by Sima Pirooz, MD, MPH/HAP
Twenty-eight years ago I came to the US as a refugee with my two children, six and nine years old. I was a practicing physician in my home country, Iran. It took us 15 months from one country to another to get to the US. They say you can either have wings or roots. Well, it seems that I had wings since I was born. I lived in many cities from North to South of Iran, I lived in 14 countries and I lived in a few states in the US.
In Jan. 2012 after more than a year waiting for clearance and health scanning, finally I along with fifty-one other volunteers flew from Detroit to Thailand as Peace Corps volunteers. I had a wonderful experience of being an Iranian-American medical missionary in Nepal before and because the agenda of Peace Corps was to bring peace and I thought of us as the ambassadors of peace from America to Thailand, I was so excited to see what good this trip could bring to Thais and to us.
Facing another language and culture was not a problem or new to me at all and because of my lifestyle back in Iran, I had been in the shoes of almost all of the key players throughout the program, so that was not a problem or new to communicate or understand them either. What blew my mind since the first day was the uniqueness of the Peace Corps program: with their threefold goal and agenda, their discipline, their influence, and their footprints on the soil of the host country, their fingerprints on their people’s hearts was undeniable and refreshing.
Being a refugee and an adult immigrant in America twenty eight years ago and going through culture shock and raising my two children as a single mom, I was longing for a program able to incorporate me into my new community through mentorship and use my full potential for the benefit of my family and my society. In Peace Corps when we went through the three months of extensive training for culture, language, government organizations, security, health, vaccinations, and much more, I realized that in 55 years of US government investment and with the help of the host countries, Peace Corps has developed a very mature program that not only can help Americans to understand their host country, but also it can be used for immigrants to the US to understand and incorporate to their new country very fast and efficiently. Peace Corps program gave me a broad and deep understanding of others more than what I had learned in other thirteen countries that I had lived in on my own without any mentor. I have heard the same testimonies from other volunteers, especially from young Americans, whose lives were changed, and after their return, they made a big impact on their communities and even globally.
I was the first Peace Corps Volunteer in my village in Northern Thailand, but after I left, they requested for another volunteer immediately, and I saw him on Facebook with my counterparts. I remembered the first days that I was sent there. People, especially kids, made sure that they walked from the opposite side of the road from me because they didn’t have any contact with Americans before, and what they knew was mixed information from media. They had fear from thinking Americans were arrogant and selfish, plus they were scared and shy to speak English. After a few months, they ran to me, defended me, made sure that I was safe, fed me, treated me like one of their own. Even the kids, who I taught English, sat on my lap in the class and touched the tip of my pointed nose to see why mine was different from theirs and giggled. When they saw that I struggled with their language but still tried to communicate with them, they dared and were not afraid of trying to speak English.
On the 2nd day of March 2017, I came to Washington, D.C. to support the continuation of the Peace Corps budget. On that day I saw a letter from the leaders of the US army who also had seen the peace-making effect of Peace Corps volunteers first hand, and they believed that the result of this program had strengthened the safety of our troops in other countries just by spending less than one percent of International Affairs budget. I personally think it would be a shame to waste 55 years of investment on this valuable program and not to fund it or better yet, expand it.