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Peace Corps Volunteers Help Kenyans After 9/11 - 2002-07-05


The United States Peace Corps has always relied on Americans willing to put their humanitarian ideals to work, helping others around the world. Since September 11, the Corps' mission has expanded to include programs in Islamic countries, like Afghanistan.

But while the terrorist attacks of last year have prompted concerns for the safety and security of Americans living abroad…Peace Corps workers have found comfort and protection within the communities they serve.

For the last two years Kristin Peterson has been working to stop the spread of AIDS in the southwestern Kenyan town of Narok. "When I first came no one wanted to talk about it," she said. "And since then, I think a lot of the difference is people are seeing a lot of people die and they're just getting scared now. They're seeing so many people die that people are talking about it."

She is one of 7,000 American Peace Corps volunteers working in over 70 countries around the world. Volunteers like Kristin Peterson, live in small communities, work with health and development programs, and for the most part, are far removed from the issues and areas of conflict. But since the terrorist attacks of September 11, things have changed.

"Right after the bombing, right as it was broadcast over the radio, there's a group of young Somali guys that sit on one specific corner in town. And [I] found out they were cheering when they heard that the building was hit, which was pretty hard to hear that, you know?," she explained. "Sometimes I'm just wondering, you know? I don't know if it's made me paranoid, you know, just wondering. Geez, what are they thinking of me? They know I'm an American. What's really going through their heads?"

Despite these concerns, Kristin Peterson is staying in part because of the events of September 11, to help fight some of the root causes of terrorism: poverty and disease. In her town, as in most of Africa, AIDS is the scourge that threatens to destroy the fabric of society. Her efforts have been focused on AIDS prevention, often teaching impromptu classes on street corners. And after two years of lobbying and fundraising, she recently opened the first AIDS testing center in Narok. "I think it's been sort of proven, at least throughout Africa, probably most of the world, the most effective HIV prevention you can have is if people know their status," she said.

Kristin Peterson's conflicted feelings of apprehension and dedication are familiar to many Americans volunteers working in Kenya and throughout the world.

"Now, I am HIV positive. Am I going to infect the next person who sits on this seat? No"

Phil Robinson teaches AIDS prevention in the town of Machakos near the capital city of Nairobi. He says that even under normal circumstances Peace Corps volunteers experience a heightened sense of awareness.

"You're exposed to, it seems like, stronger winds and brighter clouds, and stinkier garbage, and just everything," he said. "Everything seems to be more extreme."

While working at the local level offers volunteers a measure of security, there are limitations.

"This one is the title bar"

Scott Zmrhal, who lives near Kristin and teaches computer classes, says despite his best efforts to fit into the culture, he will never be completely accepted.

"I mean, I can speak the local language, I can walk around, and I can know the 'mommas' at the shops," Scott said. "But there is nothing I can do to change my skin color."

But Kristin Peterson has found comfort and security within the local community she serves. She translates for a local. "He wants me to explain to you that he's already decided: I'm going to be his wife and he'll be taking me."

And according to co-worker Ruth Tiampiati, she is changing some hearts and minds as well. "She cares about people in Africa. I'd say that Americans are not as selfish as sometimes is portrayed," Ms. Tiampiati said.

"At some point there was a line that I crossed and it is no longer 'these people,'" Kristen said. "I stay here because I want to help 'us',"

For volunteers like Kristin Peterson, finding common ground is the best defense against terror and the only way to build a better world.

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