It is hard to believe that it has been more than one year since we seemed to press “pause” on life due to COVID-19. I can vividly remember March 13, 2020, the last day our Crisis Management Training (CMT) team gathered in person without masks and social distancing, prior to what we thought would be a few weeks of “situational telework.” Little did we know then that we were headed towards working from home almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which would last one year and counting. Around the same time, the State Department put out a Global Authorized Departure cable for employees and issued a global Travel Advisory recommending U.S. citizens reconsider travel abroad.
U.S. embassies and consulates around the world launched an unprecedented global effort to bring home thousands of U.S. citizens while working with severely limited staffing footprints. Consular sections overseas worked around-the-clock in the midst of the pandemic to safeguard U.S. citizens. In all these instances, valiant Locally Employed Staff (LE Staff) worked side-by-side with their American colleagues, putting themselves and their families at risk to help get U.S. citizens to safety.
This blog is dedicated to the global LE Staff cadre, who in the past year made invaluable contributions to the massive logistical effort to repatriate more than 100,000 U.S. citizens from every corner of the globe. These colleagues often put themselves in harm’s way at the front line of diplomacy to advance U.S. national interests. This list provides but a small, representative sample of the undaunted courage of our LE Staff around the world. We applaud your service and dedication!
Over one year ago, Morocco was one of the first countries in the world to completely close its borders because of COVID-19. With little warning, thousands of U.S. citizens and residents were suddenly trapped, panicked, and desperately looking for answers. The phones at the U.S. Consulate General in Casablanca started ringing off the hook and the 15 exceptional LE Staff worked tirelessly to answer the call. Pulling several all-nighters, the team played a pivotal role in helping repatriate over 3,000 Americans on Consulate-arranged flights, while operating under a national curfew and a health state of emergency put in place by the Government of Morocco. Their composed professionalism and kindness throughout the stressful experience not only helped U.S. citizens get home safely, but also encouraged their colleagues to persevere. Even after the main repatriation effort, when an American retiree passed away in Morocco amidst the pandemic, a group of CG Casablanca’s American Citizen Services (ACS) staff bravely led a team to inventory his apartment and figured out how to ship his belongings to family in the U.S. – a difficult task in normal circumstances, virtually impossible given COVID-19 restrictions.
A Consular Section’s response to an emergency is only as good as the contacts it has cultivated prior to a crisis. U.S. Embassy Rome’s Mina Tavano, ACS Supervisory Specialist, exemplified this and ensured her team had the necessary working-level contacts when several cruise ships with COVID-positive U.S. citizens on board docked in Italian ports. Mina liaised with cruise lines, the Italian Coast Guard, and local ports to obtain ship manifests in record time; monitored the passengers’ health (including when some were moved to local hospitals); facilitated communication between them, their families, and the cruise lines; and ensured they safely departed Italy for the United States. Over the course of the past year, as Italy became the epicenter of the pandemic’s landfall in Europe, Mina analyzed ever-changing Italian government decrees restricting movements and regulating entry procedures, and prepared countless updates to public messaging and website information. Even amidst the pandemic, Rome’s famously complex ACS work continued. Mina handled extremely difficult mental illness and destitution cases during Italy’s strict COVID lockdowns – situations made all the more challenging by the complete suspension of local social services. Mina’s team worked with destitute U.S. citizens, their families in the United States, and local entities – the handful of soup kitchens, hotels, and banks that remained open – to meet their immediate needs while arranging their repatriations to the United States.
San Salvador, El Salvador
On March 17, 2020, when El Salvador’s president announced in a flash the closing of the country’s international airport due to COVID-19, the Consular Section at U.S. Embassy San Salvador knew it was time to proudly wear their consular response gear and help repatriate thousands of U.S. citizens back home. Fortunately, the team was ready to tackle this challenge given its whole-of-mission culture of preparedness and solid crisis management training leading up to the global pandemic. Working as a cohesive unit, they arranged the safe evacuation of over 18,270 passengers in less than six months.
ACS LE Supervisor Lili Flores rose to the challenge. Lili and her team superbly connected with airport officials to arrange alternate flights for U.S. citizens waiting at the airport. Lili then worked with the Embassy’s IT team to set up a call center to respond to the overwhelming number of calls flooding the Embassy’s phone lines. Critically, call volumes decreased significantly when Lili and her team started using an online form to collect U.S. citizen repatriation information. This form was posted on the Embassy’s webpage for U.S. citizens to fill out proactively, saving staff countless hours of labor-intensive work.
About the Author: Dayana M. Umaña is a Crisis Management Trainer at the Foreign Service Institute at the U.S. Department of State.