In Nicaragua, the idea of separate yards divided by fences just doesn’t exist and the space there is much more open and shared, said Peace Corps Volunteer Zach Moore, who points out that Nicaraguans do not even have a word for “yard.”
Moore was able to share his knowledge from abroad along with a former Bhutanese refugee, another Peace Corps volunteer and others at the recent “Peace and Friendship: an International Panel” at the North Hill Branch Library.
Also on hand to answer questions and guide the discussion were The International Institute of Akron’s Susan Wuscher, and Annabel Khouri of the Peace Corps.
Wuscher, our host for the evening and director of New Initiatives at IIA, began by saying, “The Peace Corps and the International Institute share a common bond of bringing the world to Akron.” She added that each year Akron, and the North Hill community in particular, welcome refugees from around the world, and events such as the International Panel are part of an initiative to bring knowledge about the people and cultures that coexist in our community.
Wuscher then introduced Annabel Khouri, a regional recruiter for the Peace Corps, who shared that the Peace Corps, since its creation in 1961, has sent over 250,000 Americans to locations around the globe to serve in a variety of ways.
Having recently arrived home from his assignment, Moore was a 2008 graduate of Hudson High School and a 2012 graduate of Arizona State University, who earned degrees in Spanish and anthropology. He was assigned to Nicaragua and taught English as a foreign language there. He returned to Hudson in November 2015 after completing a two-year commitment.
Moore also said that the most important skill he used to connect with and gain understanding of the culture there was to ask questions and to listen with an open mind. He said, “If you really want to get to know somebody, ask them about themselves and listen genuinely.”
Doing well while having very little
The other recently returned Peace Corps volunteer on the panel was Trish Ostroski. She grew up in North Hill and graduated from the University of Akron. Ostroski moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s and spent much of her career working in the entertainment industry. She joined the Peace Corps in 2013 and served in Chisinau, Moldova, working in community and organizational development. She returned to Akron in September 2015 after completing her assignment.
She said that Moldovans speak primarily Russian and Romanian, and their country is the poorest in Europe. During her stay in Moldova, Ostroski said the most rewarding parts of her job were the ones that gave her opportunities to work with children.
She said she observed, “While the people there have very little, they do very well with what they have.”
Ostroski said that she believed in the importance of the “platinum rule.” She said that the golden rule is that we treat others as we would like to be treated, but the platinum rule requires that we treat others the way they would like to be treated. She said, “It is always important to assume that the other person is thoughtful and intelligent. Americans often feel we do everything better.”
Om Pokwal, a former Bhutanese refugee, shared that he first settled in San Francisco. At first he was unable to bring his wife and two daughters with him. Eventually, he was able to enlist the help of a Congressman in San Francisco to reunite his family in the United States.
He spoke of those first days in the United States without them, and of how he missed his family and also missed the culture, tradition, flora and fauna of his native Bhutan. He said that while the culture shock was difficult, he believe he adapted to life in the States more easily than many of his fellow refugees.
Pokwal said he feels deeply in his heart for refugees and their struggle to fit in.
Difficult to make friendships as an immigrant
Steven Savides came to the United States from Pretoria, South Africa. He studied at Principia College in Illinois. Savides is a journalist who has worked as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He lives in Akron with his wife, the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Akron.
Savides, as a white South African, grew up with privilege and surrounded by violence in the time of apartheid. His final year in high school was 1990, the year Nelson Mandela was freed. After high school he was drafted into the South African military but believed in change but not violence and was not sure he would be able to bear arms. So when he was offered a full scholarship to Principia, he said he was relieved to be granted permission to leave the military.
Savides spoke of the assumptions that are often made about him. “Many people assume that white South African equals racist,” he said, adding that for some people he has met, that assumption seems to give them license to say racist things.
Other people who assume he must be racist judge him harshly without getting to know him. As far as how those assumptions have affected his ability to assimilate, he said, “It’s incredibly hard to make meaningful friendships in this country as an immigrant.”
So, how do we measure the success of the panel? In an hour and a half it is impossible to educate an entire community about issues of cultural diversity and acceptance, but it is a start.
All the members of the panel offered important insights into the obstacles faced by the immigrant and refugee communities. They also offered a window into ideas we may want to borrow from other countries/cultures as we work to unite the people in our community…all the people in our community.
To learn more about the work of the International Institute of Akron, go to iiakron.org.
To learn more about the Peace Corps or to explore becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, visit www.peacecorps.gov.