Jordan Welcomes Peace Corps

As dawn breaks over the Dana Nature Reserve of Jordan, Peace Corps volunteer Yasmina Ramian fetches clean water from a village well. She's come all the way from New Jersey to work as an environmentalist in the Middle East.

As CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Alison Stewart reports, her presence is largely due to the efforts of Queen Noor.


"I have the opportunity now in Jordan to do something that I would never be able to do in America," says Ramian.

"They don't have too much manpower here at Dana Nature Reserve. So having me here is great because I'm someone who can devote all her time to just doing environmental education programs," she adds.

At a Palestinian refugee camp 250 kilometers to the north, 24-year-old Erin van Luven puts her speech pathology degree to good use.

"I hope in terms of my job that I can help to create some of that awareness of keeping your ears healthy - all those things," says van Luven.


Yasmina Ramian
Both volunteers are members of an expanding Peace Corps, where women now outnumber men. Its volunteers are being invited into new countries, including Jordan.

"I hope I can make an impression that people meet an American and say, ‘They're not all like they are on TV,’" van Luven continues. "I like the goals of the Peace Corps now....I'm kind of proud to be a part of it."

It is because of Queen Noor, the wife of the late King Hussein, that Peace Corps volunteers are now working in Jordan. She was the driving force in bringing the organization to the country.

Once when the queen was young Lisa Halaby of Washington, D.C., she dreamed of being a volunteer herself.


Ramian is welcomed by a villager.
"I have a diary entry when I was 10 years old," she says."It's the first and only diary entry that I have from my childhood in which I listed the careers that I longed to one day be able to pursue, and the Peace Corps was at the top of the list."

For 38 years, American men and women have traveled across the world, devoting two years of their life to the Peace Corps. The organization didn't disappear with the 1960s, and the idealistic spirit is as strong today as it was when President Kennedy sent off the first volunteers on Aug. 29, 1961.

"I today sgned an executive order providing for the establishment of a Peace Corps," President Kennedy said at the Corps’ inauguration. "It’s our hope to have between 500 and 1,000 people in the field by the end of this year. It will not be easy."

"None of the men and women will be paid a salary….They will live at the same level as the citizens of the country they are sent to, doing the same work, eating the same food, speaking the same language," Kennedy said.

"I am hopeful it will be a source of satisfaction for Americans and a contribution to world peace," he said.


The streets of Jordan
Over the years, more than 155,000 people have served in the Peace Corps and now 42 fresh faces have arrived in the Hashemite Kingdom, where Queen Noor resides.

It's déjà vu for Kate Ramsey, one of last year's volunteers who came to greet the new group at the Amman airport.

"Just this time being here rolls you back and makes you think about what it was like when you first came, and how amazed and shocked and lost you were and how much further you've come since that moment," she says.

Queen Noor is actively involved with many of the organizations where the volunteers are placed.

"I think they arrive with an openness which is absolutely critical, an interest in learning and in absorbing and exchanging," says the queen. "I'm an activist at heart, and I do believe that each of us have a responsibility to speak up."


Ramian at work
In Queen Noor’s case, speaking up involves protecting the Dana Nature Reserve, and that's where the Peace Corps volunteers figure in. Ramian, an environmental studies graduate, has the skills to catalog ecosystems, create procedural manuals for the reserve, and develop educational workshops.

"The most important thing, which is common with a lot of Peace Corps volunteers, is the transfer of skills," says Ramian. "I'm training a local counterpart….He's working on a computer now, you know, and he knows about activities and how to do them."

Van Luven has been working side by side with Samir Abu Rahneh. Her volunteer work at the clinic will free him up to go to London to pursue his master's degree in audiology.


Erin van Luven
"Samir takes any free moment to grab me and say, ‘Let me teach you about this, let me teach you about that.’ I've made ear molds for hearing aids, something I would never had known how to do," van Luven explains. "It's worked out pretty well for both of us."

Peace Corps volunteers are trained in their host country's language and taught local customs. This is especially significant for the American women. In a Muslim country, women must, according to tradition, cover themselves at all times.

"After dark, women are in the house, and men pretty much go and stroll with their friends," van Luven says. "The men have complete freedom like we do at home and the women don't. Playing sports is not an option."

Ramian spends every night inside her single-room home. She rarely sees the stars in the desert sky, because she can't go out after sundown, she says.

"The hugest issue about me living here is that I live alone," Ramian says.

"The village is very conservative and Muslim. And my host family has told me, like totally to protect me of course, when I'm in the village, [to] never speak to a man ever," she says.


Van Luven examines a village child
Confronting and improving the political and economic status of women is on Queen Noor's agenda, and Peace Corps volunteers are assigned to some of her empowerment projects.

"Over the past two decades, we have managed a critical shift in development thinking - from women as dependent beneficiaries of charity to development approaches that are based on developing their ability to be economic forces in their communities," says Queen Noor. "And through that their status has been transformed. Their voices are heard."

"And the Peace Corps volunteers, especially women, are, I think, probably learning from that as much as contributing as role models in that process," she adds.

Ramian and van Luven do not question that they are learning a great deal, but both admit that they’re homesick.

"I thought, you know, like tough New York City girl," says Ramian. "I thought I could do it. You know, I thought it would never bother me and I could just handle things. It's actually been a lot harder."

But the volunteers do say that newfound friendships can be quite comforting abroad. Ramian ives for afternoon tea under her neighbors’ rooftop tent. They have welcomed and taught her.

"My host mom has been trying to teach me to milk a goat for months now," says Ramian, laughing. "I am the worst goat milker; they all laugh at me when I try to milk a goat."

The relationships and firsthand experience help nurture a good will that Queen Noor hopes volunteers will take back with them, challenging misconceptions about the Middle East.

"Much of my 21 years of marriage has been spent trying to break through those stereotypes," says Queen Noor. "And these young people are doing that."

"It's so important to come and be very open and very receptive, and to try to be as sensitive as possible to the different nuances of relationships, whether they're family relationships or community relationships or working relationships, with men, with women," she adds.

For van Luven, the Peace Corps has been an experience of give and take: "I've gained a lot more than I gave up….It’s really hot. I'm wearing these clothes. It's hard. But you get used to it."

It's that give and take that has sustained the Corps' original vision. While volunteers around the world help their global neighbors, they experience personal victories: learning a language, understanding a culture or finally milking a goat. While it's not always easy, the program provides a small step toward fostering peace.

To learn more about the Peace Corps, visit its Web site.
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Follow Us

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

On Twitter