US Embassy Haiti: Where diplomats are not super-humans but …

Super humanImage by jamesmellor via Flickr

real people who do the best they can

Paul Mayer serves as the Consular Section Chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Montrèal. He served as Acting Consul-General at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince Haiti during the days following the January 2010 earthquake. He pens What I Saw in Haiti for DipNote. It’s not every day that you read such luminous writing on the pages of the Department’s official blog.  This piece gives a window to the pressure, the stress and strain, the emotional toll and the difficult work that go with a large scale evacuation in a disaster zone. It is an authentic and personal voice that captures the work as it is and the demands on our men and women on the ground; no airbrushing needed, just a well-told story.          

Towards the end of Mr. Mayer’s post, he writes, “I am almost ashamed to admit that my gas tank is empty, and that I need to go home.”  This reminds me of  the FS Rookie who was warned by one of his A100 coordinators “of the perils of blogging” and who was “shamed for talking about being tired –.” I hope FSI sends his coordinator to the real world where Foreign Service officers are not super-humans, but real people who feel pain, who needs rest, who gets tired and still do the best they can. As far as I know, the super-diplomats who runs on solar power 24/7, 365 days a year who do not bleed or cry  are still in bionics research stage 1d — in an undisclosed location and most possibly won’t roll off the conveyor belt until 2063.
Excerpt below from Mr. Mayer’s piece:      
The news of the earthquake in Haiti hit me the same way the tsunami in Southeast Asia did: A tragic event that had happened far away. I donated money to the Red Cross, and even used the same credit card I’d used five years before. It hit much closer to home when I learned that an officer with whom I’d served in Montreal had been seriously injured at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. I wanted to give something more than money, so I contacted the Bureau of Consular Affairs to ask how I could help. Less than 24 hours later, I was on a plane from Montrèal to Santo Domingo and just six hours after arriving in the DR, I was strapped into a DHS/CBP Blackhawk helicopter, 600 feet above the ground, flying toward Port-au-Prince.
Unfortunately, whatever preparations I thought I’d made for what I would see when I arrived weren’t enough. As we made our descent to land outside the embassy walls, I saw throngs of people crowding the streets adjoining the embassy. What I saw on the ground was worse. There were faces which reflected panic, fatigue, anger, pain, hunger and thirst. There was more desperation than I’d ever seen in my career: hundreds, maybe thousands, of people had come to the U.S. Embassy with their suitcases packed, mostly based on the hope and the belief that the U.S. government was going to feed them, house them, cure them or whisk them away.
Under U.S. law, the State Department has very clear guidelines for the aid and assistance we provide American citizens in times of crisis, and our office of Overseas Citizen Services in Washington is there to support and guide us every step of the way. The Foreign Affairs Manual (we call it “the FAM”) explains things in precise detail.

The FAM, however, doesn’t prepare you for the feeling you get from saying, “No” and “I’m sorry” over and over. The FAM doesn’t tell you how many bottles of water you will need to give people who’ve been standing in line for six hours. The FAM doesn’t tell you how quickly you need to take the Power Bars you’d bought at Wal-Mart out of your backpack, just so you can give them to the people who are saying, “Please, j’ai faim.” The FAM does not tell you whether you’re permitted to shed a tear when you see the look of resignation in a person’s eye after you’ve said, firmly, “I’m sorry, but you do not qualify.” People just walked away, with their kids in one hand and their suitcase in the other. There were 500 more in the queue, waiting for their turn to come. This was Day 6 after the earthquake.

Much could be written about the stress and strain of our work days — 16 hours on, 8 hours off — or about the questionable glamour of sleeping on the floor of the consular section, or the daily diet of MRE’s. The truth is that the several dozen volunteers and I would have endured even more if we thought that it would better help us to carry out our tasks. We fought off the fatigue by contemplating the magnitude of what we were accomplishing: Thousands of Americans already evacuated, and one crazy day in which we moved more than 1,600 people through the Embassy, through the consular section, on Embassy vehicles to the airport, and into the cavernous cargo bays of the C-17 transports. I’d been asked to fill in as Consul General for a colleague who’d needed to depart post temporarily, and I had the privilege of guiding a marvelous team of entry-level and mid-level officers, reminding them about the need to sleep, to eat and drink, to wear sunscreen. On Day 9 after the earthquake, I fell asleep at the computer keyboard while trying to write an email explaining this to my wife and daughter.

Read the whole thing here.

Back Then: Exuberant Elizabeth Colton

With experience that would make most ambassadors green with envy
In the November 2000 issue of State Magazine, then editor Paul Koscak had a feature story on four entry –level officers in the Foreign Service, “Excitement, Intrigue Attract Spirited Applicants.”
One of those officers highlighted in the story is Elizabeth Colton. Yes, the one with a bullet-train career path in the Foreign Service for the last decade. And who last year, has taken the State Department to court for discrimination.  In September last year, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP, together with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed a case on behalf of Dr. Elizabeth O. Colton, a 64-year-old Foreign Service officer whom the Department of State has “subjected to discrimination by denying her the opportunity to serve at certain posts simply because of her age.”  (Read Colton v. Clinton: Expeditionary Diplomat Booted Off Career Ladder, Too Old).
I don’t imagine that the magazine would invite her to grace its pages again. But back then, she was one of the Foreign Service newcomers who attracted the in-house magazine’s attention:
Then there’s Elizabeth Colton. It’s a good bet the Foreign Service gets few newcomers who have literally written the book on diplomacy, among others. Or someone who already has mingled with heads of state such as Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Yasser Arafat.
The former college professor and network radio correspondent, who covered the American bombing raid on Tripoli and later the Persian Gulf War, says that her greatest desire has always been to be a diplomat.
“I’ve been teaching it all along,” Ms. Colton, 55, says, exuding the enthusiasm more likely found in one of her students. “I hope my experience can be used.” It’s experience that would make most ambassadors green with envy.
Ms. Colton spent several years traveling the world employed by other countries to teach international politics and diplomacy to its diplomats. She also taught communications and journalism at Virginia’s Shenandoah University. Her book on diplomacy is expected to be published soon.
Ms. Colton also worked as a journalist with firsthand experience abroad. She reported for Asia Week, a Reuters magazine, and was a London-based television producer for both NBC and ABC covering the Middle East and North Africa. In 1981, she won an Emmy for two ABC Nightly News pieces on Libya. Later she established Newsweek’s Middle East bureau in Cairo. The Waterford, Va., resident’s coverage of the Persian Gulf War prompted National Public Radio to offer her a job as its State Department correspondent.
Remember that group of Iraqi soldiers who surrendered to a journalist? You guessed it.
They gave up to NBC radio correspondent Liz Colton.
On the way to her new job, the FSI student also managed to become publisher for a company that owns 10 Northern Virginia newspapers and to teach journalism at Shenandoah University.
Choosing to become a Foreign Service officer at an age when many federal employees are retiring will present some challenges, Ms. Colton admits. “I’ll be taking a major salary cut from what I made in teaching and speaking fees. I also have a house to sell.”
Despite the financial setback, Ms. Colton is anxious–even exuberant–to begin consular work at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She expects to move on to the political section the second year.
“I’m just interested in a lot of things and I love learning,” she says.
As of January this year, Elizabeth Colton is still posted at a consulate in Pakistan, another hardship assignment. The litigation is ongoing. 
Her return to Pakistan in 2009 made news. The return of Dr Elizabeth Colton, according to the Pakistan Observer: “[O]ne topic dominated the discussion. It was the return of the former US Press Attaché Dr. Elizabeth Colton to Pakistan as Principal Information Officer at the US Consulate in Karachi. Dr. Colton has been a very popular figure with the media. She was a proactive diplomat of extraordinary qualities.”
(Photo from State Magazine, November 2000) 

Syria 2010 Crime & Safety Report: “low crime does not mean “crime-free”

street on old damascusImage via Wikipedia

The Overseas Security Cooperation Council (OSAC) has just released its Syria 2010 Crime & Safety Report. These reports usually give an overall view of the crime and safety situation in the country including the crime threat environment, road safety, also a quick look on political violence including regional terrorism, organized crime, international and transnational terrorism and civil unrest, and contact numbers.

This report’s “post specific concerns” include a warning that “visitors to Damascus should scrupulously avoid illegal activities.  Failure to comply with local laws can result in arrest and detention for indeterminate lengths of time with no legal representation.  Though Syria is a signatory to the treaty on consular notification, Syrian police rarely notify the Embassy in a timely manner when they arrest U.S. citizens.” The report also warns against taking photographs of sensitive areas which can result in arrest or deportation, entering Syria without proper visas and of harassment of “female Americans and other Westerners in Damascus.”     
Quick excerpt:
Syria enjoys a relatively low crime rate due to strong cultural mores against property crime and to the pervasive police and security presence throughout the country. Visitors should be aware, however, that “low crime” does not mean “crime-free.” There has been an increase in the past few years in reported crimes against U.S. citizens and Westerners in Damascus compared to the early 2000s. Examples of these incidents include:
  • In late 2007 to early 2008, there was a string of acid attacks against women wearing western-style jeans. While no Westerners reported being victims of an acid attack, U.S. citizens and Westerners fit the demographic that was targeted for wearing “un-Islamic” attire.
  • Throughout 2008, several U.S. Embassy staff and employees reported being harassed, followed or assaulted. Embassy employees also reported their vehicles being broken into and electronics stolen.
  • In April 2009, a female Embassy employee riding in a taxi was groped by the taxi driver. Several months later another female Embassy employee reported that a taxi driver had attempted to reach into the back seat to touch her.
  • In July 2009, a Western female was sexually assaulted by three men in an apartment in Damascus. One of the men was an acquaintance who had lured her to an apartment where the assault took place.
  • In August 2009, a tourist was reportedly followed and then sexually assaulted in Palmyra.
  • In September 2009, an American female reported an attempted sexual assault after being followed into an empty area of the Bosra ruins south of Damascus.
  • In December 2009, a group of young Syrian males attempted to enter the vehicle of a female Embassy employee while she was sitting in it in the Abu Roumaneh area.
  • In December 2009, two western female students were walking on Straight Street in the early morning hours when they were attacked by several Syrian men in a car. The men used a stun gun-like device to disable one of the females and forced the other female into their car. The men drove her to a warehouse where she was sexually assaulted.  The prepositioning of a mattress in the warehouse indicates the crime was premeditated and may not have been the only instance of it occuring. They also displayed a handgun during the assault.
  • In December 2009, a State Department employee visiting Damascus reported she was robbed at a luxury store near the Four Seasons hotel. She believes it occurred while her purse was open after making a purchase and she was forcefully bumped by a veiled woman. She made eye contact with the woman who bumped her, now believing the bump was a purposeful distraction that allowed the woman to take the wallet from her purse.
Furthermore, Syria is currently home to several U.S. citizen children who have been abducted by Syrian parents who do not have legal custody in the United States. Syria is a non-signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
In December last year, the embassy’s Warden Message (December 16) also included a section on Harassment of Women:  Street harassment of women is widely reported in the region, and Damascus is no exception. While most reported incidents are limited to verbal harassment, incidents of rape and physical assault do occur. One of the tips: “Avoid responding to verbal taunts. Responding to harassment may give the impression of being “interested” and may be interpreted as an invitation to further interaction.”
The Syria 2010 Crime & Safety Report advises that visitors “ride in the rear of taxicabs, on the far side from the driver.  Female visitors are advised to dress conservatively in public and to travel in pairs when visiting shopping areas or crowded commercial districts where young males tend to loiter. Shorts, for example, are not appropriate attire for men or women except in private settings with close associates.
The Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) is a Federal Advisory Committee with a U.S. Government Charter to promote security cooperation between American business and private sector interests worldwide and the U.S. Department of State. The council is co-chaired by the Director of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) and a selected representative of the private sector. Over 3,500 U.S. companies, educational institutions, religious and non-governmental organizations are constituents of OSAC. Its website is operated and maintained by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
As of January 31, 2010, employees assigned to Damascus receive a post hardship differential of 20% of basic compensation.  The allowance goes up to 25% for elsewhere in Syria.  Post receives no cost of living allowance or danger pay.   
A hardship differential is “established for any place when, and only when, the place involves extraordinarily difficult living conditions, excessive physical hardship, or notably unhealthful conditions affecting the majority of employees officially stationed or detailed at that place.  Living costs are not considered in differential determination.”

Related articles by Zemanta