Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Feruza Ghias, June 12, 2021

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:39 - Beginning of Peace Corps journey

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Partial Transcript: Today is June 12th, 2021. I am Cal Mann. I served in Peace Corps North Macedonia and today I am interviewing Feruza Ghias. She was a Peace Corps volunteer also in North Macedonia from September 2017 to March 2020. Feruza was one of the 7400 Peace Corps volunteers who was evacuated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Peace Corps, Feruza served as an education sector volunteer teaching English.

Segment Synopsis: Ghias first heard of Peace Corps in middle school in an after school program where AmeriCorps volunteers talked about Peace Corps. She was immediately interested and thought of it constantly. In college, a recruiter came in her third year when she was planning for what to do after graduation. She wanted to put her degree to use with something exciting and she loved to travel. Her motivation to go into Peace Corps was the monotony of her life then, filled with studies and babysitting nieces and nephews. She had little social life. Her college education occurred at the University of Washington, where she majored in community psychology/sociology and education. She was the first in her family to attend college and is a first generation American. Her family was from Afghanistan and lived in Uzbekistan, where their economic situation was not good. They moved to America when she was about nine, in 2005.

Keywords: America; Childhood; College majors; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); Education; Family; First generation Americans; Future plans; Home; Immigrants; Macedonia; Siblings; Social life; Travel; United States; Uzbekistan

Subjects: Afghanistan; COVID-19 (Disease); Careers; Childhood; College campuses; Education, Higher; Emigration and Immigration; Emotions; Families; International travel; Lifestyles; North Macedonia; Parents; Travel; Universities and colleges; Uzbekistan; Volunteer workers in education

GPS: University of Washington
Map Coordinates: 47.654167, -122.308056
GPS: Afghanistan
Map Coordinates: 33, 65
GPS: Uzbekistan
Map Coordinates: 42, 63
GPS: United States of America
Map Coordinates: 40, -100
GPS: Macedonia [North Macedonia]
Map Coordinates: 41.6, 21.7
00:08:52 - Peace Corps application process / Preparing to leave for Macedonia

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Partial Transcript: Do you remember kind of what the application process was like for you?

Segment Synopsis: In her application, Ghias had to write an essay about why she wanted to join and how she was prepared to be challenged mentally, physically, and emotionally. That was an internal process and a second mother-friend also helped her. Other parts of medical and legal paperwork were easy. When she was accepted she was surprised and overwhelmed since the decision had to be made in three days. Her family was not supportive but she was happy yet scared. In Washington, D.C., at the staging, she felt it was really happening. To decide about packing and preparing to go away she looked at information on weather and followed blogs from returned Macedonia volunteers. Knowing she needed a social support system and a safety net, she emailed former volunteers. She believed she had to establish her adulthood and independence. She heard her cohort would be a support system. Saying goodbye to professors was nice when they were proud of her and gave well wishes. Her family acknowledged her departure without feeling it was a good choice.

Keywords: Advice; Application process; Applications; Applying; Attitudes; Choices; Cohorts; Family; Fears; Friends; Friendships; Home; Leaving; Preparation; Prepared; Relationships; Siblings; Social media; Staging; Support; Support circles; Support systems; Unsupportive; Washington, D.C.; Weather

Subjects: Emotions; Families; Friendship; Interpersonal relations; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Voluntarism; Volunteers; Washington (D.C.)

GPS: Washington, D.C.
Map Coordinates: 38.9101, -77.0147
GPS: Macedonia
Map Coordinates: 41.6, 21.7
00:17:11 - Staging in Washington, D.C. / Meeting her cohort / Arrival in Macedonia

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Partial Transcript: So you get to, um, Washington, D.C., for what, what Peace Corps calls staging, so that's a few days of, um, kind of a little bit of orientation and confirming that you do understand what you've gotten yourself into, do you have any second thoughts.

Segment Synopsis: During her staging in Washington, D.C., Ghias expected newness and that was exciting. Her cohort was 70 people from many walks of life, ages, and other diversities. She loved that. From initial application to departure was about a year. Her immediate impression of Macedonia was of mountains. She had been on summer abroad programs in Kyrgyzstan. There were mountains in many familiar places and that grounded her. The first week orientation was a good chance to get to know people, all of whom were nice. Because of training there was little sleep but it was energizing.

Keywords: Ages; Central Asia; Cohorts; Diversity; First impressions; Kyrgyzstan; Learning; Mountains; New experiences; Older people; Orientation; Overwhelmed; Sleep; Staging; Study abroad; Training; Washington, D.C.; Young people

Subjects: Interpersonal relations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Voluntarism; Volunteers; Washington (D.C.)

00:22:38 - Training / Host family

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Partial Transcript: So you, you finished up with your, um--that first week, and then you, uh, were assigned a training city, where you would spend the next eleven--ten or eleven weeks. Um, do you remember, how did you get to your training city?

Segment Synopsis: The training city was Sveti Nikole with a group of about 8 others, a mixture of ages, who would be in that area. Volunteers went by bus and the host family picked her up. The home was small with a yard of fruit trees. The couple, in their 50s, had two older, married daughters. The host dad was a mechanic who worked at home. It was hot, 90 degrees in September with sun that Ghias loved. In the fall harvest they made ivar, a pepper paste, made outdoors. The roasting and preserving was a social activity with neighbors, where Ghias practiced the language. The Peace Corps training of language and teaching was important since she had informal teaching, camp counseling, tutoring, and babysitting experience. She was to be a co-teacher, bringing games and interactive fun English activities to her classes. Current volunteers shared their experiences.

Keywords: Activities; Age ranges; Ages; Buses; Co-teachers; Cohorts; Education volunteers; English education; English teachers; Family; Food; Host families; Host family; Host fathers; Host mothers; Host sisters; Houses; Housing; Language skills; Language training; Languages; Learning; Living conditions; Local people; Locals; Mothers; On-site training; Schools; Teacher training; Technical training; Transportation; Weather

Subjects: Families; Food habits; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal relations; Language and languages; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Teaching; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Sveti Nikole (North Macedonia)
Map Coordinates: 41.86469, 21.941486
00:32:36 - Traveling and visiting in the community during training

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned that you were in, uh, Sveti Nikole and that there were other volunteer--I think you said seven other volunteers there. Um, did you have time to experience much of Sveti Nikole, like to get around and see what was going there, and socialize a little bit?

Segment Synopsis: For training, Ghias was in Sveti Nikole, which is a city in North Macedonia. Volunteers would get together for coffee. Those in villages had no stores or places to go in their free time. One host family had kids who wanted to practice English and took them hiking. Another person with a big house invited them for meals. Training was intense most days, 5-6 hours of language, then communication with the family was a lot. On weekends there was travel to sites as well as to the capital. For her it was over-stimulation, being around so many people. In training, memorable moments were getting to communicate with the host family and neighbors.

Keywords: Activities; Adaptation; Cohorts; Host families; Host family; Language skills; Language training; Languages; Local people; Locals; On-site training; Recreating; Site visits

Subjects: Acculturation; Emotions; Families; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Language and languages; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Sveti Nikole (North Macedonia)
Map Coordinates: 41.86469, 21.941486
00:37:58 - Arrival and early impressions of her site

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Partial Transcript: So, at some point, toward the end of your training, um, you learned what your volunteer, um, assignment would be, and, and where. Do you remember, uh, do you remember that? Do you remember how you felt?

Segment Synopsis: Announcements of assignments were made with a flourish. Ghias was nervous and optimistic. It would be a challenge, and she expected it to be great. There had been a weekend with her host family during training. She loved it. The closest volunteers were 20 minutes away, in a town where she shopped and went often. When she moved it was extremely cold, with little rain or snow. The first host family put her on a bus and her counterpart picked her up. Everyone was very welcoming. The village was small, with few houses. This host family was attentive. She never felt like an outsider. There were two older, married daughters who visited often. The community had about 1000 people, with farmland nearby. The next village was visible.

Keywords: Acceptance; Assignments; Buses; Challenges; Community; Counterparts; Distance; Host families; Host family; Host mothers; Host sisters; Land; Mothers; Rural areas; Schools; Site visits; Sites; Transportation; Travel; Villages; Weather

Subjects: Emotions; Families; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Schools; Social norms; Travel; Voluntarism; Volunteers

00:48:22 - Description of host family's home

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Partial Transcript: Um, um, what was the, what was the house like, and what was the area around the house? Did they have a yard?

Segment Synopsis: Ghias lived in the east, which was the poorer side of Macedonia. The house was spacious, with a TV, a toilet, bathtub, washing machine, and a beautiful kitchen with all necessities. She had expected much less. There was a front and a side yard, where in the spring and summer there were flowers and many vegetables so the food was fresh and plentiful. The family called her their third daughter. Neighbors were poor but friendly. One gave her rice pudding with goat milk (which she did not like). School was 6 minutes away. On the way, people spoke and invited her to coffee. Her students were nearby. Her counterpart did not encourage friendships with her contemporaries, saying they were village-minded. He did introduce her to a cousin who became a good friend. They traveled to Bulgaria and Germany.

Keywords: Bulgaria; Children; Counterparts; Family; Food; Friends; Friendships; Germany; Home; Host families; Host family; Host fathers; Host mothers; Host sisters; Houses; Housing; Living conditions; Living situations; Local people; Locals; Mothers; Outhouses; Poverty; Relationships; Rural areas; Travel; Traveling; Villages

Subjects: Families; Food habits; Friendship; International travel; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Language and languages; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Travel; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Bulgaria
Map Coordinates: 42.683333, 23.316667
GPS: Germany
Map Coordinates: 51, 9
00:55:54 - Teaching assignment

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Partial Transcript: Um, you mentioned your work. Um, so you were teaching in a public school, yes?

Segment Synopsis: Ghias worked in a primary school. Classrooms were spacious and sunny. The school had been renovated. Teachers dressed in modern clothing; they came from the city to teach. Children sat on chairs at tables. It was more modern than she expected. She had one co-teacher but did some work with others, especially creative activities. She had little interaction with the principal. The first time she met students was at a site visit during pre-service training. They hugged her, made posters to welcome her, and gave her flowers or gifts. They were respectful and well-behaved. There had been previous volunteers who were well appreciated. Having seen reading difficulties among the students, she began an English club once a week. Other learning activities included spelling bees with volunteers from other cities, culminating in a national competition. In the summer there was camp with games.

Keywords: Activities; Alphabets; Assignments; Assumptions; Attitudes; Children; Classes; Co-teachers; Counterparts; Education volunteers; English education; English education projects; English teachers; Expectations; Recreation; Rural areas; Schools; Secondary projects; Sites; Teachers; Teaching; Volunteering

Subjects: Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; School management and organization; Schools; Teachers; Teaching; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in education; Volunteers

01:03:57 - Proudest achievements / Secondary projects

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Partial Transcript: At your worksite, is there anything in particular project, or something you started that you're most proud of?

Segment Synopsis: Ghias is proudest of a summer camp, which the previous volunteer had begun. There were about 15 kids and 3 Peace Corps volunteers to help for part of the time. The kids had nothing else but computer time in the summer. It was a bonding opportunity for her. She is also proud of a world map mural painted on the wall and a Halloween party. All the students, parents, and neighboring villagers came. She put it all together with games, activities, and food. In addition to co-teaching she did the reading club and English Club that met weekly with games, movies, discussions, and ways to use English. She had loved summer camp previously and wanted the students to be productive. Most parents were too busy to interact with kids. Camp was from 9 AM to 1 PM. They did activities, dancing, and games. There was fun and learning. She had help for the two summers.

Keywords: Accomplishments; Activities; Children; Education programs; English education projects; Food; Friends; Friendships; Host mothers; Local people; Locals; Macedonia; Relationships; Rural areas; Secondary projects; Villages; Volunteering

Subjects: Families; Friendship; Interpersonal relations; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Voluntarism; Volunteer workers in education; Volunteers

01:11:57 - Overall Peace Corps experience / Benefits and challenges of serving as a Muslim

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I want to talk a little bit about the kind of overall experience because a lot of people who are watching this will either have been--if they've been in Peace Corps, they may not have been in Peace Corps, you know, recently...

Segment Synopsis: Macedonia has several religions. Ghias is Muslim and planned to eat halal food and not drink alcohol but asked for a Christian host family in order to be challenged and grow as a person. She is glad for the choice since there was respect for her religion. Turkish television was popular so the Muslim lifestyle was somewhat familiar in Macedonia but people could get to know a Muslim personally and be educated by her. Her cohort was also respectful and supportive with no judgmental attitudes. There was an organic benefit of being together and knowing each other. She went to Christian religious services and loved it. It was an opportunity to learn from each other.

Keywords: Acceptance; Activities; Adaptability; Adaptation; Adjustment; Alcohol; Assignments; Attitudes; Challenges; Challenging; Choices; Cohorts; Comfort zones; Differences; Diversity; Diversity in the Peace Corps; Drinking; Expectations; Family; Food; Host families; Identity; Inclusion; Learning; Living situation; Local people; Locals; Posts; Relationships

Subjects: Emotions; Families; Food habits; Intercultural communication; Interpersonal communication and culture; Interpersonal relations; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Religion; Social norms; Turkey; Voluntarism; Volunteers

01:19:41 - Becoming socially comfortable as a Muslim / Accomplishments

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Partial Transcript: Uh, what, what, what are the challenges?

Segment Synopsis: Ghias' challenges were shedding the discomfort connected to her religious identity. She grew up with strict gender and social norms, from her early life in Uzbekistan and her family's Afghan culture, which continued in America. Men and women were always separate. It was a Muslim bubble. Her Peace Corps host dad was retired and in the house and from that she learned to be comfortable, informal, and interactive. She is talkative. Being socially normal with the opposite gender was growth. America allows people to be open or secluded. Learning to socialize was a huge accomplishment; carrying herself in a new way, as a new person. Her host mom said she became modernized. She now dresses less conservatively, without a headscarf. She has a boyfriend--something she says would not have happened in a Muslim culture.

Keywords: Accomplishments; Adaptability; Adaptation; Adjustment; America; Americans; Attitudes; Challenges; Challenging; Changes; Children; Choices; Clothes; Clothing; Comfort zones; Ethnicity; Family; Friends; Friendships; Gender roles; Host families; Host family; Host fathers; Host mothers; Host sisters; Identity; Impact; Living situations; Mindsets; Mothers; Relationships; Role of women; Travel; Traveling; United States; Women

Subjects: Acculturation; Afghanistan; Childhood; Clothing; Emotions; Families; Friendship; Immigrants; Intercultural communication; International travel; Interpersonal communication and culture; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Lifestyles; Manners and customs; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Travel; Uzbekistan; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Uzbekistan
Map Coordinates: 42, 63
GPS: Afghanistan
Map Coordinates: 33, 66
01:27:25 - Studies before Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: I'm curious, uh, because your previous experience to going to Peace Corps was as a student, and, and you went to the University of Washington, so you must be a good student. Um, do you feel like that was good preparation for you becoming a volunteer?

Segment Synopsis: Ghias felt her studies gave her tools and knowledge about psychology, how cultures interpret, and code switching. She felt legitimized. She had met people and had good professors.

Keywords: Classes; College majors; Education; Learning

Subjects: College campuses; Education; Education, Higher; Universities and colleges

01:29:20 - Macedonia's change to North Macedonia / Free time to travel

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Partial Transcript: So, um, in the course of this conversation we've talked about the country of Macedonia--

Segment Synopsis: While Ghias was a volunteer there was a change in name from Macedonia to North Macedonia and it was a heated topic. Many did not like it but felt helpless and had no input. On site, she spent free time learning the language better with a tutor who became a friend. She spent time chatting with the host family, learning the culture and language. They watched movies together. Her mother came to visit. Ghias visited Greece with a friend who had never traveled alone from the U.S. before. She visited friends and other volunteers a lot, using buses. Peace Corps allows bicycles (with a helmet) but no driving motorcycles or cars. Keeping warm was difficult so visits were in spring and summer. Starting a fire was difficult. Some areas had great views. She went to England, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the neighboring countries of Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Albania. Her sister-in-law had her surprise her family on a six day trip home to the U.S. Upon her return she felt changed, invincible.

Keywords: Activities; Albania; Bulgaria; Buses; Coming home; Driving; England; Family; France; Friends; Friendships; Germany; Greece; Home; Host families; Host family; Host fathers; Host mothers; Italy; Languages; Learning; Macedonia; Netherlands; North Macedonia; Politics; Politics and government; Population; Recreation; Relationships; Serbia; Social life; Transportation; Travel; Traveling; Turkey; United States; Villages

Subjects: Albania; Bulgaria; England; Families; France; Friendship; Germany; Greece; International travel; Interpersonal relations and culture; Italy; Language and languages; Netherlands; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Serbia; Travel; Turkey; United States; Voluntarism; Volunteers

GPS: Macedonia [North Macedonia]
Map Coordinates: 41.6, 21.7
GPS: Greece
Map Coordinates: 39, 22
GPS: England
Map Coordinates: 53, -1
GPS: Germany
Map Coordinates: 51, 9
GPS: France
Map Coordinates: 47, 2
GPS: Italy
Map Coordinates: 43, 12
GPS: Netherlands
Map Coordinates: 52.316667, 5.55
GPS: Serbia
Map Coordinates: 44, 21
GPS: Bulgaria
Map Coordinates: 42.683333, 23.316667
GPS: Turkey
Map Coordinates: 39, 35
GPS: Albania
Map Coordinates: 41, 20
GPS: United States
Map Coordinates: 40, -100
01:39:25 - End of service and COVID-19

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Partial Transcript: Um, and then you came, you came back--(clears throat)--and you served, served with distinction, um.

Segment Synopsis: Ghias was anxious about returning to the United States because she had changed so much. Facing her family and finding what to do were difficult. She could not live as she had before. She loved living abroad. She applied to teach English in Spain, but then the pandemic began. She had extended her Peace Corps service for six months from December 2019 to June 2020. Leaving in March 2020 left no time for good-byes with the school in quarantine and being told of the possibility of evacuation. She wanted to send letters to thank many people. Everyone was in tears at her leaving, even the strong host father. She had gone with an open heart and her service exceeded her expectations. Early in life she had moved as a refugee and learned to adjust. Knowing Russian with its same alphabet and similar culture had facilitated her adjustment. Ghias said Peace Corps is life transformative. Her advice fits the saying, "It's the toughest job you'll ever love." There will be growth and learning of new concepts. There is fear in joining. All those in her cohort agree they took a lot from the experience. She says if someone has a drive to join they should go for it, disregarding any doubts.

Keywords: Adaptability; Adaptation; Adjustment; Alphabets; Career paths; Careers; Coming home; Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19); English (Language); English teachers; Expectations; Family; Global call for evacuation; Host fathers; Host sisters; Language skills; Languages; Leaving; Re-entry; Relationships; Russian (Language); Teaching

Subjects: COVID-19 (Disease); Childhood; Emigration and immigration; Emotions; Evacuation; Families; Immigrants; Interpersonal relations; Interpersonal relations and culture; Language and languages; Manners and customs; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Macedonia; Peace Corps (U.S.)--North Macedonia; Schools; Voluntarism; Volunteers