Cara Stuckel knew nothing about Morocco, the place she was to serve for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Nothing about the language. Nothing about the culture. Nothing. Yet, she was pumped to go. Until she got on the plane to leave. The fear of being gone for so long and that everyone would be different upon her return hit her. To be so far from her support system was terrifying.
“I was a nightmare,” she said. “I cried so hard that they actually moved people out of my row on the flight.”
When she landed in Chicago on the first leg of her journey, she was planning her exit strategy from her two-year service commitment. She knew people in Chicago. She could just leave now and no one would know. Luckily, a phone call from her sister convinced her to continue on the journey that would become the most challenging and valuable experience of Cara’s life.
After a rigorous selection process, Cara was chosen to serve as an environmental education volunteer in Morocco starting in March 2010. Though she knew little prior to her arrival, Cara learned a lot about the country she would call home in her first 60 days of Peace Corps training, including two new languages. She learned to live without running water, without Internet and with electricity that worked only on occasion.
The training, Cara said, prepared her as well as it possibly could for the work she set out do. She better understood the language and customs, and was prepared to work on the service projects she was assigned. You can’t train for what she really needed training for – the homesickness and isolation that accompany being more than 4,500 miles from home or any trace of familiarity.
“Before I left, I thought the language and culture were going to be the hardest part,” she said. “That uprooting of your life was much harder than any of that.”
After training, Cara was sent to her village, where the nearest Internet was a 2-hour bus ride away, and doing laundry by hand was a four or five hour process. Cara made as many connections as possible in her new life. She got out every day and talked with people. She attended festivals and Moroccan weddings. She worked with a women’s co-operative and helped them to improve their economy by selling their product. She taught a literacy course for women, helped open a pre-school and volunteered at an English immersion summer camp for children. Cara did everything she could to assimilate, but the one facet of Moroccan that was impossible to accept was the treatment of women.
While working at the co-operative, Cara pioneered many efforts to support the village women, including a women’s rights workshop, but in many cases faced challenges. For example, women were not allowed to leave the village without their husband’s permission and could not effectively sell the products they made at the co-op. Cara often took the products to markets herself or helped women gain permission to leave.
Safety was also a concern. No one in her village, especially females, were out after dark. If Cara had traveled into town and knew she wouldn’t make it back to the village before nightfall, she would get a hotel.
Cara tried to blend in by dressing modestly and covering her head when necessary. “You don’t want to stand out more than you already do.” As a woman from a western nation, though, Cara did stand out, and it made her the target of unwelcome attention.
The sexual harassment she faced was “daily and aggressive.” Every time she stepped out of her house, she faced verbal harassment, and verbal harassment gave way to groping, grabbing and stalking in public places.
In one situation, a man stalked her on a visit to the nearby town. He followed her through marketplace, throwing his phone number at her, getting too close and ignoring her pleas of “leave me alone.” After he followed her onto the bus – a bus she knew he didn’t ride – she asked an older woman she knew on the bus to help her and she did.
The sexual harassment Cara faced happened in public, and most people ignored it. Though Moroccan women face similar types of harassment and police understand the situation, they don’t know how to help.
It was hard to share with family and friends back home what she was going through because she didn’t want to worry them. The daily harassment and assault she faced broke her down.
“Nine months into my service, I lost it.” Cara left her village to seek help from the Peace Corps medical staff, where she was able to receive counseling and support.
Throughout the rest of her service with the Peace Corps, Cara was able to receive counseling services but feared that other volunteers weren’t as comfortable reaching out for help. Along with the Peace Corps, she helped to create a task force that would help incoming volunteers understand the Moroccan culture’s acceptance of sexual harassment and the resources they had to deal with it.
Dealing with the daily harassment never got easier, but Cara was able to continue serving with support from the medical office. After her safety was in question due to political turmoil, Cara moved to a new village, where she worked alongside a fellow Peace Corps volunteer to build water towers and systems for the area. She returned home in April 2012.
Personally, Cara says she is much more tolerant and empathetic than before she left for the Peace Corps.
“Before I left, it was my way or the highway,” she said. “Now I have a different way of looking at problems and am able to put myself in others’ way of thinking.”
Cara, who felt she had her self confidence ripped out from beneath her during her service, had to learn to build it up again. Before she served in Morocco, she built her self-image on what others thought of her, and now she had to build it from within. The self-described arrogance she had upon arriving to Morocco has been replaced with real confidence.
Cara is now a law student at the University of Missouri – Columbia.
“I’m standing on a much firmer foundation than when I left.”
Some question whether Peace Corps Volunteers are able to make a difference in the countries they serve or whether the program is a worthy investment.
“Did I make that big of an impact on my village? I don’t know,” she said. “But America is greatly benefited by the people I served with bringing back their service to their professional lives in the United States.”
The Peace Corps returns citizens who value altruism, volunteerism, learning other languages and being tolerant of other cultures, which Cara says is worthwhile and valuable.
“I think we should make everyone go abroad and learn languages and be tolerant of other cultures,” she said. “Everyone should have to do something really hard so that you value things in life more later.”