Serving in Peace Corps right verdict for attorney

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By Stephen Thomas

  BALTI, Moldova - Laela Kashan originally attended law school because she wanted to help others.


The Hillview resident, a graduate of Hebron Middle and North Bullitt High School, attended Northern Kentucky University's Chase Law School, passing the Kentucky Bar Exam in October 2008.

It was in law school that Kashan discovered a more profound way to serve others.

"I had been thinking about Peace Corps during law school," she said. "The way they sell it seemed like something I wanted to get into."

Kashan has been serving in Balti (pronounced "belt"), the second largest city in Moldova, a country that split from the Soviet Union and declared independence in 1994.

"Moldova is about the size of Maryland, with about 4.5 million people," she said. "I could choose a region so I chose Europe/Asia. I didn't know anything about it before I was invited. Originally I wanted to go to South America."

Kashan didn't qualify for South America based on her Spanish speaking skills. In Balti the primary languages are Russian and Romanian, which she knew even less.

"I arrived in June 2010," she said. "They had language classes six days a week, plus cultural and technical training. There were no translators, just me hoping I was saying things correctly."

Kashan originally applied to teach English as a second language, something she did in Louisville prior to the trip. With her law background, she was offered a community and organizational development opportunity with Family Crisis Center SOTIS, a domestic violence women's shelter.

"I'm teaching domestic violence laws to the staff," she said. "(Moldova) made the law but they really didn't know how to implement it. My NKU professor said it sounds like where the US was 30 years ago."

Kashan said Moldova was working to meet "Millenium Development Goals" established as standards for independent countries striving to become members of the European union.

She added that Moldova's domestic violence laws are still relatively new, along with new gender laws. While the country must meet a certain threshold for European integration, some locals go as far as refusing the change.

"It's a struggle to grow a relationship with the law," Kashan said. "We're trying to even out women's salaries and managerial positions, to get women in higher education and more girls in school, because it's harder for them to find work."

As a side project, Kashan also works with at-risk children, those with single parents or parents battling addiction.

"It's only been three years with these laws," she said. "It might take another 10 to 15. Here (domestic violence) is still considered more of a private matter. There's still some of that old Soviet mentality."


Life 5,300 Miles from Home


Counting training, Kashan has been away from Bullitt County about 27 months. Her journey ends Aug. 1.

"I really long for home, but there's a part of me that this is my home as well," she said.

Kashan said many Moldovans live in smaller villages outside of the major cities, with the country remaining primarily rural. She stayed with two separate host families for her first 11 months.

Moldova is world famous for its wines, and everyone makes their own, Kashan said.

According to Kashan, Moldova features an abundance of fresh fruit with more flavors to them than fruit in the US. She mentioned tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins, potatoes, onions and fresh honey.

Moldova experiences seasons similar to Kentucky, Kashan said, including some pollen, but not as severe.

Kashan has made good friends among the locals in her village, including those who can't speak English.

"You understand each other for the most part," she said, adding the unique bonding between two people playing charades and communicating primarily through hand gestures.

Kashan appreciated the way Moldovans enjoy themselves during various holidays and special events.

"The way they celebrate, the way they set the table with so much food... I'll probably take all of that home with me," she said.

Moldovans are primarily Orthodox Christians, celebrating holidays based on a different calendar routine. Kashan said Christmas was recognized on Jan. 7, the new year Jan. 14 and Easter scheduled for Apr. 15.

"They celebrated Christmas on December 25 and on the 7th," she said. "Their New Year's was the biggest celebration."

Most Moldovans have home Internet service and use cell phones. The Internet helps Kashan keep up with family and friends back home in Kentucky.

"There are certain days I'm homesick," she admitted. "Sometimes (the Internet) makes me miss home more. Then I immerse myself into Moldova."

One of her homesick times occurs in early May, when the Kentucky Derby is held in Louisville.

"They don't really know what the Derby is," said Kashan. "They know about horse racing, so I tell them it's a really big horse race."

Kashan said many Moldovans were familiar with Kentucky primarily because of its fried chicken. She occasionally creates American treats for friends and the children she works with.

"They loved apple pie," she said. "The kids liked oatmeal butterscotch cookies."

In turn, Kashan fell in love with the food available in Moldova. Along with fellow Peace Corps volunteer Julie Frieswyk, the two Americans established a website, tasteofpeace.wordpress.com, sharing healthy eating tips and recipes along with overviews of traditional Moldovan cuisine.

"It helps to share the culture, and besides that everyone can bond over food," Kashan said.


Fulfilling a Need


"Everyone has a common goal of helping," said Kashan, the law student turned Peace Corps volunteer.

Kashan said she always wanted to remain living in the Louisville area. Her Peace Corps experience have led to a community service commitment along with practicing law.

"I would like to stay involved in public service," she said. "This experience has only reinforced that."

Kashan admitted being apprehensive to join the Peace Corps and building up her confidence, primarily on her own accord.

"It's hard to get any support at first," she said. "Many people didn't think I would do it. Now everyone knows it has been a good experience."

Kashan said she never really thought about Peace Corps in high school, but encouraged all students to consider any and all possibilities.

"I may not have had the courage when I was younger," she said. "Someone else may. You have to find a life for yourself here."

To learn more about the Peace Corps program visit www.peacecorps.gov.