Karen Naim, a UD alumna, served with the Peace Corps in Benin, a country located in West Africa. Photo courtesy of Naim.
Like many U.S. college students, University of Dayton alumna Karen Naim ’18 received an unexpected email in March telling her she had to immediately return home due to the coronavirus pandemic. But unlike most college students, Naim couldn’t easily drive or fly home.
That’s because only a month ago she was in Benin, a country in West Africa, volunteering through the Peace Corps.
Naim, who studied English and international studies at UD, arrived in Benin in September 2018. She hadn’t been back to the U.S. since then.
“I worked with my community to help people create their own methods of accessing more nutritious food,” she said. “We did community gardens. We did business entrepreneurial classes to help them increase their income so that they can afford better ways of supporting their family.”
The Peace Corps suspended all of its global operations on March 15, and Naim woke up on March 16 to the message ordering her to leave. (UD closed its campus for most students on March 11.)
She was in Benin’s capital city when she got the message on a Monday, which she also said was the first day that a coronavirus case was confirmed in the country.
“As soon as I got the message, I booked it back to my house because I really had no idea how much time [I had to leave],” Naim said.
In order to get from the capital city to her house, she would wait on the side of the road for a taxi to pass and then it was an hour-and-a-half to a two-hour drive. The length of time depended on how many other passengers were picked up or dropped off along the way. Friends have told her it’s like UberPool, but she hasn’t had “enough UberPool experiences to confirm that.”
She said volunteers who she was in contact with were hearing conflicting things from staff about how long they had to leave. Naim was back in the capital city, having packed up all of her belongings, on that Tuesday, March 17.
Eventually, she was told that she would be leaving on Friday. But, as happens in times of chaos, that didn’t turn out to be accurate.
“I got a call saying ‘Okay, we got your flight booked for [Wednesday] evening,” she said. “And I was like ‘What is happening? It was supposed to be Friday.’ But it was booked for Wednesday and there was not really any turning back.”
She said that she was “lucky” most of the people in her village understood why she had to leave. Apparently, other volunteers dealt with people thinking they were leaving because they didn’t like Benin or felt unsafe.
“Saying goodbye was surreal, I guess, because it all happened so fast.”
In getting back to the U.S., she traveled through San Francisco, Los Angeles and Cleveland. She noted that while the airports were mostly empty, no U.S. travel officials gave any information or warning about traveling in the pandemic. But she did say everyone on her flight to Cleveland had their own row “in the spirit of social distancing.”
She said her family was “overwhelmingly relieved” to have her home. But Naim said she didn’t experience that relief initially.
“I didn’t really have any time to think about anything for a whole week basically,” she said.
While she expected to be in Benin through November 2020, Naim is now in northeast Ohio keeping in contact with other Peace Corps volunteers, working out and cooking. She said she’s been enjoying using a washing machine and dishwasher.
She’s also taking the time to revamp her resume.
“It’s hard coming back to a crashing economy, but I’ll see.”