Peace Corps Armenia: Evacuation

I left America on March 17th, 2019, and returned on March 17th, 2020, and I am determined to write a happy story even though I am heartbroken, because I have had so much. I want to tell you about Ovsanna, and Mariam, and Susik, and Diana, and the time Anushavan asked me if they had dounuts in America in sweet, careful English.

“Are they… tasty?” he followed up, and I stifled a laugh and answered.

I want to tell you about Arevik’s art, and Raffi’s kittens, and how my English Club was so frustrating, and hard, and rewarding.

I want to tell you about learning a language, syllable by syllable, and a place that felt foreign and scary becoming home.

I want to tell you about the other volunteers too, these people who have become such close friends and are some of the best people I know, and how blindingly proud I am to call them my friends.

I am going to get to all of that. Writing and sharing is how I process things—I am always a little afraid of losing memories, or places and people to change and time. I guess I sort of think if I can write it all quick enough, if someone else reads it, it’s real and permanent.

I have left Armenia in a horrible, jolting way. But I still have my stories.

 

I learned on Sunday afternoon we’d be evacuating the following week. This was two days after my last blog post. I knew it was coming—evacuations had been crawling east. The European volunteers had all evacuated. Study abroad programs were going home. The outbreak of COVID-19 in Armenia intensified. Flights started dropping; the border with Georgia, our last open border, closed.

I knew it was coming, but reading the email my heart dropped. I would be leaving Armenia in the next week. I would leave my family, my job, my students, so many friends, and a life I fought tooth and nail for and loved whole-heartedly. I had a week to say goodbye, and leave Armenia, and no idea what was going to happen to the people I love there, and them no idea what is going to happen to me. My American friends would be scattered back to their Home of Record. And none of us knew what kind of America we would be coming back to.

None of it felt real really—just like a series of things I needed to do until I could think again. I’m still waiting for it to feel real now.

Telling my host family was terrible. I’m not going to try and make that positive at all, because it wasn’t. It was hard, and sad. M cried so hard, and I did too. My host mom cried, and I tried to comfort her but I just didn’t know what to say, neither in her language nor mine. On top of that they were scared. If Americans are evacuating the country what does that mean? I tried to explain that it was more travel related—we needed to be able to get back to the US in the event of an emergency, and international travel just got a lot more complicated.

My host mom nodded. “It will pass. You will come back.”

Hostanoom em,” I said. I try not to make empty promises.

M helped me pack, both of us in tears. M is fifteen. When we met, we learned we both like long walks and the rain. She had smiled shyly. “We are sisters,” she said. That was back in May.

Now it’s March, and she folds the clothes that I had tried to jam in a suitcase and wipes her nose. I tried to make a joke, and she laughed a little, then cried harder.

“Mar jan, kez hamar,” I handed her a pile of almost half my clothes—anything on the small side, or anything with stripes. M likes stripes.

“No,” she shook her head and set her jaw. She took the pile from me and shoved them neatly on to a shelf. “For when you come back.”

I met her eyes and nodded. She is stubborn in the best way. Maybe we really are sisters.

“Here then,” I handed her a small pink stuffed bear I had brought with me from America.

She nodded, “mi rope—”. Ran out of the room, came back with a small bear for me.

We stood there in the room with green walls, the mountain out the window covered in low clouds, fig tree branches bare. I think that sometimes you don’t realize just how fiercely you love someone until the idea of losing them stares you straight in the face.

So maybe the lesson here is to love a little harder while you can.

We made plans for the next day. Chocolate chip cookies in the morning, a movie at night. We sat on my bed and stayed up late talking, trying to ask each other every question we hadn’t thought of in the last year.

I slept like shit, then woke up feeling numb. Like suddenly I’d steeped into a world I didn’t recognize. Like culture shock, but for everything—the slant of the sun, the roads I’ve walked a million times. A knot in my stomach that grew and stayed there, because my life was about to become unrecognizable.

Text: I think they’re trying to get people out sooner than we thought. Be ready.

I relay the message to other PCVs. We were all sort of depending on each other for any information at all, and a little comfort.

M and I walked to the store for chocolate to make our cookies. We baked quietly.

Chelsea called me. Chelsea is an important person in my life. She was the PCV nearest me for a while, and we are from the same state. More importantly, she is one of the best, most consistent and compassionate people I know. We were language partners together over a year ago, when we all started studying Armenian online, and we were roommates in DC, the night before we left for Armenia. We requested to be in the same Evacuation group.

“Hey,” I answered.

“Staff called. They want to get me out tonight. Should I tell them not without you?”

“No,” I said. “If you can go now, you need to go. You’re farther away.”

She paused, like she was deciding if she believed me or not. “Okay.”

“And Chels? If they call me I’m gonna tell them that I can wait—I’m close to the city, and I’m already safe here.” I desperately wanted the extra day or two to say goodbye.

I went out to M and the cookies, still in the oven. “Chelsea is leaving today,” I told her.

“And you?” she asked.

“I don’t know yet.”

“I thought we had two days?”

“Something must’ve changed.”

My phone rang again, this time staff.

“I can go today, if you need me to,” I said. “But I’m close, and I’m not anxious, so I can also wait.”

“Uh, okay. We’ll call you back.”

I went back to the cookies. Mariam and I sat in silence. My phone rang again.

“How soon can you be here?”

I swallowed. “Two hours?”

“Then come as soon as you can.”

“Wait, now now?”

“Can you?”

“Yes.”

“See you soon.”

I stumbled out sort of stunned. “I have to go now.”

Hima?” M crinkled her nose.

“Ope! Mar, the cookies are burning!”

She pulled them out of the oven in a hurry. I grabbed my bags, quickly texted Chelsea, and our group chat that I’m leaving today. I called another volunteer who hadn’t started packing.

My host mom wrapped and handed me a bottle of wine and cognac for my parents, called a taxi for me. I don’t know where we found the room in my bags, though honestly I didn’t bring back that much.

“Your mom likes red wine right? I remember.” My host mom said. “I’m so sad we’re losing you, but I am happy for her. She misses her daughter. Maddy jan, did you remember your little green book?”

I write in the little green book, my journal, every night. She noticed, and knows how important it is to me. There aren’t really words to describe how wonderful this family is and has been to me, and how hard it was to leave them like this. My host mom is selfless, and motivated, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I wasn’t surprised that she noticed.

Ha, oonem,” the words stuck in my throat.

Chenk latsnoom, we’re not crying,” M instructed as I hugged her goodbye.

“No, and it’s not goodbye.”

kkarotem kez!

“I love you so much,” I told her in English, my tears landing in her hair.

Doo el. We’re sisters,” she reminded me.

“Sisters,” I told her back.

I hugged my host mom and brother and then I got into the car and left my home. It was raining and the roads were empty. I was able to stop crying and have a conversation with the driver, and spoke maybe the best Armenian I’ve ever spoken and said my one Russian joke (also the only thing I can really say in Russian).

 

Then I got to the PC office. Volunteers trickled in throughout the day—maybe twenty of us, maybe more. Another volunteer and I walked out through the city and brought back a thing of donuts for the group and PC staff.

Peace Corps Armenia’s staff did such an incredible job and kept everything as smooth as possible, and got us all out safely. Moreover, they did a great job attending to the needs of individual volunteers wherever possible. I cannot say enough about how proud I am to have worked with these people.

We are all technically closing our service, so we did a group bell ringing—“ringing the bell” at our post is the thing you do to symbolize the close of your service.

I don’t really know why, partly because I feel my service is very unfinished and partly because I do want so badly to return, I declined to ring the bell.

“I’ll be ringing when I come back,” I said. Jaw set, like Mariam’s.

Chelsea called on FB messenger to tell me her phone was dead and she was driving in a snowstorm but could I please tell our Country Director that she was on her way. When Chelsea finally got to the office, she had to run to do the medical appointments, and I was trying to find a staff member to help out another volunteer who was still hours away.

When we finally did get a chance to talk I handed her the vanilla Dr. Pepper I’d saved—usually we go for Canada Dry but I couldn’t find any.

“Oh good, I’ve got a falafel on the way for you.”

“You’re the best,” I said. “What’s your flight like?”

“Same as yours. I’m coming into Detroit.”

“Wait, what?” Detroit is my airport. Chelsea and I are from the same state, but opposite sides of it. “Why would you do that?”

“I asked them to change it. We started this together, we’re finishing it that way too.”

“You changed your preferred airport?”

We’re in the Volunteer Resource Room, and it’s full of suitcases, and stressed volunteers, and a few people are listening. I am quietly glad that if nothing else, I have made this kind of friend.

She nodded.

“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”

 

Travel itself is always a blur. Three flights, I don’t know how many hours. I don’t sleep on planes, so I stayed awake for the whole thing. Scattered goodbyes in different airports. In Doha, we were handed a sheet of paper to self-report travel and potential COVID-19 symptoms. I had none. Just a headache and red eyes. It’s a 15-hour flight from Doha to Chicago, and a group of volunteers and I met every few hours to stand by the bathrooms to stand and share updates from the volunteers still in Armenia.

It feels horrible to be on a plane to the US while our friends were still taxiing across the mountains in a snowstorm to the Peace Corps Office. We hear that roads have closed, and flights keep dropping. The city of Etchmiadzin has been quarantined, COVID cases have doubled; Yerevan is a ghost town. They think Thursday they’ll get out—it’s a 15-hour flight I know I won’t sleep on, and I am desperate for updates.

We make it into O’Hare, and say goodbye to our last group of volunteers. Everyone splits off to wherever home is. Chelsea comes with me on the Detroit flight.

 

And I feel like I’ve lost a lot; we all do. We had this whole life on Sunday; now we’re in the US, and it’s a place I hardly even recognize, and I have no plan, because I didn’t realize I needed one. There are half-finished projects, and abandoned plans, a whole family I thought I’d have so much more time with, and students who I promised two years. There were so many movies M and I wanted to watch together. I hate myself in hindsight for any time I cancelled anything because I was tired.

And I feel sick with guilt at how I have left and what it means for the people I left. Whether or not it was my choice I still left, and I am complicit in that.

I have so many friends, Armenian and PCV, who are now so far from me.

And I have had so much. I want to feel only grateful, but I am also so, so sad. Armenia is one of the best places and it will always be a home for me. There I made family and friends, and found sisters. It’s a place where I was challenged every single day, where I learned how to take a loss, and how gratifying it is to really work for something even when progress is slow. I learned a lot about people; how similar and wonderful we all are. I had all of this for a year, and I thought I had another, and get to finish the things I wanted to finish, and say the goodbyes how I wanted, but I don’t.

But I do still have the family and friends that I made, and I do still have a home in Armenia, and I do still have all of those lessons and stories, and I think there are some things you take with you, always.

 

Chelsea and I talked in hushed voices on the plane to Detroit. It was starting to feel real, seeing the curve of Lake Michigan. We came into that last airport together, and my parents picked us both up. After so many goodbyes, it was nice to be confident that this one wasn’t.

And so myself, and 7,300 other Peace Corps Volunteers are back in America, and we had not expected to be. I am incredibly grateful to have a home and family to return to, and no at-risk immediate family members.

Coming to America like this has been stranger than I could’ve imagined. I am not coming back to the same country I left.

Michigan has just issued a Shelter-in-Place order, and as per Peace Corps’ suggestion, I have been self-quarantining.

I don’t have a good ending for this; it doesn’t feel like an ending.

It’s still unfinished.

 

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(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)


9 thoughts on “Peace Corps Armenia: Evacuation

  1. As usual very good expression. Sorry to hear it ended the way it did but I believe you will go back someday, although it may be different. May your feet getting planted for a bit back “home” until they need to move again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Maddy,
    I feel so bad for all you have gone through, saying goodbye to all your friends and having to leave on such short notice. Continue to keep us in touch and let us know your plans for the future.
    Best wishes and blessings,
    Aunt Carole,

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So sorry for this loss. I served as a PCV when I was 24 and had to leave early and in a rush too, and reading your story I felt like I was reliving it all. It will always feel like a gut punch, but it’s going to get easier. And of course, someday you will go back. Until then please stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was forced to end my service over a security incident in November in Eswatini, so I’ve been reliving my experience a lot the last few weeks as my friends have come home. I’d love to send you a card if you’d like some mail! My phone number is 330-322-9131, and I use WhatsApp at the number too. -Alison

    Liked by 1 person

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