Peace Corps volunteer learns a few core lessons
June 5, 2006
They couldn’t help but stare at Jill Evans. The students passing in the hallways; the villagers peering through her window. They couldn’t help but notice the 5-foot-9 white woman transplanted into their world – a world where women rarely eclipsed 5 feet.”It’s like if there was a green person here,” the 24-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer said. “But it definitely wasn’t a bad thing,” she added. “People were so curious. I think I may have been one of the first white people they’ve ever seen.”Evans returned to her hometown of Aspen in April, after nearly two years in Bangladesh, which changed her perspective on life, politics and people. She spent those years teaching English, working with orphaned boys, educating the locals about AIDS and HIV – even setting up an elementary school.Bangladesh – which is more than four-fifths Muslim, according to the U.S. State Department – shipped Evans back after escalating threats against Americans from Islamic terrorists made it unsafe for her to stay.For much of Evans’ time in Bangladesh, however, extremists seeking an Islamic state didn’t have much sway in the country. But that changed in August, when, as Evans recalled, 300 bombs detonated simultaneously all over the small Asian country.From then on, terror engulfed the country.”Anything that was a promotion of democracy or free thinking [was a target],” Evans said. She told of a 7-year-old boy who walked into a school strapped with a bomb. The home next door was bombed, too, sending glass through the window of her dwelling. Threats against Americans and Britons – especially those with the Peace Corps – were well-publicized.
“It had definitely gotten scary in Bangladesh,” she said. “There was some fear that mentally, we’d never be the same. … It’s just weird to live in a society where everyone lives in fear.”Peace Corps volunteers were especially vulnerable. While most foreign-born people lived within a protected diplomatic enclave, volunteers lived among the villagers; they rode bicycles through the streets. They were easy targets.
The definitively Western attire Evans wore Tuesday afternoon – she’d just left her job as a tennis coach – was a far cry from the traditional clothing she wore while in Bangladesh: a long dress, with a heavy scarf wrapped around her upper body. There was one piece she didn’t wear, though.”I didn’t cover my head. [It was] very rebellious, but I didn’t cover my head,” Evans said.The simple difference – of being female – made a firm impression on Evans.”I’m not sure I understood what it really meant to be a woman in Islamic society,” she said. “I don’t know if there is any 24-year-old American girl who can imagine not being treated as an equal in society.”But Evans encountered a lot that she didn’t expect. She expected to simply love everything about the culture and the people; but that took some adjusting. She also underestimated the masses of people in the small country – about 150 million in all.”I thought I would live in this little, tiny village without power in a hut,” Evans said. “My little, tiny village had 1 million people in it.”
And Evans won’t romanticize her experience there. She faced challenges that shifted her way of thinking every day. But she won’t say she’s completely changed.”You’re definitely still an American,” Evans said. “Two years doesn’t erase 22 before that.”She now appreciates the things many Americans take for granted, though. She sees the impact her lone vote has in the election – because those decision-makers in office decide how much U.S. money gets sent to struggling countries like Bangladesh. A government official illustrated that point perfectly: “You at 22 are more powerful than I am just [by] voting in your country,” the man told Evans.And America just seems safer by comparison. Americans are well-protected, not having to keep the kids home from school for fear of a bombing. Plus, there is opportunity in this land. Evans paid for a man in his 20s who had studied law to take the SAT. He got a perfect 1600, but won’t ever leave the village simply because he doesn’t have the financial means.Evans plans to teach current affairs at a boarding school in Ohio this fall. And she hopes to teach abroad again one day – though she doubts it will be in Bangladesh, which sits on the brink of civil war.
Evans’ mother, Judy, said it’s been difficult for her daughter to readjust after having to be suddenly evacuated from her host country. Most of the volunteers evacuated still didn’t have plans, and some didn’t have homes or jobs to return to. Jill Evans still glances through photos of the orphaned boys who became like family and still has many phone conversations with her fellow volunteers. And she sees her world here from a broader perspective.”She sees a big picture,” Judy said. “She doesn’t just see Jill’s little world.”And although two years is a long time, Evans said helping others around the world is well worth the time.”I think it’s the best thing we can do for our country today,” she said, “to show them that we care.”Greg Schreier’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org