House members who served in the Peace Corps find common ground

From sleeping on Colombian floors to drinking at Somalian speakeasies, four members of Congress agreed on one thing Wednesday — the Peace Corps had changed their lives for the better.

Reps. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.) — all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers — gathered at the Capitol Visitors Center to share stories with staffers and interns in hopes of getting them to sign up.

ADVERTISEMENT
Farr’s own experience had a profound impact on him, despite unspeakable personal tragedy. His mother died of cancer in the middle of his service in Colombia (1964-66).

His mother was a proponent of the Peace Corps, so after she died, Farr decided to finish his commitment. To assist with the grieving process, Farr’s family flew down to visit him. But while horseback riding, his little sister was thrown and suffered internal bleeding in her skull.

The American Embassy flew in a neurosurgeon to operate on her, but she died.

Farr didn’t want to live. Flying home, he looked down from the plane at Colombia and cursed the Third World country, questioning the tragedy. But then he thought more about it.

“I just had this moment where I said, ‘Well, why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place? Wasn’t it to try and make sure that every child wouldn’t have to end up in the fate that your sister did?’ That moment reshaped my life because I said … we’ve got to make sure the world eliminates these root causes of poverty,” he said.

Driehaus’s experience in Senegal (1988-90) has stayed with him. He recently went into a newly opened Senegalese restaurant in Cincinnati and spoke in the native Wolof language to the woman running the place.

It became apparent she was the niece of the family he had stayed with. She remembered his Muslim name and that he played with her and her siblings in their village.

“It is the best small-world experience I’ve ever had,” Driehaus said.

Each of the 4,000 Peace Corps Volunteers who participate every year takes away something different.

Petri got a sense of what it meant to be a Muslim in Somalia during his time there (1966-67) when local friends took him to a speakeasy. Petri was surprised. He thought Muslims didn’t drink, noting the Quran states, “Thou shalt not drink one drop of wine.”

To emphasize that the Quran can be interpreted differently, one friend dipped his finger in his glass and flicked a drop in the air as if to say, “There, I didn’t drink that drop.”

 Changing perspective goes both ways. Honda recalled arriving in El Salvador in 1965 and the locals expecting an American who lodoked like John Wayne — tall, white and broad-shouldered.

“They thought I was … the guy who drove the car, the chauffeur,” said Honda, a short and stocky Asian American. “I said, ‘No, no, no, I’m the gringo.’ ”

Honda said his experience in Central America gave him the confidence to launch a political career.

“The folks that were in the Peace Corps that are here in Congress, whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, there’s one thing we have in common,” he said. “We looked at what’s the common good for people and [asked ourselves], ‘How do we go about [obtaining] that in policies?’ and I haven’t come across a member on either side of the aisle that didn’t always agree with those kinds of concepts.”