Sunday, October 27, 2013

Under an October Haitian Moon

Under a Haitian Moon

Fok ou konnen kote ou soti pou ou konnen kote ou prale.

You must know where you come from to know where you’re going.
Haitian Proverb

A Little R & R 
It’s been a bit since you all last heard from us, largely because we ‘did a Europe’ and basically took off the month of August.  Well, not exactly, but it was pretty close. 

One benefit of life in the Foreign Service is that some posts allow for one, two or three “R&R” trips (if you have the leave available), where airline tickets and some other associated fees are paid for by the State Department.  Given the relative difficulty of living in a place, one might get a different number of R&Rs over the length of a tour.  Because Haiti is classified as one of the more difficult places in which to serve, we get one R&R each of the two years we are here.

We had a wonderful time absorbing the silence, the clean fresh air, the company of family and friends, and the sights, sounds and tastes of the northwoods for a week when we rented a cabin on Twin Bear Lake near Iron River, Wisconsin.  We returned to Minneapolis for a few days, and then drove to Louisville, Kentucky to cheer on Tommy in his first-ever Iron Man competition, which he completed (amazing!) with a time of 14 hours 44 minutes and 56 seconds (truly astonishing when one considers he never competed in anything like it before; here he is crossing the finish line - ).  We drove back to Minneapolis for a few days again, then moved both Tommy and Sophie into their respective dorms/apartments at Gustavus for the start of the school year, which was rather more bitter than sweet, but c'est la vie.  Of course this is all part of the normal course of life, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.  All in all it was a fantastic respite from the oppressive heat, humidity, poor quality air and crushing poverty of Haiti, and long, long overdue after six straight months without leaving the island.  We vowed never again to go that long without a trip back the States…

Twin Bear Lake, Iron River, Wisconsin

A bounty of Iron River blueberries with Sue, Morgan, Dylan, Sophie, Tommy & Kate

Sophie & Snickers enjoying a quiet moment on Twin Bear Lake.

All the Panettis and a few Hintons in Iron River, Wisconsin.

Kate, Tommy & Cousin Tilly in Chicago.

Tommy just after finishing the 112 mile bike ride and just after starting the marathon.
This makes me smile. :)

The Song That Never Ends 
So once again the United States Congress did it’s darndest to panic the world by shutting down the federal government and bringing the planet to the edge of another financial catastrophe.  Good goin’ guys!  Looking forward to the next round just a few months from now…

Seriously, you may have wondered if or how the shutdown affected us here in the Paris of the Caribbean, and the answer is:  it didn’t.  Well, not really anyway.  A couple agencies had to furlough a few employees, but in general all things moved ahead full-speed (as much as that can happen in Haiti).  Federal offices that “provide for the national security, including the conduct of foreign relations essential to the national security or the safety of life and property” continued unabated around the world.  Embassy operations continued as normal here in Haiti, but like missions around the world, some special programming and travel were put on hold.  For example, a friend and I were to do a radio show on day three of the shutdown, but this was postponed on the first day.  In addition, a Haitian colleague from our Fraud Prevention Unit and I were going to head to the north of the country (to the north coast town of Cap Haitien and the surrounding region) for a week this October to spend five days meeting local officials and doing investigations, but that too was put on hold.

Now that the shutdown is over, life has returned to normal here, and we all anxiously await what happens next come the new year.

A Day in the Life 
I’m not sure if you knew this or not, but I actually have several different titles, as do my colleagues.  I’m not even 100% certain which of them one might say is technically my “real” title; you know, the one everyone can relate to and understand.  I am variously a Foreign Service Officer (huh??), a Vice Consul (double huh??), a Second Secretary (seriously??), a Consular Officer (is that like a Guidance Counselor?) and a diplomat (at least I’ve heard of that one!).  In addition, I am an “FS-04” and hold the military-equivalent rank of major.  (How ‘bout them apples?  However, that rank is only used for protocol purposes, for example if I ever attend a really important meeting or function and have to be placed in the right order, or not seated next to the wrong person.)  And if you’ve paid attention to the news over the last few decades you’ve no doubt seen evidence of our work doing stuff like trying to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; helping negotiate the accords in Bosnia (the Dayton Accords), Northern Ireland (Good Friday Accords) or Oslo (Israel and the Palestinians); helping write the NEW START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia; or trying to get Syria to end its civil war and eliminate its chemical weapons stockpiles.  All in a day’s work, you know.  But of course I do nothing quite so … well, exciting or important. So what is it that I do all day?

It should be fairly clear by now that I spend the bulk of my days interviewing people who want visas from me.  And while that might give a hint as to how I spend my time each day, it isn’t a complete picture, and certainly doesn’t give any indication of what anyone else does in the Embassy.  My wide audience of readers is constantly asking me for more (not really), so I give to you:  A Day in the Life Inside Embassy Port-au-Prince!  No need to thank me…  J

In a basic sense, I work in a fairly typical office building, it just so happens to be a United States Embassy, protected by United States Marines, large walls, and some pretty darn good security.  Each floor has pretty standard offices and cubicles for the 20 or so federal agencies present in Haiti.  I am in the consulate, which as you might recall is kind of a separate place, sometimes located within an embassy, sometimes not (typically only in larger countries with secondary cities of decent size).  This consulate is inside the embassy, and is a good part of the whole first floor.  Because of what we do here (among other things issue visas, which are highly valuable and secure documents, much like bank notes or birth certificate paper), the consulate has its own secure doors and guards and such, and not anyone can just waltz in when they please.  The inside of the consulate is a bit like a large, open-concept office space with lots of cubicles, copiers and filing cabinets, a few offices around the perimeter for the managers and the boss, and more than 30 ‘windows’ (kind of like bank teller windows behind bullet-proof glass) along one whole side where the interviews take place.

Applicants for visas or Americans with appointments at the American Citizen Services (ACS) unit come into the embassy compound through a secure entrance, leave phones and other things with the guards, and proceed into an outside courtyard to wait for their appointments.  They enter the actual consulate and are in a fairly standard waiting room (again a bit like a bank), hang out in a line until their turn (those applying for non-immigrant visas) or just sit and wait to be called to a window (immigrant visas).

I typically arrive around 700 am (give or take about 10 minutes), and now of course I’m accompanied to work by my best girl, who recently took a job as a Consular Assistant. By the time we arrive in the consulate, some people are already there firing up their computer, making coffee, getting started on the work of the day.  In the consulate alone there are lots of people, like foreign service officers (FSOs), foreign service nationals (FSNs, or Haitians who work for the US government), eligible family members (EFMs like Kate), and a federal law enforcement officer who conducts investigations for us.  All told, there are probably about 75 people just in the consulate (the majority of whom are FSNs – about 50 all told).

The days’ applicants for visas typically arrive at the embassy before 600 am for their appointments.  (Keep in mind that very few people have private cars, public transportation is almost non-existent, and if an applicant came from somewhere outside of Port-au-Prince they may have spent several days on the road to get here.)  Applicants for non-immigrant visas start ‘intake’ around 700 am where they are fingerprinted and their relevant demographic data and photograph are entered into our computer systems.  Officers begin interviewing them around 800 am, and typically five officers will interview 350 – 500 applicants by about noon or one.

Immigrant visa applicants have more firm appointments, and they begin intake roughly at the same time, when they check in with the FSN staff and turn in any documents that may have been missing from their file.  Then they wait until called for their interview with one of us.  Officers start interviewing around 800 am, and typically five officers will interview around 100 applicants by around noon or one as well.

In the IV unit we interview people who want to move to the US permanently, virtually all of whom start life in America as LPRs (Legal Permanent Residents, or ‘green card’ holders).  It’s up to them whether they pursue citizenship or not, and that can take some time.  IV interviews are really based on two broad principles:  the relationship the applicant has to the petitioner (who is always an American citizen or LPR), and the necessary documents required to complete an application.  (By the way, none of this is necessary in the NIV unit, where the principle criterion is the applicant’s ties to Haiti, which suggest they do not want to immigrate and will return once their trip is over.)

A file for each applicant holds all the relevant documentation:  their actual petition, passport, medical report, financial support documents, sometimes a police report if they’ve lived in another country for a year or more, a birth and / or death certificate, a marriage and / or divorce certificate, and other supporting documentation like family photographs, email exchanges, cell phone records and money transfers (to name a few).  Files then go through extensive pre-interview preparation by our Haitian colleagues who look for missing documents, flag items in need of further examination or questioning, identify items that might indicate fraud, and generally make my life at the window much, much easier.  The days’ files are arranged, and applicants enter the consulate for their interview.

Interview day for the applicants generally means seeing several people:  Kate and the other EFMs take their fingerprints, they talk to an FSN who prescreens any documents applicants may have brought along to complete their file, and then they are interviewed by an officer.

Keep in mind as well that each file can be for multiple people; imagine not just a single individual coming for their interview, but a family of five or six.  Now consider a scenario I had recently, where the American citizen petitioner was a sibling who petitioned for his two siblings and their families here in Haiti.  There were nine people altogether.  Or a more extreme case, a sibling in the US who petitioned for his four brothers and sisters and all their kids, adding up to 21 people in four separate, but connected files.  (Four of us split that one up, thank heavens!)

An immigrant visa interview begins when officers take the file to their interview window, spend time looking through all the documents checking items for hints that lead to interview questions, looking over those things which have been flagged by the FSNs, and generally getting into the mindset needed to start questioning an applicant.  Then we call the applicant to our window and swear them in, using language similar to that which you might see in courtroom dramas on TV:  “Do you swear or affirm that the information in your file and in our conversation today is the truth?”  They sign their application, we sign their application, and we’re off to the races.

An interview is a complex animal.  Documents are rarely the reason a person is permanently disqualified, so almost everything hinges on the relationship.  However, those documents can provide clues to us and give us direction for our questioning (and sometimes they are fraudulent).  For example, consider the case of an unmarried son or daughter of an American citizen.  Quite often in Haiti these unmarried sons or daughters are of child-bearing age themselves and have several children already (who also may qualify to immigrate to the US either now or in the future, if the applicant does immigrate).  We ask for the birth certificates of their children because Haitian birth documents specify whether the parents were married or not when the child was born.  Therefore, if an applicant is applying for the ‘unmarried’ category but have any children whose birth certificates both identify the applicant and say the child was born “legitime” as opposed to “naturelle”, they are not qualified for the visa because Haitian law requires a legal marriage in order to identify a newborn child as legitime.  We spend quite a bit of time sleuthing to try and suss out how an applicant might try to hide relevant details that disqualify them, and if they have then we have to apply immigration law to their case and refuse their application under the right section or sections of the law.  (Keep in mind that interviews are all conducted in Creole, which I am now doing with varied levels of success.)

Now imagine all the permutations that exist in a family, in a society.  There are somewhere around 100 different types of US immigrant visas available in order to cover all those variations and types of applicants around the world.  Haiti is the sixth busiest IV post in the world (processing about 30,000 per year), which is amazing given the size of the mission.  Most of our ‘business’ deals with about 20 of those categories, and the following is a small sampling of some of the most common that we see here in Haiti:

Immediate relatives (no numerical limits)
IR1 – Spouse of a US citizen
IR2 – Child of a US citizen
IR5 – Parent of a US citizen
CR1 – Conditional spouse of a US citizen (married two years or less)

Family-sponsored, first preference (no numerical limits)
F11 – Unmarried son or daughter of a US citizen (these folks are not legally considered ‘children’ as a result of their age)
F12 – child of F11

Family-sponsored, second preference (subject to numerical limits)
F21 – spouse of an LPR
F22 – child of an LPR
F23 – child of an F21 or F22
F24 – unmarried son or daughter of an LPR
F25 – child of an F24

Family-sponsored, third preference
F31 – married son or daughter of a US citizen
F32 – spouse of F31
F33 – child of F31

Family sponsored, fourth preference
F41 – sibling of a US citizen
F42 – spouse of an F41
F43 – child of an F41

An odd immigrant visa that is really processed as a non-immigrant visa is a K1 visa, which is for a fiancé (and a K2 for the kids of a K1).

I had a case recently for a K1 visa where the petitioner is a native-born American engaged to be married to her Haitian fiancé.  The fiancé had two children from an earlier relationship, and both kids are K2s.  We required the birth certificates of the Haitian fiancé as well as those of the two kids, and when I examined the fiancé’s birth certificate I noticed it had been altered in three places to change the last name of the fiancé to match that of the last name of the children.  The kid’s birth documents appeared legitimate, but if I was right, then the Haitian fiancé may have altered his birth document in order to match the last name of kids that aren’t biologically his, and if true, it might indicate that he and the US citizen petitioner are involved in human trafficking (trying to take kids to the US who are not theirs).  I have suggested the fiancé have a DNA test with the two children, and if it shows they are his biological children then they may get their petition approved if they can demonstrate that they are truly in a fiancé relationship. The case is in review and so there hasn’t been a resolution yet, but this case illustrates that this can be serious business.

We interview people to the tune of about 5 an hour, or until the days’ applicants have all been interviewed.  We then have lunch (there is a nice little cafeteria in the Embassy) and then have meetings or work on special projects.  We also process immigrant visa files at our desks, for example after an interview we may require the applicant to return with missing or additional documents or suggest they have a DNA test (like the K1 case above), or we may suggest a fraud investigation based on details uncovered in the interview.  When that happens, the applicant may return several weeks later with the necessary documents or the DNA test may be complete, and then the file needs to be reviewed by an officer and a further decision made.  Embassy Port-au-Prince business hours are 700 am – 330 pm, and we tend to leave work by about 400 pm.

So there you have it, a day in the life of the consulate in Haiti.  Officers in other sections (political, economic, management or public diplomacy) or with different agencies (CDC, USAID, USDA, the US Coast Guard, etc.) do vastly different work around the city, out in the country and often work directly with business and government leaders as opposed to the general public like we do.

Crazy Story of the Day:  The Major and the Tell-Tale Heart 
So a colleague was driving near the embassy recently with his FSN driver when they (surprise, surprise) ran into some crazy traffic on a Port-au-Prince back road.  Suddenly a car came directly at theirs driving the wrong way, and stopped immediately in front of their car totally blocking any forward progress.  His driver started a ‘conversation’ with the other driver using the speaker system that embassy car is equipped with, trying to convince the other guy to get the heck out of the way.  My friend was just frustrated with the whole thing and opened the door to yell at the guy in English (not particularly helpful here), and they then noticed the other guy holding a mayonnaise jar out the driver-side window.  Strange enough, but then they noticed something odd about the jar.  The other driver yelled something back at the embassy driver, who then just capitulated and let the other guy make his way past.  My buddy asked what the other guy was up to, and was told he held a human heart packed in ice in the jar and needed to get to the hospital.

Seriously, you can’t make this shit up.

Life Outside of Work 
Now you know the ins and outs of a day in the life of one Consular Officer at Embassy Port-au-Prince, about which I am sure you are eternally grateful.  A month ago Kate started as a Consular Assistant at the Embassy, working in the same section as me, taking fingerprints and processing DNA requests for applicants.  We hosted a wine tasting party here in September for about 40 people or so (the Ambassador even showed up!), conducted by a local importer of wine and liquor.  There was a little Oktoberfest celebration held here at Canne a Sucre in late September that, despite the rain, was a great success.  Our good friend Andrea moved from the consulate after a year to work her last year in the economic section, and she had a great party to commemorate the move and just allow us to enjoy one another’s company for an evening.  Yesterday we kicked off the new school year at a Catholic all-girls school in the city by teaching some English to a group of bright and energetic high school girls.  And of course we continue our association with the local SMDT orphanage, which continues to provide us with a sense of fulfillment.

During a recent visit to SMDT, we noted several major improvements to the building and grounds.  An electrician came and fixed much of the open wiring we saw throughout the building and installed a small generator so they can operate a few lights and fans in the evening.  A new water pump was installed that allows them to move water from the below-ground cistern to an above ground barrel, making it easier to dispense water.  One tent was removed and four open-air classrooms were built, covered with tin roof and complete with desks and blackboards.  A natural gas tank and line was installed and hooked up to at least one of the two gas stovetops they have, helping to reduce their reliance on dirty, forest destroying charcoal (a really serious problem here).  All in all, Carlo is not only saying the right things, but is taking proactive steps to improve the general living conditions for the kids and his family.  A US Embassy grant has been approved to help build and install a playground for the kids, and so things are really moving in the right direction.

Of course this does not mean all is hunky dory at SMDT.  The needs are still great, and the donations sent from abroad are very, very welcome.  Thanks to all who have sent clothing and supplies – from the many individual contributions to coordinated efforts from the likes of the Jefferson High School Student Council and the Prior Lake Junior Optimists, all the contributions have been well received and Carlo and his family are very thankful for the assistance.  In the event you or an organization are interested, Carlo and his mom put together a list of the most pressing needs at the moment, and if you’d like to contribute any of the following, please let me know.

Twin bed sheets
Tooth brushes
Shampoo and conditioner
Body sprays
Sanitary pads
Underwear / boys boxers
Bath towels
Kitchen towels
School shoes
Body lotions
Large plastic buckets
Laundry hampers
School glue

Any donations can be mailed via United States Postal Service to us at:
Dave & Kate Panetti
Unit 3400 Box 24

Ask at the Post Office for special rates to DPO / APO / FPO addresses.

Three or four new open-air classrooms replaced an old donated tent.

A new gas tank and line were installed.

Kate and Boudneyson being goofy.

Several doctors and nurses were visiting recently to give the kids pre-school check-ups.

Some of the kids of SMDT saying goodbye to Sophie.

Blame it on the Rain 
Several weeks ago I had a medical appointment in south Florida and we were in need of a short break, so we spent a perfect long weekend in Fort Lauderdale at a friend’s small condo not far from the beach.  Upon our return to Haiti on Monday afternoon, the skies opened up and dropped several inches of rain in a short period, which has real consequences in Haiti.  (Fortunately so far, the much predicted hard hurricane season hasn’t really developed into much, knock on wood.)

Here is a link to a short video of what a little rain can do here.  Enjoy!

So you’ve wasted another perfectly good thirty minutes of your life that you aren’t about to get back, and for that I thank you. 

As we often say to one another during our daily struggles here in Haiti, “Lavi ap kontinye…” (Life goes on…).  Generally speaking life is good for us, and we hope you can say the same.

Team Panetti at #30 Canne a Sucre.

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