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Through Peace and Prosperity: An Armenian-American finds the American Dream

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This line from “The New Colossus,” by poet Emma Lazarus, upholds American values of hope and freedom from persecution towards all the downtrodden of the world. Nothing has defined America’s cultural identity more than the concept of the “American Dream,” the long-held belief that those persecuted and oppressed in other nations can find refuge and hope in the United States of America—a land where shared values of democracy, prosperity, and freedom bind people together.

United States Peace Corps Logo | Wikipedia
United States Peace Corps Logo | Wikipedia

Sylva Etian is someone who believed in the dream and achieved it. She is the descendant of Armenian refugees fleeing from the 1916 Armenian Genocide, when the Ottoman Empire destroyed much of the Armenian population within their borders, triggering an exodus that formed the basis of the Armenian diaspora abroad. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1953 and has largely remained there since. During her time in college, she ran into a Peace Corps recruiter, a moment that would change the rest of her life. After serving in Côte d’Ivoire, Etian continued to work for the Peace Corps and eventually USAID and the Foreign Service.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see the importance for American diplomats and advisers to see through the cultural, religious, and political lens of their foreign counterparts. Etian would later go on to become the Peace Corps director for the Armenian Program as well as deputy director of the USAID Russian Office and director of the USAID Senegal Office, assisting both nations in their fight against the HIV/AIDS Pandemic during the early 2000s. Sylva Etian’s interview was conducted by Linda Lippner on July 10, 2020.

Read Sylva Etian’s full oral history HERE.

Read another account of U.S. involvement in Africa HERE.

For more “moments” on Armenia and the former Soviet Union click HERE.

Drafted by Sun Woo Park

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Excerpts:

“I was forlorn. I was sauntering out of the Health Department office wondering what I was going to do with the 40,000 condoms piled inside and outside my office door . . . .”

Discretion is Advised!
In 1990, I returned to Niger with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as an Advisor to the Nutrition Division of the Ministry of Public Health. Given the discovery of pockets of persons scattered throughout the nation infected with Human
Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS), I surreptitiously ordered boxes of condoms for distribution. Many unemployed Nigeriens would travel south to Côte d’Ivoire in search of work. Some would seek the company of women, at times local prostitutes, during their year-long stays. And some would unknowingly contract the HIV virus, return home to the Sahara, and infect some of their wives. Although HIV/AIDS was not a part of my portfolio at the time, I proposed beginning prevention programs with my colleagues at the Ministry of Public Health. I guess I was a bit too enthusiastic, as the head of the health department scolded me stating that I just couldn’t place condoms out in the hallways and distribute them left and right, giving them to policemen in the streets and army staff around town as well as deliver them to street sellers willy-nilly. She exclaimed that my intention to distribute condoms so freely was not in the Nigerian culture—it was, after all, a very delicate health matter!

I was forlorn. As I was sauntering out of the Health Department office wondering what I was going to do with the 40,000 condoms piled inside and outside my office door, the Department Head gingerly asked me if she could have a small box! Aha! I thought that if SHE wanted a small box, perhaps I could distribute the condoms discreetly…. Well, of course, I was delighted and offered her the small box of condoms and went about “discreetly” planting boxes of condoms everywhere there would be recipients happy to receive them!!

In no time at all, local people, thinking that I was a physician, approached me asking for a condom or three…. using such obscure terms as “suitcase” or “envelope” to describe an item that was quite embarrassing for them to talk about. When I was told that condoms were being “confiscated” and taken to the border, I happily exclaimed that what a great idea that was… distributing the goods to far reaches of the countryside!! In no time at all, I was addressed as Dr. Condom! And prior to leaving my post after four wonderfully fulfilling years, the Nigerien Minister of Health presented me with a Certificate of Appreciation for actively assisting in the battle against HIV/AIDS!!

“I must admit, initially I was very surprised that I was hired to work on a project of this nature in a country that boasted more PhDs and Medical Doctors than in the United States . . . .”

           
Côte d’Ivoire | Peace Corps Directory
Côte d’Ivoire | Peace Corps Directory

Work Pragmatically, Not Theoretically
In 1988 I went to India as a Country Representative with a private health firm, John Snow International. I supervised a national staff in New Delhi and worked along with two sub-contractors. Our mission was to train medical personnel in two provinces of India: Gujarat (Panchmahel’s tribal groups) and Maharashtra (Chandrapur).

When I first arrived in India, I attended a meeting in which 16 medical people were sitting at the conference table: 8 were medical doctors, and the others all had PhDs in a variety of medical disciplines. I was the only non-Indian, and the only one without a high academic degree in public health. I questioned why I was even here!

The discussion centered around what the expectations were for a young 15-year-old community worker assigned to community centers that fed very young children and taught them basic skills. My esteemed colleagues began suggesting all sorts of activities these young girls should be responsible for such as dressing wounds, vaccinating the children, teaching the youngsters about health and hygiene. They kept adding more and more responsibilities to this untrained teenager. I had gone to a village shortly after my arrival just to witness the activities at one of these centers, and to meet one of these young uneducated women entrusted with the children of their village. I had to enquire at the meeting of medical professionals: “Who knows what one of these young women are like? They’re 15 or 16-years-old, with very little education. How many of you have actually been to a village and met one of these young community workers?”

None of them had. None of them knew one of these community workers. None of my esteemed colleagues from New Delhi had even met one of these girls. That’s when I realized why I had been called to work in India. My medical colleagues had worked very hard and achieved success in their fields. Yet, they had no clue what was happening in the villages that they left years ago.

“I observed that even in cloistered villages, where women were not allowed to perform in public, men would actually dress up as women and act in their specific roles!”

Utilizing Local Traditions to Promote Health Locally
During my fourteen years living and working in Africa, I had some very interesting experiences exploring how to get village women to adopt positive health and nutrition behaviors through various communication interventions . . . .

I realized that if I was going to succeed in getting any messages across, I had to find out how local people saw things around them, how they interpreted various things in their lives, who they listened to, and how they were motivated to act upon new realities. I realized that in Niger, there was a tradition of Hausa theater. Local village theatrical groups performed for their communities.

With the help of a Washington-based contractor AED (Academy for Educational Development), the Niger Nutrition Division team encouraged village theatrical groups to perform plays incorporating positive nutritional messages. The Niamey-based radio club would record the various performances and play them on the local radio station every week, thereby creating an environment of competition! Our team created a “Festival of Green Leafy Vegetables and Liver” in which various Nigerien village groups would compete once a year to be the best theatrical group! The jury was made up of local dignitaries, and prizes of African cloth would be given to the best performers. As an example, some children in the area had a case of temporary blindness right around dusk due to a deficiency of Vitamin A in their diet. One play would focus on this by having a child stumbling in the village at dusk; his mother quickly feeds him a mango, or prepares a vegetable dish and adds some liver, or gives him carrots—any foods that contain Vitamin A. Sure enough, the child would immediately pop up and begin playing with his friends! Research later indicated that our messages were understood and acted upon; the incidence of “night blindness” decreased, and consumption of Vitamin A foods increased.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Background
Born in Amman, Jordan
Immigrated to the United States in 1953
BA in Communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison 1966–1972
MA in Communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison 1976–1978
Joined the Peace Corps 1973
Dabou, Côte d’Ivoire—Peace Corps Volunteer 1973–1975
Niamey, Niger—Nigerian Office of Radio and Television 1981–1982
Bishkek, Armenia—Country Director 1995–2000