Sunday, April 22, 2007

On Reading Julia's Blog

I learned about the news that an American Peace Corps volunteer, Julia Campbell was missing after I returned to Baton Rouge from a spring break trip to snowy Cleveland right after Easter. The confirmation that she was dead came in the same week when 32 students and professors were massacred at Virginia Tech. The circumstances of their deaths are different but in some aspects the same. Their deaths were senseless and we are are left with the painful and unanswerable question "What more good could they have done, had they lived?"

In my career, I have worked with ex-Peace Corps people, as well as ex-Australian Volunteers (the Aussie counterpart of the US Peace Corps) on matters relating to marine conservation. Volunteerism is an ethos that continues in these people long after their official volunteer days were over. While some people may consider these programs as "imperialist" and that the volunteers are really spies (an unfounded stereotype), reading Julia's blog gives as the human face of what the volunteers face in a new culture. As op ed writers have said, her blog gives a picture of how life is really lived in the Philippines.

Aside from missionary work organized by the churches, Filipinos are not usually sent to other countries for volunteer work to help. A few Pinoys join international aid agencies. Some are sent as part of our government's international commitments, but in these cases, the men and women are doing their jobs.

For the most part Filipinos go overseas to reap the benefits of living overseas either as scholars or migrants. The choices are rather simple, we go overseas to live a better life and leave a lesser one in the Philippines. In the case of volunteers and missionaries, they leave to give a part of their lives, in some cases all of their lives.

I am part of the usual group that went overseas to reap the benefits. But after having seen Katrina devastated Louisiana, I was moved to do a weekend's worth of volunteer work cleaning up neighborhoods that have not yet recovered. I learned if just for one day, the difficulties that African-Americans experience, the unspoken segregation, and how people who don't need assistance get FEMA help and those who are not in need, get help.

Volunteerism if only for a day, destroys stereotypes we have of people. It parches the soul that it thirsts to set things aright. What more in Julia's case for two years?

Her blog has all the answers. But as an exile and one day volunteer myself I can only connect with what she wrote

"I am surrounded by people everyday but it is still possibly to feel lonely and isolated in a place where you really don't speak the language or understand the culture. I have moments of understanding and sometimes breakthroughs...where I think, I really get these people. And then something happens that throws everything askew."

And

"It's a tough reality, but I've found it's really difficult to get people to commit to something. But I am not giving up on them and I am hoping they will come through in the end..."

In a world where stereotypes reign (like the Justice Secretary saying that she was responsible for what befell her) there are places where things are turned upside down. These are the magical places of solitude one the Justice Secretary can never ever understand and all travelers and exiles seek. When I was walking the trails in the Australian bush a decade ago, for that short time, I believe that things were right. When she took that last hike up the mountain trail, I could only guess what was in her mind, maybe things did turn out right.

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