend operations and begin evacuating volunteers from all global postings. In a matter of hours, the lives of 7,100 volunteers serving in 61 countries were turned upside down.
After hasty goodbyes, they are struggling to come to terms with their new reality: their jobs and dreams have disappeared. Many have nowhere to live. No one knows if they’ll be able to return to their postings, or if it’s feasible to wait and find out. They’re stuck in a limbo of uncertainty.
Accepting a posting with the Peace Corps means putting your life on hold for two years, said Mary Owen-Thomas, a board member with the National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit organization that serves the Peace Corps community. Volunteers quit their jobs, sell their homes and give away their belongings. Now, they’re coming back with no job in the midst of a pandemic.
Because Peace Corps volunteers are just that — volunteers — they do not qualify for federal unemployment benefits. Upon evacuation, all volunteers are supposed to receive a small readjustment stipend and will remain covered by their Peace Corps health insurance for two months.
Aurora Fulp, a 2018 UNC-Chapel Hill graduate from Winston-Salem, had seven months left of her 27-month service in a remote region of the Kyrgyz Republic in Central Asia when she was told she needed to evacuate.
Crying, she immediately called her mom to explain what was going on.
“I personally was very committed to fulfilling my contract to be the best volunteer I could be and to me, that meant sticking it out for the full 27 months, no matter how many times I got food poisoning, no matter how much sexual harassment I had to deal with, I was determined to stick it out,” Fulp said.
“And suddenly having that choice taken away from me, it was more than just heartbreaking. Being in year two, I had started to make plans for how I wanted to say goodbye to my community.”
Serving in the Peace Corps means fully integrating into a new community. Volunteers live with host families, learn to speak the local language and embrace new customs. They take on large-scale projects to benefit their community. They build deep connections with locals.
On the eve of her evacuation, Fulp went to the school to thank her co-workers for helping her integrate into the community. She took a final trip to her local shopping village to close her bank account. Then she sat outside her house as a parade of her students came over to say their final goodbyes.
Within 48 hours of leaving her village, Fulp was on a plane back to the U.S.
The $2.2 trillion federal emergency stimulus package allocated $88 million to the Peace Corps to help cover the cost of evacuations and the immediate transition. At this time, no official plan for the funding has been made public.
All returning Peace Corps volunteers must self-quarantine for 14 days in a location without anyone over 60 years old or who had pre-existing health conditions: an added challenge for the many volunteers returning back to the United States without anywhere to go.
Returning volunteers are relying on the network of Peace Corps alum to help ease the transition. Facebook groups of returned and returning Peace Corps volunteers help to connect evacuees with people willing to provide resources, Owen-Thomas said. The National Peace Corps Association is actively advocating for additional mental health and housing assistance.
For Jordan Lummus, a Peace Corps trainee who graduated from UNC-CH in December, the evacuation order means she may never have the chance to serve. Just 10 hours before she was to board a flight to the Dominican Republic to begin her Peace Corps training as a Spanish literacy promoter, she was told her cohort would go on 30 days of administrative leave and stay in the U.S. until further notice.
Administrative leave turned into “close of service,” meaning her trip was officially canceled. She is eligible to reapply when Peace Corps operations resume — but that means she’ll have to find a different posting, follow country-specific guidelines for visas and passports and re-complete the medical screening process.
“This was my full life plan, this was exactly what I was trying to do with my life, everything I had been working for,” Lummus said. “It was devastating, considering I was 10 hours from being on a plane and I had already said all my goodbyes to everyone here and packed up all my stuff. I’m trying to give myself space right now just to let go of control and let life take me where it’s taking me.”