During my years living abroad, my father in North Carolina has often asked me what I miss most about home. The answers that first come to mind have to do with food — North Carolina barbecue, biscuits, and Bojangles’ fried chicken.
Even more importantly, I miss the sense of belonging in our community and the willingness of neighbors and even strangers to help each other. In Asheboro, my hometown, people will inquire about your life story while standing in the grocery store check-out line. Good manners and making others feel like family are part of what makes us North Carolinians.
This sense of warmth and hospitality was what I wanted to convey to the Americans I served at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, from 2012 to 2014. It was my first assignment as a Foreign Service Officer — and where I witnessed the effects of the nearby Syrian Civil War. I worked in American Citizen Services, the office that provides assistance to Americans overseas in emergency situations. My colleagues and I helped hundreds of U.S. citizens trying to return home from Syria.
All U.S. embassies and consulates have an American Citizen Services office. It should be your first call if you find yourself in an emergency abroad. We help U.S. citizens stranded overseas get emergency passports and return home.
If a U.S. citizen is arrested in a foreign country, we visit them in prison to make sure they are treated appropriately and know how to hire a lawyer.
If a U.S. citizen dies while abroad, we work with the next of kin to make arrangements.
When a natural disaster or a political crisis puts lives in danger, we send out emergency messages and conduct welfare checks on U.S. citizens in need.
One of my toughest cases was that of an American woman who I’ll call “Jane.” Jane’s parents divorced when she was a child and her father abducted her, taking her to Beirut without her mother’s consent.
As an adult, Jane was diagnosed with schizophrenia. When the Lebanese police notified us of her situation, she was living in inhumane conditions in her father’s house, her mental illness left untreated. We worked with local authorities to have her admitted to a psychiatric hospital and receive ongoing medical treatment.
When we found out that her mother had died and she had no known relatives in the United States, my colleagues and I continued to assist and visited her regularly. By the time I left for my next assignment, Jane was stabilized and thriving despite the awful situation we had found her in.
My work in Lebanon and since has taught me an important lesson — many Americans travel abroad unprepared for emergencies.
There are several tips for ensuring a safe trip.
First, learn about the country you will visit. You can read at travel.state.gov about visa requirements, laws, customs and medical care in the countries you are visiting. The State Department issues travel warnings for many countries, including Lebanon.
Next, make sure you have a valid passport and know how to contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. You should also check with your health insurance company to make sure you have medical coverage overseas, as well as evacuation insurance.
Finally, sign up for our free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at STEP.state.gov. You can receive travel and security updates about your destination, and it will help us contact you in an emergency.
So as you prepare for summer travel abroad, please know that U.S. embassies and consulates are there to help. And who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky enough to encounter a barbecue-loving North Carolinian to assist you.
About the author: Georgina Scarlata serves as an Economic Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.