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Peace Corps volunteer’s dream ends too soon

Hallie Brown with her host family in the Gambia after the Peace Corps announced all of its volunteers were being sent home because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy of Hallie Brown)

Edgewood native and Peace Corps volunteer Hallie Brown was forced to leave behind belongings at her host home in the Gambia in a scramble to leave the country. (Courtesy of Hallie Brown)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Edgewood native and University of New Mexico graduate Hallie Brown always wanted to join the Peace Corps. When she was accepted as a community health facilitator in the Gambia, a small country on the northwest coast of Africa, she began living her dream.

But on March 15, the Peace Corps suspended global operations and ordered all 7,000 volunteers to return home. It was a first for the organization, which last had a large evacuation – of about 350 volunteers – during the Ebola outbreak of 2014.

Director Jody Olsen said the action was intended to prevent a situation in which volunteers would be unable to leave their host countries because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She acknowledged the coming days would be “difficult, emotionally draining experiences.”

That rang true for Brown, who was 17 months into her 26-month service period.

“My host family took care of me like I was their own child,” Brown said. “I ate meals with them, worked in my host mother’s garden, did homework with them, experienced life with them. I was there when my host sister was born. It was hard to explain to them why I was leaving, as at that time there weren’t even any COVID-19 cases in the Gambia.”

Brown, who learned the Mandinka language, helped with community programs for child nutrition and medical care, and testing for malaria. She knew the virus had forced volunteers in China, Mongolia and Morocco to leave earlier this year.

But the global evacuation notice surprised Brown, who learned about it through a CNN article while staying at a training facility near her village of Wassu. She left at 6 a.m. to catch a ride to her village. After a scramble to pack and say tearful goodbyes, Brown and nearby Peace Corps members drove to the capital, Banjul.

There, leaders held a two-day “transition conference” with the 115 volunteers in the country to close bank accounts, conduct end-of-service medical exams and return grant funding.

An original flight to Belgium was canceled. Brown and other volunteers journeyed to Dakar, Senegal, to board a chartered flight to Washington, D.C. Brown flew from the nation’s capital to Denver and then home to Albuquerque on Saturday night.

The Peace Corps gave the travelers masks and hand sanitizer. But Brown said she was screened for COVID-19 symptoms only upon her arrival in America.

“Not everyone on my flight was screened, which is concerning,” she said. “I did fill out a questionnaire about my travel history, but no one ever collected it. I felt like I was being sent to a more dangerous place, as far as case numbers were concerned.”

The Gambia and Senegal have since closed their shared border and restricted air travel.

There is no timeline for volunteers returning to their assignments as the virus and resulting global restrictions continue to unfold.

Brown, who couldn’t hug her mother and remained in quarantine for several days after returning, said she is keeping in touch with other volunteers experiencing similar evacuation whiplash.

She is planning to apply to graduate school. She is worried about employment opportunities as businesses close, but she says she will do anything to have a paycheck again.

“Returning from the Peace Corps is a challenging experience normally,” Brown said. “In the Gambia, I didn’t have running water or electricity. I had access to groceries once a week, and I rode my bike everywhere, so there’s definitely a culture shock. Then you add another shock, because this is not the America I thought I would be returning to.”

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