An embassy is not like other workplaces. There, duties others think of as extraodinary are routine while a simple administrative task almost anywhere else can turn your emotions and your entire day upside down.
A friend of mine was assigned as consul to an embassy in the Gulf. His predecessor had been there for some time. In fact, whereas normally the person whose position you are taking is gone or on his last day when you arrive, the “previous” consul remained for two weeks. He was supposed to be conducting briefings but instead he spent his time sitting at the only desk reading the newspaper, while the new consul worked alongside his new staff – who were very happy to see him. When his predecessor finally left, the first task was to get the place organized. The most obvious example of this were the file cabinets. They were stuffed with papers in complete disarray. So the office had no files – not a good idea in a government office. Rather than wrestle with file classifications one morning he decided to go the warehouse and take an inventory. Everything was fine until he began counting his coffins. He explained to me that the consular section usually kept a store of coffins to make it easier to return the remains of Americans who died in country. When he got to the last coffin he was shocked to see that it had a seal. Someone was in it.
He raced back to the embassy where visa interviews were being conducted and announced that the interview windows were closed for the day. Alone with his staff he informed them that an American citizen was in a warehouse coffin and that operations were suspended until they had identified him. So the whole section plowed through the unorganized papers in the office searching and matching records of citizens who had died with documents confirming deceased Americans sent back to the US. At the end of the day, they found a record of a man who had died in the year indicated on the coffin seal but no record of his having been sent home. Given the state of the office files, it was by no means certain they had found the right person. Nevertheless, the poor consul went into his office, closed the door, sat down at his desk and picked up the phone.
When a citizen dies overseas, it is the consul’s responsibility. The consular section interacts with the police, informs the family and arranges for repatriation. In my years in the service I came to admire American consular officials tremendously. They have to work very hard. A Deputy Chief of Mission in Paris once told that one of the major personnel issues he faced was the workload of the younger consular officers. Many of those officers were destined to move on to other career paths in political or economic or cultural work. It is a bit like doing a required course until you declare a major. Consular work is not for everyone. Visiting Americans in prison, or trying to get them out of jail if they are simply rounded up and thrown in without charge, and responding to calls to track down someone’s missing son or daughter are all part of a day’s work. Consular people are the “heroes” in the Embassy.
Most people associate consular work with interviewing visa applicants all day and it is considered an unappealing part of the job. However, like many unappealing tasks you learn things that are hard to learn any other way. I also took the consular training course and worked in visas for a while. When you are interviewing you are checking facts, looking for inconsistencies, trying to ascertain if someone has false motives but in a way that does not feel like an interrogation. You need to be fair. After all, we are not trying to keep decent, upright people from spending their vacations in the US. You also don’t want to waste time (think of the long lines in some places) so it must be done quickly. And when it is done you refuse or grant the visa right then and there. If you refuse, you must politely and directly tell the applicant why. The life skills you learn in this process are numerous and invaluable. Interview skills, analytical skills and the ability to convey difficult news. Most professional consular officers possess outstanding skills and are determined to do the best for they can for citizens. It was a shame for my friend that he followed someone who deviated so widely from the norm and now had to accept the consequences.
With his heart pounding, the consul dialled the number. The phone rang and was answered by the frail voice of an older woman. A few seconds established that they had indeed identified the right person. She confirmed that her husband had died some years back and that his remains not been returned. Profuse apologies ensued, her desires in the matter were discussed and preliminary arrangements made. The conversation was very cordial and by the end the consul felt comfortable enough to ask a question. “Mrs ___,” he ventured, “when your husband did not come home after so many years, didn’t you think it was odd?” Her answer? “Well, when I spoke to the consul he said that it was very far away and that it would take a long time.”
How nice it is know that our embassy heroes have their reward from time to time, in an understanding citizen.