I was a Kennedy Kid. I was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio when John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960. JFK was young and charismatic, energetic and idealistic. In his inauguration speech in January 1961, he famously said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I felt as if he was speaking directly to me, and I took his challenge to heart.
Peace Corps Here I Come
After I graduated in 1962, I joined the Peace Corps, which had been created by Kennedy in the early days of his administration. Its mission was to send Americans of all ages to underdeveloped countries to help communities build schools, grow crops, dig wells, and do other good works.
Signing up was one of the proudest days of my life. My parents, however, had some reservations. They felt I should get a job. We lived in Cleveland. My parents were of Lebanese descent. My mother, Edna, began her career as a teacher and later went to law school. My father, James, owned a grocery store before getting into real estate. They were wonderful people who worked hard and lifted themselves into the middle class, but they had little time for idealism. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, thought the Peace Corps was a great idea – primarily because I’d signed up to be sent to the Middle East and she thought I was going to the old country.
Learning from the Navajo
The Peace Corps began with several months of training. First, a group of fellow volunteers and I spent a couple of weeks on a Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona. The Navajos had their own language, and the goal was to give us a sense of what it was like to live in a place where you didn’t speak the language. Then we spent a summer at Utah State University, which had a large number of Iranian students.
In the Old Country
Then we were off to Iran. Our flight made a stop in Lebanon, and I rushed off the plane, ran into the airport, and dashed off a postcard to my grandmother: “Grandma, I got to the old country.” When we got to Iran, there were six weeks of in-country training, which included a crash course in the Persian language.
We were then sent to Southwestern Iran to help build an agricultural college. My grandmother had given me a letter for the local mullahs that read: “This is to introduce Donna Shalala, the daughter of a great sheik in Cleveland, Ohio. Put her under your protection.” The mullahs were very impressed.
Southwestern Iran, near the border with Iraq, is a hot dry region, largely desert but also home to the vast Tigris-Euphrates marshland. At the time, the marshes were home to half a million Marsh Arabs, who made their living growing crops and breeding buffalo.
We lived in a small village, in mud huts like everyone else. Sometimes we slept on the roofs of our huts – the stars leaped out of the sky, so close you felt you could reach up and touch them. When we arrived, there was no electricity or running water. But crops thrived in the fertile bottomland, and there was enough to eat. We lived next to a poppy field, but we had no idea that those pretty red flowers would end up as heroin. The only smuggling we saw was small arms, going back and forth across the Iraqi border.
Lessons From Construction
A couple of the Corps volunteers I was stationed with developed a brick that contained straw. It was strong and easy to use. Word of the new building material spread and a mullah from a nearby village asked for our help in building a school. We agreed. Then he changed his mind and told us he didn’t want a school but a mosque. We weren’t sure it was appropriate for us to be building a house of worship. But the mullah insisted, and we acquiesced.
When the mosque was finished, the mullah announced, “I think it’s time to build that school.” The incident taught me two valuable lessons in how to achieve a goal. First, learn to give and take. Second, pay heed to local priorities and opinions.
My time in Iraq changed my life and made me far more sensitive to the needs of the poor and underprivileged. I saw how people from different backgrounds and cultures, even speaking different languages, could work together to build meaningful institutions like an agricultural college or a school. I believe that each of us has the power and the means to make the world a better place. My fellow Peace Corps volunteers and the Iranians I worked with proved that to me. I arrived in Iran a nice middle-class girl from Cleveland. I left a citizen of the world.