Hear from 3 Metro Detroit Peace Corps volunteers forced to return to U.S. from remote villages

Vaughn Thornton, Madelyn Celvosky, Mariam Haidar share their stories

Imagine being on the other side of the world when the coronavirus crisis began.

DETROIT – Three Peace Corps volunteers from Metro Detroit are sharing their stories with Local 4 after they were taken from remote villages around the world -- where they said they felt safe -- and thrust into the coronavirus (COVID-19) chaos back home in the United States.

Imagine being on the other side of the world as the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis began. It might change how you look at the pandemic.

Local 4 heard from three Peace Corps volunteers who were recently brought home. They talked about being plucked from tiny remote villages and plopped into what they call the danger and chaos of their own country.

UPDATE -- April 30, 2020: Michigan coronavirus cases up to 41,379; Death toll now at 3,789

For 18 months, home for Vaughn Thornton, of Detroit, was Pasal-Wahn on the Indonesian Island of Java. As a Peace Corps volunteer, he taught English and lived with a host family. He had nine months of service left to complete.

Madelyn Celvosky, of Bloomfield, called Panama home. She had ben an agriculture volunteer for eight months.

“I had been listening to Panamanian news -- just the radio-- and I knew it was bad in the U.S., but there were no cases in Panama at the time,” Celvosky said.

Mariam Haidar, of Livonia, worked as a math and physics teacher in the remote village of Lyamkena, in the region of Njombe, in the Southern Highlands for the last 18 months.

All three volunteers were taken from their obscure villages, where they felt relatively safe from COVID-19, and thrust back into the U.S., where they didn’t feel safe.

“When I told my host mom that it was a possibility that I would be evacuated, she was, like, ‘Stay in your room,’ because it’s not here, which is in our desa, or village -- but the cases were already growing in the U.S.,” Vaughn said.

“We got the announcement to evacuate March 16, and at that time, we still didn’t have any cases of COVID-19,” Haidar said. “Our families were, like, ‘Why are you leaving?’”

Since their villages were so remote, they only had an inkling of a virus that hadn’t yet reached them. But they were hearing about what was going on in their own country.

“A lot of my neighbors were worried,” Celvosky said. “They were critical of how the politicians were handling it. In my village, they definitely were taking it more seriously.”

When the word came, they had only hours to pack up their lives and leave -- sometimes only getting out within hours of the borders closing. For thousands of miles, they were left feeling uncertain.

“I was nervous that I would contract it in the airport,” Vaughn said. “I was more nervous about coming back and contracting the virus.”

“It wasn’t just Peace Corps, but other aids, tourists with no regard -- he wouldn’t stop coughing and sneezing,” Haidar said. “I was, like, ‘Dude, stop.’”

Now that they’re back home, there’s a culture shock all over again.

“The first confirmed case in my desa was last week, so well after it was here in the city,” Vaughn said.

“I couldn’t walk outside without getting anxious,” Haidar said. “That’s the life we came back to, as opposed to being in the village. It’s been really weird. I do think it was dichotomous to come back here, but I do want to thank the Peace Corps, because I would not have been able to make that decision. I appreciate being forced out in a strange type of way.”

All three said there are important lessons in the U.S. They said the most developed country in the world can learn from the most remote villages on the planet.

“In Tanzania, community is a huge, huge, huge thing,” Haidar said. “I think something they are good at is they are selfless. I think we can learn to be selfless,” Haidar said.

“There’s a reason we were pulled from everything we built,” Celvosky said. “When I see people not with masks and not taking it seriously ... everybody is making sacrifices.”

About the Authors:

Paula Tutman is an Emmy award-winning journalist who came to Local 4 in 1992. She's married and the stepmother of three beautiful and brilliant daughters. Her personal philosophy in life, love and community is, "Do as much as you can possibly do, not as little as you can possibly get away with".

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.