Sunday, July 7, 2013

July has come and gone...

Good afternoon friends!

This is a short update, as we'll be heading back to the good 'ol U S of A in a few short weeks for much needed R&R, and I don't anticipate much excitement will happen between now and then, other than, you know, work and such, which isn't all that exciting most of the time.

July 4, 2013

Just a few days ago, our nation - and those of us in international posts around the world - celebrated the 237th anniversary of American independence.  I mentioned briefly in the last edition that I was responsible for planning this celebration for the Ambassador, having been chosen for the assignment a scant five weeks after arrival at post.  My first post.  With no previous experience in the Foreign Service.  And for which I had no real knowledge of the people, sections, departments, processes or hierarchy of any embassy community from which to draw.  It was quite an honor, but also quite a heavy responsibility, as typically the Independence Day celebration at an embassy is the principal public diplomacy event of the year (unless it is a year for a national election) for the Ambassador.

The Embassy invited about 1000 foreign guests to a two-hour fete at the Ambassador's residence; business people, politicians, artists, musicians and other important Haitians who had done or would do business with the Embassy. (The Prime Minister and several other MPs and legislators were there, and the President later called the Ambassador to let her know how sad he was to have missed the party!)  We met at her home on Wednesday, July 3rd at 700 pm.  Several large tents and canopies were erected on the back lawn, principally to provide cover for the bartenders and wait staff who would serve a variety of canap├ęs and drinks from 200 bottles of American wine and a variety of other drinks.  A small jazz ensemble - featuring an Argentinian female vocalist who lives in Haiti singing American jazz standards in English - played throughout the evening.  The shade of the many large trees on the property, and a high cloud deck that day, provided a respite from the Haitian sun, and while a 30% chance of rain is the daily standard here, no rain fell that day (sooo grateful for the good weather!).  After the young chauffeur/singer gave the crowd chills with his renditions of the national anthems of the US and Haiti, speeches were given, followed by a champagne toast, and a short fireworks show.  From all reports, I've heard it was a successful and enjoyable event, and despite my fluctuating blood pressure and pulse rate as we dealt frantically with a last minute substitution of the fireworks purveyor, I also enjoyed myself.  


The next day being a US national holiday, the Embassy was closed, and so the entire Embassy community - Americans and Haitians alike - organized a cook out/potluck and July Fourth party of our own, but without the big, expensive fireworks display or live band.  Still and all, quite a few people came to our little corner of the city here in Canne a Sucre for an evening of fun and games.  We even imported the traditional American picnic games of an egg and water balloon toss.  Left quite a mess, but also caused quite a few laughs.


Should you have nothing better to do with your life for the next few minutes, here's a little summary of the events for your enjoyment:  http://youtu.be/A3eyn-n7Q2Y


The Job(s)

So work for me continues as expected, although just last week I transitioned out of the non-immigrant visa unit and into the immigrant visa unit, which operates at a slower, but more methodical, pace. After almost five months in the NIV unit, I adjudicated about 3500 tourist and other travel visas. Yesterday I did my first real immigrant visa interviews, and adjudicated just under ten.  One of the principal differences between the two types has to do with documents.  NIVs require few, if any, real documents by the applicants.  Mostly it is based on the three- to five-minute interviews, and whether or not an applicant can convince an officer during that interview that their ties to Haiti are sufficient that they will undoubtedly return to Haiti after their trip to the US.  In IV, applicants have to supply medical, financial and other detail-heavy documents to support their case, often including DNA test results, in order to establish their ties to the person in the United States - either an American citizen or a legal permanent resident (the holder of a so-called 'green card') who is petitioning for them.  Should they convince the officer of their ties to one another - that they are truly related or have a strong relationship - and their documents support their application, then an immigrant visa can be granted.  Neither type of visa (NIV or IV) guarantees entry into the United States, however. A visa simply gives a person permission to travel to the US, i.e. to a port of entry (airport, border crossing, what have you).  Ultimately, Customs and Border Protection officers must make the final decision, right there at the airport or border crossing, wherever the port of entry exists.

Come the new year, I'll move again, this time to American Citizen Services, the special unit that aids and assists US citizens in a variety of ways.  Sometimes US citizens have children who are born in Haiti that need birth documents, sometimes AMCITs lose their passports and need a new one issued, sometimes they get in trouble with the law, sometimes the worst happens and an AMCIT dies while visiting Haiti.  Unfortunately this has happened several times over the past few weeks, keeping our ACS unit very busy aiding grieving family members here and back in the States.  One of the victims a few weeks ago was actually a member of our Embassy community, a young USAID Foreign Service Officer who had been in Haiti only a few weeks at the time of her death.  She and several others were involved in a serious car accident when hit virtually head-on by a truck driver who later fled the scene.  It was difficult for all involved, of course most definitely for her husband and children.


Sophie continues her work in the Community Liaison Office, researching and writing articles for the Embassy newsletter the "Tap-Tap;" compiling information on rates of pay for domestic help hired by members of the Embassy community; and creating a document to assist in providing health insurance for that same domestic help.  About the time she started there at the end of May, a cadre of college students arrived to be summer interns at the Embassy, just like her.  They have turned out to be a great support system for one another, and many have become fast friends, really adding to the overall experience for Sophie.


Kate recently interviewed and was offered a position at the Embassy, working as a Consular Assistant who will be taking fingerprints and processing DNA tests for IV applicants.  She awaits the completion of her security clearance, a necessity to work in an Embassy, and will likely start soon-ish, or perhaps after we return from our trip back to the States.  In the meantime, she's been very busy assisting a summer camp program at the orphanage we visit (SMDT) most days each week, teaching short classes in a variety of subjects or conducting activities to keep the kids active and engaged during their camp time.  Anyone visiting us gets the opportunity to join her during these sessions, and must be prepared to be overwhelmed with physical affection by the children who live there.  


A visit by #1 son

Tommy has had a busy summer working at the country club, and is also training hard for his Iron Man competition later this summer.  He was just here for about a week to visit - he left today, unfortunately - and of course one of the things he did was accompany Kate to SMDT during the week.  He was a big hit with the kids, lifting and carrying several of them at a time around the property.  We did the obligatory restaurant visits, and had a trip to the beach.  He was supposed to leave on Thursday this last week, but Tropical Storm Chantal put the kibosh on that plan.  Mom and dad didn't mind having him around a couple extra days, however.


Chantal and other weather events

Well, the "Tropical Storm That Wasn't" came through the neighborhood last week, and provided the Port-au-Prince area with several days of high clouds and steady light rain for about a day, causing no flooding or damage in the area.  Of course, no one knew that in advance, and so the entire nation, the entire Caribbean region, battened down the hatches in preparation for the worst.  The Embassy closed early on Wednesday, and then made the decision to close all of Thursday as well.  When it became clear the storm was going to be a non-event, employees were called in late on Thursday and life went on as usual.  Of course the hurricane season has just begun, and so more excitement is sure to come as the summer goes on.

Oddly, at the same time Chantal was doing virtually nothing here on the island of Hispanola, some crazy summer thunderstorm was dropping five inches of rain in three hours back in Bloomington, causing still more water damage in our home.  Ironic, isn't it?


I had another interesting trip in traffic recently as well, somewhat weather related.  A few days before the Fourth of July party at the Ambassador's, I had to go up to her residence for preparations and rehearsals.  There was some rain during our rehearsal, which kind of washed out the practice we needed, but the rain didn't last too long and - once again naively - I wasn't too worried.  A colleague and I hopped into our Embassy car and headed back to Canne a Sucre, which under normal circumstances would take about 30 to 45 minutes.  Due to the light rain and some 'road construction' in front of the Embassy (well, at this point it's only adding curbs the full length of the road, or about ten miles, all by hand, and then the actual road work will start), we made it close to home and once again just stopped.  Literally, I could have thrown a rock or a baseball to hit the roof of a house in the compound when we were stuck in traffic.  I could see the houses, and the Embassy was no more than a few hundred meters away, and we just stopped moving.  More than 90 minutes later we managed to cross the street into the compound and get home, the entire trip having taken more than three hours.  I'm telling you, traffic here is something else.


The coming month or so

In just about three weeks we'll be heading back to the US for a spell.  For me, it will be my first time off the island since our arrival in late January, and is well overdue.  Circumstances haven't really allowed me to go anywhere for more than a weekend (other than spring break in the DR back in April, but that was on the same island), and now I have leave built up, so the time has come.  Kate and Sophie will be leaving just ahead of me to head back to Minnesota to trade in the our last remaining vehicle in the States for a newer model, and to get ready for our little vacation.  I return on August 9th and we head to northern Wisconsin for a week on the lake in Iron River, near Lake Superior.  Tommy will compete in the Iron Man in Louisville on August 25th, and we'll be there to cheer him on.  We then return to Minnesota to get Sophie ready for college in St. Peter, Minnesota, where she will join Tommy at Gustavus Adolphus this fall.  I'll return to Port-au-Prince around Labor Day, and the fun will start again.

We are extremely excited for this upcoming trip, and can't wait to catch up with family and friends after our first long stint here in Haiti.


Life is chugging along, and so far is good.  We hope you can say the same.

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