Azerbaijan pushing away Peace Corps program: Is it trying to follow Central Asia?

The Azerbaijani government has refused to renew a major Peace Corps' program focusing on youth development sector in the country, asking from more than a dozen of volunteers who had been involved in the project for two years to leave early this year, TURAN's Washington DC correspondent was informed by a few sources that closely follow the issue.

The move put the Peace Corps' (PC) youngest and one of the three exciting contracts in the country (operated since 2007, expired last October) under uncertainty, without providing any sufficient reason, in a decision that not only severely hindered the program's operations but also prevented a number of new volunteers from coming.

In the meantime, the government has not (yet) booted the PC out of the country, as has happened in other parts of the post-Soviet region. 

"Although the young development team suffers a new setback, the volunteers involved in other programs, such as TEFL and CED, continue operating almost all across the country," the sources mentioned.

The Peace Corps leadership and the US Embassy in Baku have reportedly been in an ongoing dialogue with the Azeri government during the past few months about the future of the Youth Development (YD) contract, including its size and scope, but no positive results yet, according to a source, which spoke on condition of anonymity.

While many YD volunteers were offered to either return back to the States or transfer to another country as Baku officials refused to extend their visas last December, some were able to switch to other exciting programs in another sector to be able to operate until the end of their termination (by June 30

Aiming to spread American goodwill and soft power all around the world, the Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 volunteers abroad to 139 countries since its launch in 1961.  Its programs in Azerbaijan have seen more than 500 volunteers rotate through since 2003 for a work to build cross-cultural bridges and help the Azeri people adjust to a globalized market economy.

"There are currently 108 volunteers operating in Azerbaijan" according to the groups website.

Although the PC has had its fair share of some technical problems, such as visa and contract delays in many regional countries in the last few years, the latest move of the Azeri government have seen as "the most puzzled situation" by western diplomats.

However, Baku's snubbing the PC young development contract hasn't completely surprised many Caucasus watchers in Washington DC, as several other post-soviet authoritarian countries, such as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, have long ago moved to kick out dozens of PC volunteers by refusing renewing their visas, despite their warmer relations with the US.

As many communities across these vast countries welcome the Peace Corps volunteers, it still remains unclear what exactly angered local authorities to push their programs away.

TURAN's Washington correspondent reached out to some returned volunteers from Azerbaijan, mainly those who worked for YP program, asking about the importance of their service and contribution to the youth development in the country.

"I think the Youth Development program is important for Azerbaijan because youth are the future, they are the future of our world and they are the future of Azerbaijan...  Peace Corps Youth Development Volunteers assist Azerbaijan in the areas Azerbaijan has selected as important to their youth," said Crystal Kelley, a teacher from Michigan, who served from 2010-2012 in Mingachevir region of Azerbaijan and worked at local Education Center for Youth (G?ncl?r???nT?hsilM?rk?zi) on gender development, health education, English education, put together a travel club for girls -- all through her work as a YD.

"Youth were able to practice their English skills in conversation clubs with a native English speaker which allows them to become more competitive applicants when they are looking for jobs," she said.

"I worked with students on their interview skills; they were able to practice with me what it might be like to have an interview so they would be more confident when interviewing for a job," she added.

Living in the regions, YD volunteers learned the native language of Azerbaijan; they went to the homes of local Azeri people and learn about the culture of the country and as Crystal puts it, "when they return to America, they can teach their friends and family about Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani people."

"I have met so many wonderful people from Azerbaijan and I get to tell that story now that I am in America.  Next month, I will go to a 7th grade classroom and teach 30 students about Azerbaijan; about its people, culture and my experience there.  The people of Azerbaijan should know that as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was a "student of Azerbaijan."  Now that I have returned to America, I am a teacher of Azerbaijan, and even more, a teacher of the regions of Azerbaijan," she said.

Another returned volunteer RaechelleBaghirov from the state of Washington was one of the first volunteers to serve in the YD sector in PC Azerbaijan's pilot program, for 3.3 years. She is now the administrator of the official Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Friends of Azerbaijan group.

As such, she is working to promote Peace Corps third goal of helping promote a better understanding of Azerbaijani people to Americans.

In an interview with TURAN's Washington correspondent she shared more about her service and PC activities in Azerbaijan.

Question: How would you highlight the importance of the PC and YP program for the people of Azerbaijan?

Answer: After living in Azerbaijan for nearly three and a half years, I have heard countless stories about the impact of volunteers who came before me. The Peace Corps program has gained considerable recognition in the "rayons," where communities work closely with volunteers on a wide range of projects that impact local businesses, schools, teachers and youth. The Peace Corps program provides assistance to the areas of Azerbaijan that need it the most. Baku is very lucky to have so many resources readily available. The "rayons" are not so lucky. Sometimes the only resources they have are the Peace Corps volunteer placed in their town or village. Each incoming group of Peace Corps volunteers helps to develop more resources for these communities by training counterparts, teachers and those who work directly with youth. More often than not, Peace Corps goes to places that large international corporations don't go. We may not be sending money to these small communities, but a volunteer has more to offer than a grant. The skills and information a volunteer teaches to youth in those communities can be passed on from one generation to the next. Grants are limited; once they are gone, they are gone forever..knowledge isn't like that.

Q. Many Azeris have benefited from a almost decade of friendship and work by hundreds of volunteers that traveled to their country to build cross-cultural bridges... What should they know about those volunteers? What are they actually doing?

A. Finding the right volunteer for the right community can make a significant difference in a community. English teaching volunteers and community economic development volunteers take a bit more time to gain trust and credibility in a community, and often their work takes longer to see the impact. Youth Development is different, almost as soon as a volunteer is placed in a community, the work can start making a positive impact on the youth in that town. There are very few things I can think of that are more important to Azerbaijan than investing in its future by developing its youth. There is a very strong desire for Azerbaijan to want to be known and recognized around the world. The youth of Azerbaijan are going to be the ones that help it gain global recognition. Peace Corps volunteers sign up to spend two years working directly with those youth to give them the skills to think critically about the future of their communities and Azerbaijan as a whole. We help them discover how they can improve themselves and their communities. If Peace Corps doesn't send volunteers, someone else will need to work directly with youth to motivate them, encourage them, and teach them to think about the bigger picture of how they fit in to helping Azerbaijan develop in the 21st century.

Peace Corps teaches us that development has a cycle... it starts by a volunteer often doing direct development to the community, then doing development with the community, and eventually the development will be done by the community itself. The volunteers that are placed around Azerbaijan create that first spark that gets the development moving. Without the spark, many smaller towns and villages won't see the changes that are being made in the cities, and often those youth will fall further behind their peers who have more opportunities available to them. We aren't coming to work with the students in Baku. We're coming to work with the children in Kurdemir, Gadabay, Qax, Xanlar, Imishli, Beylagan and a hundred other small communities that people outside of Azerbaijan have never heard of. The children in these villages might never get the chance to meet an American, let alone share a meal with them. Peace Corps volunteers put a real face on America, and show the youth of Azerbaijan that we're often very much alike. The things that make them laugh make us laugh too. You can't buy that kind of experience for the people of Azerbaijan; it's one that is gained though face to face interaction. English teachers in Azerbaijan can only teach their students so much, there comes a point where you can't learn everything from a book, sometimes it requires you to meet someone who has lived in America to truly understand the culture.

Peace Corps brings a sense of understanding about our world into smaller communities, and allows us to connect with each other over a cup of tea, a conversation club, a soccer game, or anything else a volunteer can arrange. Youth Development volunteers provide such a wide range of information that it's hard to measure just how big of an impact the volunteers have had. Casual English conversations, learning to type, learning how to write resume, how to use a computer, how to write a blog, how to interview for a job, these things are not things you can measure. We help provide a resource to youth that teachers and parents are sometimes not able to provide, and the best part is that those skills can be used forever once learned. The more teachers, parents, and youth facilitators we can help improve, the better the situation will be for youth in Azerbaijan as a whole. The best way to measure the impact of a volunteer is how long their name lasts in a community. If someone says they learned something from one of us, then we know that our time in Azerbaijan was beneficial. What should Azerbaijanis know about us? I'd love it if they knew that we choose to be there. We choose to be in Azerbaijan. We choose to live in your small villages. We choose to work with you and your children. We want to be there. We have the option to go home at any time, but we choose to stay because we want to help you. We want to be a part of your lives, and a part of your communities. We want you to be happy, we want your communities to be strong, and we want your children to look to the future with joy and anticipation for the good things to come. We need you to help us, by trusting that we come out of love and peace, and that we also learn so much by working with you side by side every day.

Q. What took you, personally, to Azerbaijan and what have you gained from the program as well?

A. I went to a very small private University in Washington State (not DC). My university was very focused on teaching students about our impact on the world, and how important it is to leave the world a better place for the next generation. My university encouraged students to study abroad, having studied abroad twice before, I knew I wanted to travel and work outside of the United States. Peace Corps seemed like the best way for me to help people while living outside of the US.

To be honest, I had never heard of Azerbaijan before Peace Corps asked me if I would go as part of the pilot program for the Youth Development volunteers (the first group!) I was both nervous and excited. I accepted the offer because I wanted to see what I could learn from Azerbaijan, and what kind of person I could become. I gained so much from my time in Azerbaijan. I fell in love with the country, the people, and yes, my counterpart. I married my Peace Corps counterpart and stayed for a third year while I finished working on a project that taught leadership, teamwork, human rights, diversity, democracy, and community service to youth. That project was perhaps the most important one I've ever worked on with youth. I am still friends with most of the students who completed the project with me. Those friendships are important to me. I've never cared about a former job/employer so much in my life. The youth development program is so important to me. Without it, I can't imagine who I would be today.

Although I've returned to the US, I still have family and friends in Azerbaijan that I think about all the time. I speak Azerbaijani daily with my husband (just a little bit) and will be teaching the language to our daughter. It's my second home now, and I know that when I go back, there will be friends to greet me with open arms. The Peace Corps did that for me. If it wasn't for the Peace Corps, I wouldn't know anything about Azerbaijan. My family and friends wouldn't know about it. Peace Corps built the bridge that connects our worlds. Without that bridge, Azerbaijan would just be a name on a map to so many of us.



Washington, DC

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