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Service cut short by coronavirus

Kahrie Stegman
Courtney Blankenship of Pratt, and Morocco, signs an agreement closing her service with Peace Corps. Her 27-month term was unexpectedly cut short by the novel coronavirus last week and she was evacuated out of Morocco. She is currently under quarantine in Pratt.

Pratt High School graduate Courtney Blankenship spent the last 18 months creating a new life in a new home for herself in Morocco through the United States Peace Corps, but her 27-month term was cut short when she was evacuated and returned home to Pratt Thursday, March 19 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Blankenship’s life in Morocco began to change two weeks ago after the United States banned all flights to and from Europe, excluding the UK on Monday, March 16.

During this time, her mother, Kirsten Blankenship, and grandmother, Marilyn Brock, were planning on visiting her and arrived in Melilla, a border to Morocco. They had to make an emergency border crossing at midnight that night, since they got word that Morocco would be closing their borders at around 6 a.m. the next morning.

The next morning, Blankenship met up with them, and for the next few days, changes in plans happened every few hours.

“We rerouted flights to countries not yet banned only to find those countries banned hours later as well,” Blankenship said. “It was a disaster.”

When Morocco decided to suspend all flights in and out of the country, all Peace Corps Morocco volunteers were placed into ‘stand fast’ mode. They were told to pack their bags in case of evacuation, and remain at their sites until further notice. Shortly after, they were told all volunteers would be evacuating from Morocco, and eventually all Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated around the world and a temporary suspension of all volunteer operations was put into place. Later, the decision was made to permanently suspend all 7,000+ volunteers’ terms of service.

“Peace Corps volunteers did not just lose jobs this week, but many of us had less than 24 hours to pack up our houses and evacuate the lives we have spent the past 18 months building,” Blankenship said. “Some volunteers only had a brief chance to say goodbye to the communities that have hosted and supported us, while other volunteers never even had the chance to say goodbye. We had to close our service early and leave the houses that we have made into homes; leave neighbors who have become our families; community members who have become our support systems; projects that have become our passions; communities we are no longer outsiders in, and ultimately, new lives that have been formed through many months of hard work and cultural integration.”

Though there were few confirmed cases of the COVID-19 in Morocco at that time, the country was headed toward lockdown.

“This decision was not made lightly and was determined to be the best way to ensure the safety of all volunteers,” Blankenship said. “In case of any kind of emergency medical situation, transportation options would be very limited.”

Thousands of people are still stranded abroad, and though she is thankful she is safe, the transition back to Pratt was a harsh and unexpected one for Blankenship.

“I am happy to be home with my family but I also miss the home and family I left in Morocco so it will take some time for me and for all of us to adjust.”

Blankenship and her family members were all able to take the same flight, and made it home safely on Thursday March 19.

“We are currently in quarantine at home, and we are feeling healthy but exhausted from the whirlwind of events that took place last week,” Blankenship said.

Blankenship began her service on Sept. 11, 2018 where she lived in a small town on the Mediterranean coast of Northern Morocco, located a little over an hour west of the Algerian border. She served within the ‘Youth in Development’ sector where she worked on many projects, but was primarily an English teacher for women.

“Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco have some flexibility when it comes to determining work assignments because each work site is different and has different needs,” Blankenship said. “Only after integrating within our communities, learning the languages, identifying local counterparts, and conducting needs-assessments are we able to determine which types of programs to implement with our local work partners.”

At her site, she was planning a big event for her community.

“My counterparts and I had just applied for and received a grant to plan a series of workshops aiming to empower and inform women in the fields of health, leadership, and business.”

To help facilitate the sessions of the workshops, they planned to invite women in those fields from around the country.

She was also beginning to plan a community trash-pickup and tree-planting day with another counterpart.

“Though I am disappointed I cannot be there in person, I am confident that despite this unexpected challenge, the projects will continue to move forward under the leadership of my talented and capable work partners if they choose to do so.”

During the 18 months she was in Morocco, she learned Moroccan Arabic and some of the local Amazigh language of her site, Tarifit.

“(That) allowed me to communicate and get to know people in the most genuine and indescribable sense,” she said.

The connections she made not only allowed her to build relationships within Peace Corps and her village, but also personal relationships.

“I have had the honor of attending six weddings, two engagement parties, and two baby showers---both inside and outside of my village---doing makeup for two brides and two soon-to-be brides on their special days. I participated in Ramadan with my community and broke fasts in the evenings with local families. I watched young high school students express themselves in ways they never have through story writing in an international creative writing competition. I watched my students grow in their English language capabilities everyday and grow more confident in their daily comprehension of the language,” Blankenship said. “I am so thankful to have the relationships that I have with my students, my neighbors, and ultimately, with the many people of my site who became my support system and second family through it all.”

Moving forward, Blankenship plans to pursue a career in foreign diplomacy, using what she learned from her experience in Morocco.

“The skills gained related to problem-solving, language acquisition, and intercultural competency have helped me grow both professionally and personally, so I look forward to applying these lessons to my life post-Peace Corps.”

There were many rewarding parts of her service, and gaining the trust of her community was one of the most rewarding.

“Integrating within my site and being accepted as part of the community rather than being seen as an outsider was one of the most rewarding parts of my service because trust is something that takes time and cannot be rushed,” Blankenship said. “I learned more from my community than I could have ever contributed personally.”

Blankenship’s post-Peace Corps plans remain the same, even though the end came sooner than anticipated.

“Prior to closing out Peace Corps service, I compiled a list of job opportunities and graduate school application deadlines I planned to apply for once Peace Corps ended but now that the timeline has sped up and the two-year plan I had for my life has ended abruptly, my plans have shifted so I am trying to adjust,” she said.

Blankenship hopes to take what she’s learned from her experience and apply it to the rest of her life.

“I have shared laughs and cries, stories and picnics--I have had some of the hardest days and some of the best days of my life,” Blankenship said. “I became a part of a community and learned that through the life I built, I have a home in Morocco too.”