photo by komisar pecanka
whatever your feelings are about PEACE CORPS, i'd say just table them for a moment. i'm not attempting here to confirm or dissuade you from whatever romantic, idealistic notions you may have concerning the organization. i'm only speaking to my truth about my experience.
and i am conflicted.
my time as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA from 2011-2013 was highly unusual in that i successfully fought my superiors after being assualted by a local during my initial run in the remote northern city of KUKËS, which lay right by the KOSOVO border. i was a TEFL (teaching english as a foreign language) volunteer and due to my graduate degree i was one of 4 that were assigned to teach at a university. i want to say that i have nothing but love for the people of KUKËS and enjoyed working with my students and peers and talking with my friends (some to this day) in that community. but unfortunately coming home from work one day i was assaulted near my apartment and was told by PEACE CORPS to make a report with the police. and again, unfortunately the police leaked my details to the local newspaper in neighboring KOSOVO, which created a scenario where i was a national news story for a few days.
my classroom in KUKËS
yep that was crazy. i have to say the assault was minor, basically since i didn't resist. i was later told by albanian friends that this was the smartest thing i could have done since undoubtedly there were several others watching that would've put me in the hospital if i had. what was even more unfortunate was that the police put me in a situation where every male in town over the age of 25 thought i ratted them out to the authorities. while at the station they brought in several "suspects" to ask me if it was them, which gave these innocent guys (whom im sure were beaten) a good look at me.
i wanted out and i fought peace corps. before me if you had a stalker or were abused as a volunteer you were given the option of quitting or staying basically. i changed that. i fought them to relocate me. since me they have relocated volunteers. it really sucked because i basically got ZERO support from my fellow volunteers. they felt i had abandoned my site.
to this day i basically don't speak with volunteers from my group. again, i have nothing but love for KUKËS and their people. they were ashamed. historically albanians are treated very badly by their neighbors, especially the Greeks and Italians. the albanian family that took me in for 3 months during training had recently lost a son to the fields of GREECE where he had been worked to death. and thats not hyperbole. he was literally worked to death. so albanians see themselves as hospitable first and foremost. and my experience which became very public due to the press put that community in a very bad light.
home of albanian family i sayed with during training for 3 months in HAJDARAN
i know this because i dedicated a research project from my relocated site in VLORA, a southern port city along the ADRIATIC SEA, that focused on the relationship between northern ALBANIA and their ehtnic-Albanian counterparts in KOSOVO during the KOSOVO CONFLICT of the 1990s. it was an oral history project that me and a counterpart at the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA later turned into a paper. it meant i went back to KUKËS a few times to get stories from the period documented. i should say that KUKËS was nominated for a NOBEL PEACE PRIZE in 2000 for their actions taking in refugees during the conflict. only town to ever be formally nominated which is quite something to be proud of. basically there was me, somebody that had experienced the brunt of their city talking to them about their best moment. people cried out of shame when i talked to them. it still moves me.
i want to reiterate that i hold nothing against that community. the truth is that in an isolated country with few resources it could be argued that KUKËS is one of the most isolated and least well-funded. as an foreigner i was a target and there was a risk, but of course the vast majority were good people trying to get by and saw my efforts to teach english as a force for good in their community.
local restaurant owner and mother of two students i tutored in KUKËS
i also understand why PEACE CORPS was reticent to relocate me, or any other volunteer, in general. i don't believe it had anything to do with me personally. sending a volunteer to a community is a political act from our government to theirs. it states that they recognize a need in a specific community that we as a nation would like to assist with them. taking me out can be construed as the american government not feeling that a particular community was their concern. i was a pawn basically. there is a balance there and i recognize that, but my personal safety trumped their concerns and that shouldve been their priority.
the research project i did took me all over KOSOVO and was the defining moment of my experience as a PEACE CORPS volunteer. these communities are notoriously suspicious of outsiders, but the fact that i knew their community and networked my way through remote small border communities in the northern mountains gained me access, along with the help of my former landlord YLBERT PECANKA. the fact that i was an american associated with the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA also helped. VLORA is the city were the first ALBANIAN FLAG was hoistered in defiance of the receding TURKISH armies and holds a special place in the hearts of albanians. mostly people i interviewed couldn't believe i cared about their story. that i was documenting it for future research purposes for future generations at the university.
two communities i want to focus one next time are those of the remote northern mountain community of DEBRUNE (ALBANIA) and the remote village of nearby GODIN (KOSOVO), both were indicative of what that experience interviewing locals was like.
rooftop shot in KUKËS