African-American Peace Corps Volunteer Builds Cross-Cultural Relationships in ArmeniaIn celebration of the 45th anniversary, this is the continuation of a series featuring diverse Peace Corps volunteers.
WASHINGTON, D.C., March 23, 2006 When Nicole "Nicki" Hendrix, a Peace Corps volunteer from Los Angeles arrived at her site in the former Soviet republic of Armenia in 2004, her presence caused quite a stir: the 35-year old community development volunteer was the first African-American to ever live and work in the village.
Upon her arrival, Hendrix had large groups of people, young and old, who came running up to her while calling out the "n-word" one of the most hurtful racial slurs imaginable to Hendrix. She didn't know it then, but this was the only word most of the local Armenians knew for "African-American." She later learned that during the Soviet Era, although students were taught about the history of African-Americans in America, school books referred to African-Americans by the racial slur. Many Armenians, Hendrix discovered, were not aware of the negative connotation that word has in the United States.
Changing perceptions: Nicki Hendrix and the mayor of her host community in Armenia
"I use each encounter involving the word's usage as a chance to teach Armenians about African-Americans and our history, if they are not familiar with it. It also gives me the opportunity to tell those who do not already know that the U.S. is a very ethnically diverse country with people from many different nationalities and ethnic groups that live and work there," Hendrix said of her experience of dispelling stereotypes in an ethnically-homogeneous society like Armenia.
Hendrix set out to not only accomplish her goals as a community development volunteer, but also to help change the perception of African-Americans in Armenia by helping to eradicate the use of the racial slur. "The challenge is getting people to see things differently and to embrace the unfamiliar, instead of the familiar. I know this will not happen overnight, but I am at least planting the seed for change in the people that I meet. I believe these experiences define my minority Peace Corps volunteer experience: educating and introducing a different aspect of American culture to the people of Armenia," she said.
Since she arrived in Armenia, Hendrix feels she has made a real impact on her village. Working with the members of her community, Hendrix helped renovate a local park ("Peace Park"), which services not only her town, but also the seventeen surrounding villages. During the Soviet Era, the park was once considered the central meeting place for the exchange of culture, business and fun for children and adults. But when the Soviet Era ended, the town could no longer afford to maintain it; the equipment became dilapidated and was later taken away for fuel and heating during the initial tumultuous years of becoming a newly independent state.
For nearly a decade, the renovation of the park had been a top priority among community members, businesses, and the town's municipality, to provide the villagers with a place to rest, exercise and communicate with each other and to prevent people from taking the park land for their own personal use. Hendrix said she was glad to be able to help assist the members of her community in making their dream come true. The park now serves a population of over 100,000 people.
Nearly two years have passed and Hendrix's service in Armenia is almost finished. "I can honestly say that I am not the same person I was before becoming a Peace Corps volunteer. I am a better person. I am able to see all sides of an issue or situation. My views on life and people are noer person. I am able to see all sides of an issue or situation. My views on life and people are no longer narrow they are multifaceted and global. I am confident and self-assured in my skills and abilities, and best of all, I am a more compassionate person," Hendrix said.
Serving as a minority volunteer has not been easy for Hendrix, but she has learned a great deal from the experience. "The most prominent challenge I faced upon arriving to my host country was getting the host country nationals to see me as a person instead of an object. As an African-American living in Armenia, I received a lot more attention than my fellow Caucasian Peace Corps volunteers," she said. "I find that some Armenians are still learning how to treat foreigners who look differently than them."
Hendrix noted that her presence in Armenia has also helped some host country nationals see that all African-Americans are not just entertainers and athletes, because she is neither. According to Hendrix, her presence also showed Armenians who are unfamiliar with the concept of volunteerism that African-Americans volunteer to serve others, too.
"Being a minority Peace Corps volunteer has made the world seem smaller. We all have the same fears, hurts, pains, problems, issues, and we all want to be loved, respected, heard, accepted, successful, happy, and needed. We just say it in different languages and with different customs," said Hendrix.
"We can all help each other if we have a desire to do so. In every country, there are the 'haves and have-nots,' and in each country, there are those who are trying to rid the world of divisiveness and make the world a better place for everyone. I believe that the U.S. Peace Corps is one of many organizations that is trying to make the world a better place for everyone, regardless of race, class, creed, or educational background. I believe that my service as a minority Peace Corps volunteer helps to get this message across to the people in my region and the country at large."
The Peace Corps has been sending volunteers to Armenia since 1992. Throughout the country, volunteers work in the fields of business and community development, education, health and environment. There are currently 86 volunteers serving in Armenia and, since the program's inception, 442 volunteers have served. To learn more about Armenia, please visit the Where Do Volunteers Go? section.
The Peace Corps is celebrating a 45-year legacy of service at home and abroad, and a 30-year high for volunteers in the field. Since 1961, more than 182,000 volunteers have helped promote a better understanding between Americans and the people of the 138 countries where volunteers have served. Peace Corps volunteers must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age. Peace Corps service is a 27-month commitment.
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