How to Find Your Voice and Your Other Half in Two Years

Republished with permission from Peace Corps Northeast
By: Fiona Martin and Marisa Vargo

Fiona

Fiona Martin, right, and Marisa Vargo, left, will be married in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in July.

In honor of LGBTQ Pride Month, Peace Corps East commends those who defy limitations and create a path for progress overseas. Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Fiona Martin discusses how living and working with her partner Marisa Vargo in Paraguay helped to fortify her sexual identity. Fiona and Marisa will be married later this summer. 

While serving in countries across the globe, it’s typical for Peace Corps Volunteers to ‘find themselves’ overseas. However, their service can become even more special when they find their other half on the other side of the world. You can just ask Fiona Martin and Marisa Vargo, who met during their Peace Corps service in Paraguay from 2010 to 2012.

It all started when Fiona chose to volunteer her time with a Peace Corps Peer Support Network in Paraguay – an effort that offered counseling from and for Peace Corps Volunteers – at which point Marisa sought out Fiona’s help in settling some personal struggles during her service.

“Marisa was going through more than the usual transition obstacles any Volunteer faces,” Fiona said. “She was coming out to herself, friends and family and she sought me out for advice and support.

“Following our discussion, I reached out a few times to check in, but she felt embarrassed for being so vulnerable, and steadfastly ignored my texts,” she added.

Months later, Fiona and Marisa reconnected during an LGBTQ and Allies training event in Paraguay and began to spend more time together.

While their bond strengthened in service, so did their impact overseas. As an Agriculture Volunteer, Fiona mostly collaborated with farming families, a women’s committee, and elementary schools to advise on composting and crop diversification. Meanwhile, Marisa served as an Education Volunteer to instruct local schools on how to develop an online presence and build community outreach with the help of One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit organization that provides low-cost laptops and software for children around the world.

During this time, in light of Paraguayan cultural norms, Fiona and Marisa had to stay “closeted,” or refrain from demonstrating their sexual identities, among most of their neighbors and colleagues for the sake of ensuring their own safety. However, the couple soon began to realize their place in the LGBTQ community and strove to introduce that same sense of pride to very small groups of LGBTQ Paraguayans.

“There is something about being culturally isolated in a country, which creates the space for introspection,” Fiona said. “It created enough space for Marisa to understand her sexual orientation and to come out. Although coming out was, by necessity, limited to other Peace Corps Volunteers and her friends and family at home.”

Though their paths crossed at an inopportune time – Fiona completed her service several months earlier than Marisa – both believe that their mutual experience in the Peace Corps has helped their relationship grow on a much deeper level.

“We had not only the shared experience of being Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, but we had the shared experience of the beautiful contradictions and complexities of Paraguay,” Fiona noted. “We’ve unintentionally brought back both customs of Paraguay and customs unique to Peace Corps Volunteers – from the way we share drinks to the words used to express surprise.”

As they both look towards a bright future together – the couple are set to be married in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in July – Fiona and Marisa reflected on how their Peace Corps service truly proved to be a life-defining opportunity and offered some advice for other LGBTQ people and same sex couples looking to serve as Peace Corps Volunteers.

“Find the other LGBTQ Volunteers and create a space for each other,” Fiona said. “When you do find LGBTQ people in your community, be a living example of a healthy, happy, supported and loved gay person. Simply being an example of self-acceptance is powerful.”

To learn about serving as an LGBTQ Volunteer or as part of a same-sex couple, visit our website at www.peacecorps.gov.

The Meaning of a Picnic

By: Hale Sargent

San Francisco area RPCVs and Peace Corps staff gather in Dolores park for a Pride Month picnic on Sunday, June 12, 2016.

San Francisco area RPCVs and Peace Corps staff gather in Dolores park for a Pride Month picnic on Sunday, June 12, 2016.

When Peace Corps proposed a little Pride picnic in San Francisco it seemed like a casual thing. We’d gather in a park, share some stories, and go on with our lives.

But when the day came the meaning changed. It was the morning after the Orlando shooting, and as we scrolled through the terrifying news, there we were. Gathered in a park. Sharing stories. Going on with our lives.

The freedom to gather as LGBTQ+ and allies was the product of generations of work. It’s a freedom denied in so many places, including many of the countries where we serve. And it’s a freedom I’d forgotten to appreciate.

There are no life lessons to be found in the slaughter of young people. People of Color did not die so that a group of mostly White RPCVs could appreciate Dolores Park.

But I did find hope in the people I was surrounded with at our silly little picnic. I do think our community — at the intersection of LGBTQ+ and Peace Corps Volunteers — is on the leading edge of what our world will become. And that gives me hope.

I see Peace Corps — a government agency! — hosting webinars for trans* volunteers. I see the agency director at the front of the Peace Corps contingent in DC Pride(picture below) – even sending a message to the global staff regarding Orlando. I even see the staff’s email footers where they indicate which gendered pronouns they prefer.

I also see a community that is treating its lack of ethnic diversity as a crisis, and going all-hands-on-deck for cultural change. As a gay RPCV I feel like I’m a part of what a progressive, inclusive, loving community can look like.

So let’s appreciate our gatherings — every little one of them. Be bold and courageous — be yourselves. Keep up your good work around the world, and let’s please all stay connected!

CarrieDC

Sarah Blazucki (left), President of Spectrum (Peace Corps’ LGBTQ employee resource group),  and Carrie Hessler-Redelet, Director of Peace Corps, lead the Peace Corps delegation in Washington, DC’s Pride parade on June 11, 2016. Full album here: http://1.usa.gov/1S5hIcD

 

Hale Sargent served in Armenia from 1998 – 2000. He currently serves on the Steering Committee for the LGBT RPCV Association and can be reached at n8nhale@gmail.com. 

 

Bringing the person I love home to America

Republished with permission from Peace Corps Stories
By: Kyle Livingston

We first met in July 2012 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand. He sent me an SMS saying, “Hey Guy!”

1st

Film and Kyle teaching at a gender empowerment camp, 2013

I had no clue who this person was… and seriously, who writes, “Hey Guy!”? Through five degrees of separation, a Thai national, Film, had heard about me and wanted to meet.

Throughout my time in Thailand, Film and I met in Bangkok and Ayutthaya (his hometown). We went out to dinner and had dates just as if I were back in the U.S. The summer between my first and second year of graduate school, I interned at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and we spent lots of time together. After my internship finished we went to Singapore for our first real vacation. It was then, being with him and seeing his unconditional love for me, compassion, and genuine warmth, that I knew I wanted spend the rest of my life with him.

Fast-forward to May 2015: Two years after completing my Peace Corps service, I was a newish master’s degree recipient and had just gotten engaged to Film. Yet he was still in Thailand. We need to fix that. The fiancé(e) visa, aka the K-1 non-immigrant visa, is the official way to bring your unwed, foreign-born partner into the U.S. to marry. (There are other options for those who are already married in a foreign country.) Here’s our timeline and what I did, from start to finish, to bring the person I love to America.

P.S. Because the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA (The Defense of Marriage Act), same-sex couples follow the same steps as different-sex couples for the K-1 visa regardless of if same-sex marriage is legal in the foreign born partner’s country. Same-sex marriage is not recognized in Thailand.

February 2015: I (as the sponsor) submitted the I-129F “Petition for Alien Fiancé(e)” form to United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). I also included form G-1145, “Notification of Acceptance of Application/Petition,” which specifically asks USCIS to notify me when they receive my application. I also sent proof of my relationship and proof of our intent to marry with the I-129F form: Photos, SMS messages, call logs, emails, and preliminary wedding plans, etc., all help. There was a $340 filing fee.

March 2015: I received notification that USCIS had received my I-129F form.

April 2015: USCIS sent me a case number. I set up an account on USCIS website to receive case status updates.

May 2015: Film, already holding a 10-year multiple-entry tourist visa, arrived in the U.S. for two weeks to attend my master’s graduation.

May 2015: Film and I got engaged at Constitution Gardens in Washington, D.C., in front of family and friends.

Film and Kyle’s engagement bracelets. Photo: Alex Snyder

Film and Kyle’s engagement bracelets. Photo: Alex Snyder

August 2015: I received a letter from USCIS requesting additional supporting evidence that Film and I were in a legitimate relationship and intended to marry. I asked close friends to write notarized letters on my behalf confirming our relationship and that they had heard of or were involved in our pending wedding. I also gathered engagement photos, additional letters, and Facebook posts as supporting evidence and mailed everything to USCIS.

September 2015: USCIS approved my I-129F petition and forwarded my case to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. They also sent me a Bangkok-specific case number (different than the USCIS case number). Whew! That’s done and out of the way.

November 2015: Film had not received any information from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok so he reached out to the visa unit to find out the next steps. The visa unit promptly replied and told Film that his information packet was in the mail. Two weeks later, when nothing had arrived, he reached out again and politely asked for an electronic copy. Film received an electronic copy of the packet; however, he needed a personalized cover letter with his case number for the Royal Thai Police to conduct a background check, which he then requested. In the meantime, we started filling out the other many required forms for the packet together:

  • Passport (Luckily, Film already had one.)
  • Birth certificate
  • DS-2001, specific to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok (“Notification of Applicant Readiness” form)
  • DS-160 form confirmation printout (Electronic visa application form)
  • Marriage status certificate (proving Film is indeed single. Thankfully, he is.)
  • Lots of color passport photographs (so happy Film is photogenic)
  • Confirmation printout of the Global Support Strategy Registration (and receipt to show that Film paid the fee [about $375])
  • I-134 Affidavit of Support (Evidence of financial support)
    • The petitioner (me) had to fill out this form and provide tax returns, stock holdings, bank statements, pay stubs—anything that proves that Film will not be a financial burden on the U.S. public. This also includes any debt the petitioner might owe (student loans, etc.).
  • Military records (Thailand has a lottery conscription process; since Film wasn’t selected, he had to submit his military lottery exemption records.)
  • Official translations of any document not in English (i.e., EVERYTHING)

December 2015: The personalized cover letter arrived and Film went to the Royal Thai Police to get his background check started. He was told it would take 31 business days to complete… great.

January 2016: Film received the police background report a week early (it’s always good to check in periodically; the forms might be done sooner than you think!). He mailed off the packet, careful to separate originals from certified copies (the embassy requires copies of some forms and originals of others).

Enjoying San Francisco together, June 2015

Enjoying San Francisco together, June 2015

*Tip: It’s worth paying for priority mail and confirmation* 

Two weeks later: Film received the final packet with four medical forms: DS-2054DS-3025DS-3026, and DS-3030. He had already made an appointment to make sure his vaccinations were up-to-date as we knew this was a requirement. He was also given a tentative visa interview date of February 9 in the event all of his medical forms were returned on time.

*Wait to receive your packets before making any medical appointments*

February 2016: Film went to all of his doctor appointments. Bringing his passport, photographs, vaccine records, medication lists, and a family medical history sheet (for his reference), he spent close to three hours at one of only two embassy-certified hospitals. He was told he needed a few follow-up tests as well, which would take about two months. The total cost was about 11,000 Thai baht, about $310.

Congratulations on graduating, Film!

Congratulations on graduating, Film!

March 2016: I went to Thailand for Film’s undergraduate graduation (in Thailand graduation ceremonies are held one year after classes end) and we started looking for wedding venues in Thailand. Film received a new interview date for April 4.

April 4, 2016: Armed with additional supporting evidence of our relationship, our wedding venue confirmation, his medical forms, and some interview prep, Film went to his interview at the embassy.

That same day (15 minutes later): Film was approved for the K-1 visa! YAY! The embassy kept and processed his Thai passport, authorized the visa, and said they would return everything within two weeks.

April 18, 2016: Film received his Thai passport back with the visa sticker inside! Film now has five months to come to the U.S. He also has a packet he absolutely cannot open and must hand-carry through immigration. He will bring the packet, his passport, and K-1 visa to the Customs and Immigration officer at the airport where everything will be checked one last time. Once admitted to the U.S., we’ll have 90 days to get married. Good luck to everyone thinking about or going through this process. It’s long and tedious but worth it in the end.

Kyle Livingston is a social media specialist for Peace Corps in Washington, D.C. He served as a Community-Based Organizational Development Volunteer in Thailand from 2011–2013. Kyle graduated from American University with his M.A. in International Affairs in Southeast Asia with a focus on U.S. Foreign Policy in May 2015. He was born in Daegu, South Korea.

AsylumConnect Launches New Resource Catalog for LGBTQ Asylum Seekers in the U.S.

By: Katie Sgarro
*Article originally published on 2/18/16 in The Huffington Post (HuffPost Impact):
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katie-sgarro/asylumconnect-launches-new_b_9240180.html?utm_hp_ref=impact&ir=Impact

Technology has the enviable ability to revolutionize for-profit business, non-profit impact, and everything in between. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center entitled “Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline“ found that today cell phones are as common in South Africa and Nigeria as they are in the U.S. According to Mashable, an estimated 5 billion people will use mobile phones by 2017.

Cell phones continue to act as lifelines for marginalized and impoverished populations. One such population is LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. LGBTQ asylum seekers are people who are coming to the U.S. due to persecution in their home countries based on their sexual orientation or gender expression. Just a year ago, there was no online, centralized database specifically designed with the purpose of connecting LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. with basic human needs service providers in their city.

Co-founded in July of 2014, AsylumConnect is a volunteer initiative that seeks to empower LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. through providing them with much-needed information. AsylumConnect is creating the first website and web-friendly mobile application to feature an online, centralized database of service providers useful to LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. The AsylumConnect catalog will help LGBTQ asylum seekers find basic human needs resources upon their arrival in the U.S. This simple idea has the potential to directly benefit an estimated 300,000 asylum seekers. The AsylumConnect catalog is piloting in Seattle, Washington.

The version 2.0 of the AsylumConnect catalog is now live for the Seattle area. The catalog 2.0 features new search functions and improved visuals. It also includes an updated verification model aimed to better ensure that each resource listed is able to accommodate LGBTQ asylum seekers. The resources listed in the new catalog underwent a standardized and more comprehensive verification screening. Specifically, the AsylumConnect team strives to verify that each resource listed is: 1) active, 2) friendly to LGBTQ community members, and 3) will serve LGBTQ asylum seekers.

A revised catalog platform features improved search capacity, information visualization and aesthetics to help connect catalog users with useful resources in their area.

1. The catalog 2.0 landing page for Seattle, WA
2016-02-16-1455588240-2691440-Untitled.png

2. New and improved subcategories will make it easier for users to find the resource(s) they are looking for
2016-02-16-1455588283-2165900-subcategories.png

3. For instance, user selects “Mental Health” – “Support Groups”
2016-02-16-1455588330-4484620-mentalhealthselect.png

4. User is able to browse a list of relevant support groups in the Seattle area
2016-02-16-1455588362-8566921-listofsupportgroups.png

5. User can then select a specific resource to find out more information. Resource will expand with additional information (such as description, population served, location, mailing address, email, website, etc.)
2016-02-16-1455588415-1744680-selectresource.png

The launch marks the beginning of a testing and observation period during which AsylumConnect staff will assess the efficacy and accessibility of the catalog, and engage with users to guide quality improvement. Lessons from this pilot will be applied to future versions of the catalog, and eventually towards expansion of the catalog into additional U.S. cities.

The long-term vision of AsylumConnect is to harness the power of technology to transform how LGBTQ asylum seekers connect with basic human needs service providers in the U.S.

Follow AsylumConnect on Facebook, Twitter (@AsylumConnect), and Instagram (@asylumconnect).

Social Justice in Today’s Social Environment

Prepared by Byron Williams

SocialJusticeEvent

Sankofa, Peace Corps’ Black/African-American employee affinity group, felt the need to compose a panel based on the conversations many members have had with other people of color and wanting to address how these events affect employees, directly and indirectly, on a regular basis, including the work environment.  Spectrum, Peace Corp’s LGBTQ employee affinity group, added value by enlisting Kevin Jones who was an excellent part of the panel and helped create a stronger intersection of diversity and inclusion by speaking on his identity as a gay Black man, how his current job utilizes data to properly allocate and focus resources to DC neighborhoods in need, and his strong body of advocacy for LGBT rights and respect. Roughly 50 staff was in attendance.

PURPOSE OF EVENT

Recent events across the nation (the murder of Freddy Gray in Baltimore, events in Texas, Ohio, and elsewhere) have brought forth the issue of racial inequality through different lenses – law, education, entertainment, socioeconomics, among others. As the Peace Corps strives to create a diverse and inclusive environment for both staff and Volunteers that encourages an active and effective exchange of views, it’s important that Peace Corps employees have space to discuss and address these issues that are now in the national and international spotlight.

 

PANELIST BIOGRAPHIES

Kevin Jones – For the past 20 years, he has worked with community groups and nonprofit organizations to use data to inform public health and educational strategies embedded in liberation and social justice. A highlight of his work includes traveling to Gaborone, Botswana to train professors and graduate students in using qualitative research methods for developing HIV prevention programs for young people. Prior to moving to Washington, DC in 2012, he established the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia to collect, preserve and exhibit history. He currently serves as the Chief of Data and Evaluation for the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, overseeing performance measurement activities for its antipoverty strategies for students and families. Jones is originally from Detroit, Michigan. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, and received Masters’ degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania.

Sozit Mohamed – Sozit Mohamed is a graduate of San Francisco State University (SFSU), where she received her B.S. in Political Science in 2009. The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants who instilled the value of education at an early age, Sozit became the first in her family to attend college. Through an academic scholarship and a part-time job, Sozit was able to finance her education all while maintaining the high G.P.A required of her academic scholarship. In addition to working and studying, Sozit became an active leader with various student groups at SFSU – including the Black Student Union and the Muslim Student Organization.

Mohamed is currently an intern with Peace Corps’ Office of Civil Rights and Diversity and a Juris Doctorate candidate at the Howard University School of Law. She is a member of various student groups at Howard including the International Law Society and the Immigration Law Society, African Law Student Association and served as the Vice President of the Muslim Law Student Association during the 2014-2015 academic year.

Christina M. Parrish – Christina Parrish joined Girls Inc DC as the Program Director.  After graduating from Georgetown University in 2008 as a Culture and Politics major, with a focus on youth and education, Christina remained in the District and worked as an Education Director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington where her passion for youth development was enlivened.  As the Education Director for the FBR Branch Boys & Girls Club in Southeast Washington D.C., she developed and implemented programming fit to the needs of area youth ages 5-18.  At the Boys & Girls Clubs, her primary areas of programmatic focus included exposing participants to international cultures, college access and career exploration.

After working for the Boys & Girls Clubs, Parrish went on to pursue an M.P.P. in Social Policy and International Development with a focus on Education Policy at the Maryland School of Public Policy.  Parrish most recently worked for Georgetown University’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions where she was responsible for multicultural recruitment efforts and working on issues of college access for students from underserved communities, many of them first generation college-bound students. Christina is excited to continue to advocate for youth, specifically girls, with Girls Inc DC- an organization that creates a space for girls to be strong, smart & bold, so they become women who are healthy, educated and independent.

PANEL QUESTIONS

  1. What do you do (career path/employment and why do you do it)?
  2. How do the concepts of social justice and inequality vary across generations within a similar group?
  3. What risks and rewards are associated with adopting explicit social justice stances (ex: calling out oppression and discrimination when you encounter it)?
  4. If the struggle for social justice takes a toll on oneself, how do you manage to continue to advocate? And what can one learn from it?
  5. What have been some of your successes and challenges for you in your field?
  6. How do you incorporate social justice practices in your daily life (workplace, school, personal, etc.)?

Byron L. Williams, from Las Vegas, NV, is a Diversity Outreach Specialist for the U.S. Peace Corps. Along with his team in the Office of Recruitment & Diversity he is responsible for crafting the outreach and awareness strategies for the recruitment of historically under-represented peoples and communities. Byron served twice with Peace Corps, the first time as a Youth Development Volunteer in Lesotho 2003-2005 and then with this wife, Denise Williams, as education volunteers in Ukraine 2011-2013. He can be reached at bwilliams2@peacecorps.gov