A year later, this still chokes me up

A year has gone by now, and even though I still can’t talk about it without choking up, I can write about it. This happened when I was a consular officer in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya are an ethnic minority in Burma. Because of religious violence against them, one million of them have fled into Bangladesh. This is a festering humanitarian crisis. Bangladesh is a poor country that is barely able to feed its own people. The addition of a million additional people in need of basic life support is a burden that the country can’t endure. Humanitarian aid is keeping them alive, but no one has been able to offer a workable solution yet.

The issue of refugee resettlement is political and emotional. If I were a refugee, I’d want to return to my home country. But that isn’t always possible. In the case of the Rohingya, the government of Burma refuses to acknowledge their citizenship. They are literally stateless.

The United States, like many countries, allows reunification of refugee families if one member of the family has resettled legally in their country. I was able to help a Rohingya refugee join her husband in America.

It might surprise you to know that the United States isn’t even in the top ten among countries that accept refugees. Would you believe that Iran and Ethiopia each accept more than ten times the number of refugees that the United States does?

Even though there’s a legal mechanism to resettle refugees in the United States, there are all kinds of legal and bureaucratic obstacles. The Rohingya crisis created some political obstacles as well, which I don’t want to try to explain, since I barely understood them at the time, and still don’t. Long story short, we had to get the Bangladesh government to agree to allow this one refugee to exit the country and get on an airplane to the United States. Getting one person out took more than a year. It took emails, phone calls, Congressional inquiries, in-person meetings with local government officials, security checks, medical examinations. The United Nations was involved, of course. I learned a lot from the experience, but all through the process, we were communicating with this young woman, and that put a human face on the process. This was a human being, and we were trying to help her get out of hell, and to build a new life.

Finally the day came when all the pieces came together. We had the entry visa, the medical and security clearances, coordination with the local authorities, and the airline. Even though everyone involved had given their approval, there was no guarantee that there wouldn’t be complications. I and a local staff member went to the airport with her, to help her navigate all of the steps. We went six hours before the flight was scheduled to leave. We got special airport passes that let us go through security, and right up to the boarding gate. I wanted to see her get on the airplane, and watch it take off, before I could relax.

Airlines in general don’t know what to do with refugees’ resettlement paperwork. Stateless refugees don’t have passports. The U.S. government uses a special form, but it isn’t the passport and visa that the airline is required to verify. Luckily, I had a good relationship with the airline, after working closely with them on the evacuation flights earlier in the year. I had given them the heads-up that this was happening. Still, the people working the airline counter hadn’t been informed. We explained the situation, but they had to double-check with their supervisors, because they’d never encountered a case like this. I think it helped to have an American officer there to explain the situation and assure the airline that she had permission to enter the United States. The check-in process proceeded.

Her luggage was overweight.

There was a $65 charge for the excess baggage.

Stateless refugees don’t have credit cards.

I was sure as hell not going to let a $65 luggage charge derail the 18 months of work to get that far along. Without hesitation, I whipped out my credit card and covered that charge. This was not an authorized expense, and I will never see that money again. But it was a very, very tiny price to pay to make sure that we could see this though, and reunite this woman with her husband.

The next step was passport control. That required another side trip to the airport police office, and several long phone calls with the higher-ups. I had my phone out, ready to call my contacts in the foreign ministry in case they needed to remind the airport authorities that she had permission to leave without a passport. But eventually they got it worked out. Seeing them stamp her paperwork was a huge relief. A stamp on the paperwork meant that the political obstacle was overcome.

Waiting in the departure lounge until boarding time and wheels-up was a stressful experience. Boarding the plane required another passport check, which required the gate agent to be aware of this special situation. But finally, she was allowed onto the plane, and I waited until wheels-up before leaving the airport.

This was the first time that a Rohingya refugee was allowed to be resettled to the United States in years. The process was an enormous lift, that took international and interagency coordination. My diplomatic skills were put to the test. It was a long, long day in the airport. For me, though, it was worth it. We didn’t just help a person that day, we changed her life.

The next steps are hers, and they will be hard. She now has to learn yet another language, adapt to a new culture, and accept the fact that she will probably never see her home country again. She isn’t a refugee any more, but she’s still an exile. But there’s no doubt in my mind that her life will be better. Because of what I and my team did. I am as proud of the work we finished that day as anything that I’ve done as a Foreign Service officer, and maybe as a human being.

How I spent my summer vacation

Home leave is a paid vacation that you pay for.

Section 903 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 states in part:

“(a)The Secretary may order a member of the Service who is a citizen of the United States to take a leave of absence under section 6305 of title 5, United States Code, upon completion by that member of 18 months of continuous service abroad.

(b) Leave ordered under this section may be taken in the United States, its territories and possessions, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”

The English translation of that legalese is pretty simple: after a tour of duty abroad, every Foreign Service officer must return to the United States for “home leave.” The length of home leave isn’t specified in the law, but the current policy is that we have to be in the United States for at least 20 days.

The State Department describes the purpose of home leave like this: “Home Leave is provided to employees by order of Congress to ensure that Foreign Service employees maintain close ties to the United States while pursuing careers overseas.” That might seem like an old-fashioned concept. With modern technology, it’s easier to maintain ties than it was in days of old. We have the benefit of the internet, email, social media, and video calls to stay connected and informed with events back home. It’s almost as if we were still in the United States. It’s reasonable to think that technology has largely negated the need to maintain our American identity. A friend once described home leave as: “re-becoming the American that I never wasn’t.” But in my experience, being physically in America is different from watching a YouTube video or Skyping with family. There is value to physically experiencing America.

As much as I like serving overseas, I always look forward to home leave, when I can spend some time back in the United States. After we finished our tour in Bangladesh in June, we planned to take 25 days of home leave, during which time we would apply for visas for our onward tour to China.

It can take a long time to get a China visa.

Home leave is nice if you’re from Michigan. It usually falls during the summertime, and Michigan is lovely in the summer. I dipped my toes in three of the Great Lakes (Erie and Ontario, you’re next, I promise!), and spent a wonderful week on Isle Royale (my happy place).

Who doesn’t love it when Lake Michigan kisses their toes?

And of course during home leave, we applied for our China visas. And it took a long time to get the visas.

Instead of 25 working days, we wound up spending 58 working days (83 calendar days) in the United States, almost 12 weeks. During that time we slept in 12 different beds in nine different cities in four different states, and rented three different cars. Home leave is an example of an “unfunded mandate.” We are required to be in the United States, but we have to cover all of our expenses. We have to budget for housing and in-country transportation. Many Foreign Service families spend most of our time serving overseas, and we don’t have a house or a car in the United States. We have to plan for those home leave expenses. This time around, our home leave extended for a lot longer than we planned, and we hemorrhaged a shocking amount of our own money, and imposed on family for a place to sleep at night. So it was a huge relief when we finally got our visas and could travel to Shanghai yesterday.

Although it was sometimes stressful, because we never knew when our visas would come through, home leave was still great. We traveled around, spent some quality time with friends and family, and ate a lot of food that we had been craving (tacos just aren’t a thing in Asia, for some reason).

Home leave is now over, and we’ve arrived at our next post (Shanghai, China). After a long break, I’m ready get back to work.

Another culinary adventure!

And this one was good. Our housekeeper made a chicken dish, it’s a recipe from a local ethnic minority. You wrap chicken and other goodies up in banana leaves and then bake it. She said that she cut down a lot of the hot peppers for us. Bangladeshi food is HOT.

Now I have a problem. We forgot to ask her what the name of the dish is. I’m not sure how we’re going to describe this when we want her to make it again. We’ll probably have to show her these photos.

Hunkered Down in Dhaka

Four years ago this month, there was a serious security incident in Dhaka. After that, the Embassy enacted some serious security restrictions on Embassy personnel. It was years before the security officer determined that it was safe for Americans to go outside alone, walk around, go to restaurants, etc. By the time I arrived at post, things were getting back to normal. We still couldn’t walk around alone after dark, there were still no-go areas in the city. But we could do some normal daily tasks like grocery shopping, for example. We found a restaurant where we liked to have weekend brunch. Post even got the go-ahead for officers to bring their young children to post. The international school in Dhaka enjoys a reputation as an excellent school. Things were getting back to “normal.”

Then the worldwide pandemic hit. Suddenly “normal” was thrown out the window. A city-wide curfew shut down the city for weeks. No more eating out at restaurants. They were closed. Many went out of business. The legendarily impossible Dhaka traffic vanished. The city was like a ghost town. The State Department ordered all Embassies to stop all routine visa services, in the interest of safety. The feeling when walking to work in a deserted city was eerie, like a post-apocalyptic scene from a movie.

We went through the excitement of evacuating Americans on seven different repatriation flights, during which more than half of my fellow officers also returned to the United States. After that, those of us who stayed behind hunkered down to wait for things to get better.

And we’re still waiting.

We adjusted our staffing plans so that people only came to work for essential work. Most of us are teleworking. Today I saw one of my coworkers in person for the first time in five weeks. Even in the Consular section, we have a skeleton crew in the office at any time. We are still providing essential U.S. citizen services.

I’m still busy. There’s always work to be done. But I’m sad that I can’t do more of the visa work that I came to Bangladesh to do. We are doing a very small number of mission-critical visas. This week I issued visas to three doctors to work in U.S. hospitals. We’re processing a handful of immigrant visas for spouses of U.S. citizens. Nothing close to the volume that we were doing back in March, though.

Because of the curfews and closures, Dhaka’s already-limited entertainment options have been reduced to almost nothing. We go to work in the morning, go home at night, and sit in our house. Luckily, we have a big house. But even a gilded cage is still a cage. I’ve been spending time on TripAdvisor, planning a vacation that we might not be able to take until next year. Which is still six months away.

We had some fun last week, moving our home office from the smaller unused bedroom to the larger. This room also enjoys better natural light.

Before: a storage room.
After: an airy and bright office. Another desk is coming tomorrow, it will be in the window alcove on the left.

So after that excitement, what’s next? Back to hunkering down.

Another Vegetable

To our surprise and delight, our gardener planted water spinach (空心菜) in one of the many flower beds surrounding our house. This particular one is above the car port. Today we got the first harvest.

How’s this for a raised-bed garden?
Better-looking than anything we can buy on the local market!

Things grow very well in this climate, especially now, during the rainy season. Vegetable-loving us are very happy.

The Elephant in the Room

Like a lot of art, not everyone “gets” these elephant sculptures. I’ve heard some negative comments. But I think they are really something. I’ve been wanting to write about this art exhibit in the Embassy for a few months, and finally have a few minutes to share some images.

A little background: Bangladesh is the reluctant host to nearly a million refugees from Burma. The Rohingya crisis has spawned many tragedies, both humanitarian and environmental. The two combinesd in an unfortunate clash that happened when human beings and wild elephants needed the same space.

Refugee camps in southeast Bangladesh

A large refugee camp sits right on top of a migration ground for wild elephants. Unfortunately there has been loss of life on both sides, as neither the confused elephants nor the panicked refugees know how to handle the situation.

A Bangladeshi artist had an idea. If the people understood the elephants, maybe they would seek ways to coexist and avoid conflict. His idea was to make life-size sculptures and place them in the refugee camps.

Elephant sculptures in the field.

His next insight was to convince the people to not just accept the elephants. He explained to me: “they have to love the elephants.” His approach was to ask the people for their old clothing. He used the scraps to make the “skin” for his elephant sculptures.

On display in the Embassy

The artist loaned three elephants to the Embassy. We have them on display just outside the main door. Aside from the patchwork skins, they are very lifelike.

An elephant…

I had realized that art could be a tool for social activism, but I had only thought about that point in the abstract. This project uses art for conservation and disaster relief. That’s pretty meaningful. I’m grateful to Mr. Shadhin for lending his work to the Embassy for a few months.

Finally getting the garden in shape

Our “garden” is really a collection of pots on the flat roof of our house. It’s the same concept of a raised-bed garden, I suppose. But our version is a lot less attractive.

The guy that we hired to take care of the yard is also supposed to do our garden. It’s taken a while, but he might finally understand what we want.

The mistress of the garden enjoys her project.

We inherited about 30 basil plants. They were already on the roof when I moved in. I like basil as much as the next guy, but 30 plants is objectively too much. Especially when they are not really “plants,” but are arguably “bushes.”

That’s a lot of basil.

When we asked the gardener why he planted so much, he hemmed and hawed, then said that he likes to eat it. I think maybe he has a side business where he sells it. That doesn’t bother me, far be it from me to get in the way of his side hustle. As long as he plants what I want, too. We told him that he had to limit the basil and make room for what we want.

Now I have a lot of kale…

We convinced him to separate the kale out into individual pots. It’s starting to take off and grow quickly. This variety has flatter leaves and the stalks are tender and edible. I think we made a good choice.


We also have a healthy beanstalk. And I didn’t have to trade a cow for it! 🙂

Not magic beans, just tropical weather and lots of rain.
The peas are a work in progress.

The next challenge is to teach our housekeeper how to cook the kale. She calls all leafy green vegetables “spinach,” for some reason. We have been served what we would call “spinach,” but also vegetables that she calls “long spinach” (morning glory or 空心菜, and “red spinach” (I don’t know the English word for it, in Taiwan it’s called 莧菜). I guess we can call our kale: “roof spinach.”

Mosquito Fogging

This happens almost every day in my neighborhood, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. It appears to be an attempt to kill mosquitoes. It might kill some of them, but not all. Not by a long shot.

A guy runs around with a fogging machine. He shoots the stuff into the drainage sewers, where I guess the mosquitoes hide. It leaks out from drains further down the street.

The smell is pretty noxious. Every time we hear the lawnmower-like sound, we run around and turn off all the air conditioners. We don’t want the fumes to get sucked into the house. If it kills mosquitoes, it can’t be good for other living things. Like us, for example.