Diplomatic Pouch / September 10, 2010
By Larry Luxner
These days, Yemen is portrayed as a notorious breeding ground for al-Qaeda terrorists battling a weak central government. But Kevin Griebenow remembers a different Yemen.
The Minnesota native arrived in this impoverished desert backwater in 1981, fresh out of college — and excited about being a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer hoping to change the world.
“I went around to small villages and installed water supply systems and kept wells functioning so people wouldn’t get sick,” he recalled fondly. “Yes, we have to recognize that al-Qaeda is a problem today, but 99 percent of the Yemeni people are just trying to live their lives, and back then, I thought they were some of the most hospitable people I had ever met.”
Griebenow, now a Chicago-based dam inspector, was one of 80 former Peace Corps volunteers who flew into Washington over Labor Day weekend from across the United States (along with a contingent of Irish volunteers from Dublin) for a reunion hosted by the Embassy of Yemen on Sept. 4.
Wearing bright red, white and black buttons reading “Yemen Reunion 2010,” the aging idealists enjoyed cardamom-spiced coffee, falafel and traditional Arab desserts as they reminisced about life in one of the Arab world’s poorest countries between 1973 and 1994, the year a brutal civil war forced the Peace Corps to indefinitely suspend its operations there.
Wayne Reitz, originally from St. Petersburg, Fla., served from 1976 to 1978 in Yemen, where he established a drafting and vocational school for young unemployed men. His wife Carol — also in the Peace Corps — volunteered as a medical technician in a government hospital. The experience was life-changing, he said.
“I grew up in Florida and went to school in Georgia. My wife is from North Dakota, and when I went to visit her for the first time in Fargo, I thought I was on Mars,” Reitz, 56, told the Diplomatic Pouch during a reception at the lavish residence of Yemeni Ambassador Abdulwahab Al-Hajjri. =“So you can imagine how much more shocking Yemen was for me — a dirty, dusty and dry place. I was ready to go home, but my wife wanted to stay in Yemen. By the second year, my wife wanted to come home, and I was the one who wanted to stay.”
Pat Cleary of Johnstown, Pa., spent all of 1974 and 1975 working in village clinics and teaching young mothers about nutrition and proper hygiene. She said the areas where she worked were remote desert outposts where nobody spoke English.
“My time there helped me to understand what unites people all over the world,” she said thoughtfully. “I don’t know the legacy that I left, but the impact on me was quite profound. Yemen is a country of subsistence farmers. That’s so different from my childhood in Pittsburgh, where we had a garden and raised tomatoes, but that’s nothing compared to having to grow everything you put into your mouth.”
Griebenow, Reitz and Cleary have not been back to Yemen since those days. Nor have most of the other 400 Peace Corps workers who served there at one time or another, said Allan Gall, director of the Peace Corps program there from 1975 to 1978. “Our volunteers were divided into three fields: medical projects, rural water projects and the teaching of English,” he told the Pouch. “On average, there were about 30 volunteers in Yemen at any given time.”
Gall’s ex-wife Peggy Hanson, who helped to arrange the reunion, said violence was a problem long before North and South Yemen became one country in 1990, although Americans were rarely if ever targeted. “While we were there in the ’70s, two presidents were assassinated, and the current president came in as a young officer,” she said. “He’s still president, 33 years later.”
Gall noted that the Yemeni government did not expel the Peace Corps, but that “the Peace Corps made the decision to leave out of security concerns.” He added that “Yemen today is a very poor country, with at least 40 percent unemployment and very low educational levels. The government has very little control over the rest of the country outside the capital, Sana’a. It’s not as bad as Somalia, but al-Qaeda goes wherever there’s a vacuum.”
Yahya Alshawkani, deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Yemen, said he was heartened by the presence of so many former Peace Corps volunteers who had served in his country, which today has 23 million inhabitants
“I feel that news reporting in the U.S. media gives Americans negative ideas about Yemen,” he said. “These reports about al-Qaeda in Yemen are extremely exaggerated. The Yemeni people hate al-Qaeda’s intolerance and extremism. It goes against our culture.”