Serving others leads to lasting love
|May 08, 2009|
Doctoral student, nutritional epidemiology
Peace Corps volunteer, Nepal, 2000-2002
Ushma Mehta is slightly built. She speaks quietly and precisely and admits to being “serious.” As a Hindu who came to the U.S. from India when she was two-and-a-half years old, she is a lifelong vegetarian.
Big-hearted, meat-loving, All-American Darren Treml loves contact sports and video games. He is a rock in a storm and everybody’s friend.
In 2000, they independently made their way to Nepal as Peace Corps volunteers, assigned to a village and town separated by a three-hour bus ride. Sometimes fate just insists a thing must happen.
Mehta left for the Corps in August 2000, just after graduating from college. She settled in the town of Singiya, Nepal, in the Terrai region. There, she taught high school classes and lived with the family of the school’s principal, who provided her with the unusual luxury of access to a shower, toilet and telephone.
“My $112 monthly stipend from the Peace Corps placed me solidly in the community’s middle class,” she says. “I earned as much as my principal.”
Treml was in the rural village of Rajbiraj, close to the Indian border. There, the frequent disputes between Nepalis and Indians who crossed the border looking for work were a source of interest and distraction for the mostly unemployed and bored men in the village.
Treml’s assignment was as a youth development volunteer. Having a bachelor’s degree in community health, a minor in psychology, and an interest in medicine, he felt he could provide guidance for the at-risk youth in the village.
“Most of the young men in the village just hung out,” he says. “I wanted to give them job skills, a useful curriculum, a reason for continuing their education.”
At the time, Nepal was host to about 100 volunteers. Once a year, an “All-Volunteer” meeting brought everyone together to relax, have fun and learn new skills. That’s where Mehta and Treml met.
Their friendship developed over the course of several visits to each other’s posts. Their attraction to each other continued over the next two years, however — despite living apart and earning master’s degrees in different states. The couple was married in 2005 in a traditional Hindu ceremony.
In Nepal, both were struck by how many projects competed for their attention.
Mehta focused on women’s health and education. “Nepal is one of the few places where women usually die before men,” she says. “It is because women are always working, doing heavy labor. Many of the men were discouraged. ‘There are no jobs,’ the men said, ‘so what’s the point of education?’ Few had studied beyond eighth grade. Because they had so little opportunity for self-esteem, many had a sense of entitlement and didn’t seem to mind all the responsibilities the women had to take on and the limited educational opportunities available to them.”
Mehta also was troubled by the lack of safety and dignity for patients in an area hospital. A pregnant friend traveled there to deliver her child. “The hospital was inadequate to begin with,” Mehta says. “The floors and linens were dirty, and so were the medical instruments. And because my friend was poor, the hospital attendants treated her with particular disrespect.”
Mehta is proud that she helped build a library to which all residents — women and men — have access. She continued to collect and send donated books even after she returned home. But the experience in the hospital affected her even more profoundly. “Seeing women’s poverty and unfair treatment made me want to work to improve women’s lives. Sometimes that means starting with the most basic ideas that Americans take for granted.”
To reach her goals, Mehta decided she had a lot more to learn. She returned to India for an internship on family and child health, part of her master’s program at the University of Arizona — Tucson. Now she is in UNC’s nutritional epidemiology program, focusing on women’s and children’s health.
Treml, too, is proud of the legacy he left behind in his village — a youth center, built with broken bricks donated by the U.S. Agency for International Development and local Nepali companies. “The young men knew about soccer and cricket,” Treml laughs, but it took an American to introduce them to volleyball.”
Treml was struck by the lack of sanitation where he lived. “The basis of public health is water and sewage treatment,” he says, “and I worked to help set up a simple, sustainable infrastructure, something that didn’t exist at all.”
When he returned to the states, he applied to Western Illinois University, where he earned a master’s degree in public health. Now employed in UNC’s Department of Environment, Health and Safety as a biosafety officer, he feels grateful for his time in the Peace Corps.
Like his wife, he intends to use his skills and international experiences to continue making the world better, one village at a time.
Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit www.sph.unc.edu/cph.