Dear President Obama

Dear President Obama,

You have a lot of work to do. I mean, aside from running the country, you have a lot of work to do.

Where you ask? I’m talking about your American Citizen Services department. Specifically those that are offered and found through embassies around the world. While I can’t speak for other embassies, I can share a few experiences our family has had with the one here in Haiti.

I should preface this by saying that I am Canadian, and while most people might dismiss anything I have to say right here, I think it actually puts me in a unique position that might be valuable to you. I’m in fact married to a dual citizen. He holds Canadian and US passports, so we’ve actually experienced both sides of the coin so to speak. And, let me tell you, they are very different sides of the coin.

I hear you make references to how the world is viewing the US and that it’s improving. I might be able to share with you some things that you can be doing to help that image around the world. The sad thing for me is that all of the suggestions I have for you actually apply to how your own citizens get treated while living and working abroad.

Let me go back a few years. While living and working in Haiti our mission base was victimized by an arson attack, and threat notes were left stating that unless we took a specific course of action our family would see physical harm. Death threats, actually.

Because my husband holds two passports he has a right to enlist, or at least contact his embassies to see what help they can offer. He chose to do so. The responses we got were so vastly different that it was almost baffling.

The person who took the call at the US Embassy, after hearing about the situation, responded with, “I’ve had to deal with over 250 kidnapping threats and incidents in the last year. I don’t have time for this. You should just go home.” End of story. No offer of assistance. No actual semblance of even caring.

The Canadian Embassy contact? We had met her because of some adoption paperwork, so she had some knowledge of who we were and why we were here. Her response? “Chris, I know you’re responsible for the organization and you can’t just pick up and leave. The thing you need to focus on is how to be safe and keep doing what you’re doing. Do you have armed security? You don’t. Let me make some phone calls.” And in an hour the same security company that the Canadian Embassy used called us to set up an appointment.

Throughout our whole adoption process the people at the Canadian Embassy were beyond helpful. If they didn’t know something, it sometimes took several conversations, but they were willing to find out, and after they found the information they were very helpful and respectful in helping us apply it.

Any time we have gone to the Canadian Embassy, for any reason, we have always been treated kindly and with respect.

In the wake of the earthquake we contacted the Canadian government to see what we needed to do with our adoption. When we went to the Canadian Embassy because we all thought Olivia was applicable for evacuation on a humanitarian visa the Embassy staff were working in the parking lot. They were haggard and tired from working round the clock. It was 20 days post quake and many of them hadn’t had a day off. They were visibly worn out. But you know what? They were so kind to our family. They were so helpful. They were gracious. In the middle of their exhaustion, in the middle of their grief from being in the city and processing everything that had happened, they were still serving valiantly.

A few months ago, because we’re registered with the Canadian Embassy, we received an email from the new Vice Consul, indicating that someone from Consular Services would be in our area over the weekend and would be available to help anyone in need of consular services. It just so happened my husband had a passport renewal all completed, he just hadn’t had a chance to drop it off the last time he was in Port au Prince. The VC himself came to our house, sat down and reviewed the application to make sure everything was there, drank a cup of coffee with us, had a good visit, and submitted the application for us. On his weekend. On his day off. When the new passport was received at the Embassy someone phoned to let us know it was ready for pick up. On that visit the consul asked us what our experience had been with the Canadian Embassy because he genuinely wanted to know what Canadians in Haiti were experiencing and how things could be maintained or improved under his posting.

A few weeks ago my husband had to renew his US passport. He filled everything out and made an appointment with the US Embassy to take it in. That part was pretty painless, but rather than being able to pick up the new passport at the Embassy itself, you know, at a specific document office or window maybe, he had to pick it up from a messenger service across town. I’m sorry, but legal personal documents in the hands of someone other than your embassy are always cause for heart palpitations. That’s great that you have confidence in them, but I can’t really say the same thing after living here for more than 5 years. I’m sure many others would agree with me.

We have two children who my husband is allowed to transfer his US citizenship to. There’s a lot of paperwork to fill out, which he did before bringing the application to the appointment earlier this week. At the appointment he was asked to fill out a form that seems utterly ridiculous. You see, the form required that he write down the dates, every single one of them, that he traveled in and out of the US for more than 24 hours, since birth. 

He is 37 years old.

And he was born in Canada to an American mother who’s family lived within hours of the US border. His immediate family also lived within an hour of the US border on the Canadian side. So, aside from several trips per year to visit family in the US, it wasn’t abnormal for his family to go over the border for gas or groceries, as many Canadians in those areas do. The people behind the window seemed to think that it was completely reasonable to request that he account for every. single. trip. of. his. life.

I would like to ask who on this planet, in even normal circumstances, would be able to do that? Did you know your government is requiring this? Could you do it? Could those behind the window do it themselves? I would also like to point out the fact that while we receive stamps in our passports when going through a port of entry into your country by air, border patrol does not stamp your passport when driving across the border. In fact, until about 5 years ago there was no passport required to cross the border, just a proof of birth, like a birth certificate. In 1974, when my husband was born? Not sure if anything other than stating your intentions was required.

Is it just me, or does this little piece of paper seem ridiculous?

To top it all off, when my husband politely explained his situation to the woman working at the window, she said she needed a moment and went to speak to her supervisor. He then returned to the window, and holding the document in the air, in a very disrespectful and belligerent manner said, “Sir, THIS is an AFFIDAVIT. That means it’s a legally binding document. Once you put your signature on it you are declaring that all the information listed is true. Do you understand that??? By refusing to fill it out you can put yourself in legal jeopardy. If you sign this without disclosing every bit of information asked for, and there is a legal suit against you in the future requiring that you account for your whereabouts in the US this document can be used. It can also possibly put your son’s citizenship in jeopardy in the same situation. Do you understand THAT???? I can’t advise you on what to do, I can only inform you of the possible consequences of your actions and refusal to fill out the form. Do you UNDERSTAND THAT??? Again, THIS IS AN AFFIDAVIT. A legally binding document.” (Just in case we weren’t capable of understanding him the first time…)

At this point my husband politely stated that, he wasn’t refusing to fill out the form, he just didn’t know how he could possibly do it in the detail that they were requiring. He said he could account for the last 5-10 years because of his expired passports, but aside from that he didn’t have any more details.

You know what? I find it disgusting that your very own citizens are treated that way. I mean, I know that’s a generalization of sorts, but I also know that our situation is not an isolated incident. I know that many other US families have had similar encounters with the people that work in US Citizen Services.

My question is, why?

Why are the very citizens of your country treated this way? So disrespectfully. Like they are second class citizens. It grates on me when those in your employ treat people who are speaking to them with kindness and respect like this. My husband did nothing to warrant being spoken to this way other than express that he had difficulty filling out a form. Whether the form itself is even reasonable is actually a side issue. The point is that he was asking for help, asking for someone to tell him how to make this work in his specific situation because it wasn’t normal and he didn’t know what to do, and he got treated like he was trying to cause problems or someone who was intentionally being difficult.

I want to share something else. In our line of work/ministry we’ve gotten to know many people from all walks of life here. A lot of foreigners. All doing different things. Some work with other NGO’s and non-profits. Others work with the UN. And some work for the US State Department. We know that some of those state department workers weren’t serving in Haiti because they really wanted to, but rather because it looks good on their resume and it means better postings in the future. They were essentially just doing their time before moving on to something better. What a contrast from our contacts at the Canadian Embassy who requested to extend their postings in Haiti for as long as the government would possibly let them, even when they were living in steel portables in the parking lot for housing, simply because they loved their job and serving people here.

I wish that our situation was isolated, but the foreign community here isn’t that big, and people tend to talk amongst themselves. Sadly, I know our situation isn’t abnormal. I know that US citizens get spoken to and treated very poorly, by their fellow citizens, when going to the embassy here for assistance with anything from passport renewals to emergency services.

As I said, I know that you’re looking for ways to improve the image of the US around the world. I think actually acknowledging it is a great first step. Can I suggest a great next one? Perhaps reminding your government staff working over seas, in situations where they are serving fellow citizens, that doing their jobs with politeness and kindness, recognizing that the people on the other side of the glass are coming to them because they need help, because they don’t know what to do, because they are often living lives that involve giving of themselves and dealing with daily frustrations and complications of their own, isn’t a choice, it’s a job requirement. When you’re standing on the other side of that window, being treated poorly, and yet knowing that how you respond to the person on the other side will determine how your case gets handled it’s a feeling of powerlessness. In fact, it’s bullying and abusive, if you want to get down to the core of it. An Embassy should be a place of refuge for it’s citizens, not a place where they get badgered and treated like potential criminals.

People often say that Canadians are very mild mannered, too complacent, too polite, timid… I could go on. Do you want to know something? I AM PROUD TO BE CANADIAN. And when I go into my embassy where I am treated with respect and asked if I need help with anything else, I am even prouder. Please know, I am not bashing Americans. Remember, I’m married to one. I’m just saying there are some major issues when American citizens get treated so badly in their own embassies. And, like I wrote, I wish these were isolated incidents, but I know they aren’t, and that makes me sad. It could be so much better. Can’t you raise the bar a bit?

Sincerely,

Leslie

**Late edit: Just so you know this isn’t an isolated incident you can go to THIS POST. I would recommend reading the comments too. Very enlightening.

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About Leslie

I'm Leslie. Wife. Mother. Missionary. In the day to day my husband and I are responsible for running Clean Water for Haiti, a humanitarian mission that builds and distributes water filters to Haitian families. Living in Haiti full time provides lots of stories, and as I tell my husband, our grandkids probably won't believe most of them. Maybe writing them down will give me some credibility.

11 thoughts on “Dear President Obama

  1. great letter! I would suggest you also send it to Hilary Clinton – a perspective that the Secretary of State should be aware of too

    • Thanks Diane! I haven’t actually “sent” it to anyone. This was more of a vent session. But, maybe there’s something to be said with your suggestion.

  2. Wow, what a powerful letter. I’m really sorry your experiences with the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince have been so discouraging. I’m an American Foreign Service Officer (although not in Haiti), and although I have nothing to do with Consular services at my post, I have friends who do and I cannot imagine any of them ever treating anyone like this. The one time I had the opportunity to work as a part of American Citizen Services (being on-call now and again as “duty officer” is part of every FSO’s experience), I tried my very best to be respectful and helpful– even the time I got a call at 3 in the morning (not my best time of day). I’m sure that there are Embassies where your experiences are the norm, but I certainly hope they’re not universal.

    (As for wanting to go to Haiti, I actually tried for my next post, and was motivated in large part by your blog. Unfortunately, the job ended up getting canceled, but hopefully I’ll have the opportunity in the future.)

    • Hi Christina,

      I’m SO glad that us sharing our lives on here has given you the desire to work in Haiti. I know what we experienced isn’t true of every worker, it can’t be, but it’s very sad to hear how common it is here. Just so you know I’m not off my rocker or being over sensitive about this check out this blog post and the comments following: http://livesayhaiti.blogspot.com/2011/10/common-sense-deployed-elsewhere.html

      Thanks for reading! I hope that if you do ever get posted in Haiti that you’ll let us know so we can meet you.

  3. No truer words have been spoken! I am a U.S. citizen. When adopting my first daughter in China I was to show three years of tax return forms to the American Embassy. I had dutifully copied every page of the three forms but one of the forms was missing a “schedule A,” which just shows the deductions I took. I guess they didn’t copy that page because I didn’t take deductions.

    The rest of the form clearly showed my income and everything they needed to know. So there I am, a tired single mom, and the lady at the embassy says, “There is a page missing.” I look and say, oh, I don’t know what happened but you can see there how much I made and how much taxes I paid. She leans forward and says meanly, “Well you aren’t taking that baby home without that page.” I had had that form done at a place that was only open in tax season, which it wasn’t. I was supposed to go home the next day. I was a tired, overwhelmed single mom. She was not just being firm, she was mean and seemed to take delight in the fact she had the power to keep me in China for lack of a useless and unnecessary piece of paper.

    I had to stay up all night and friends had to track down how to get someone to copy that one BLANK page to send to her before she would approve my daughter’s visa. I won’t even go into the other stories I have from my adoptions and other paperwork fiascos, but I will say that when I had gone legally blind from cataracts I could not afford to get removed, the Medicaid system in my county turned me down for aid so I could get the cataracts removed. The social worker I was assigned said casually, “Just finish going blind and then go to Social Security and get disability payments.” FINISH GOING BLIND!! Instead of getting on Medicaid and getting surgery so I could continue working – and driving to get food for my kids as a single mom! Thankfully I found a charity to take out one cataract and can work and drive again but the other eye is totally blind and I still cannot afford medicines I need for diabetes and other health issues because I make “too much money,” slightly below the poverty level. Would Canada adopt me!?

  4. Very well put, Leslie. But actually, Americans applying for anything at the U.S. Embassy have it good! Try being a Haitian national and going for a visa…or even a visa renewal. Customer service is simply a foreign concept at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince. This is something that any reasonably competent ambassador should be able to pick up on and correct, and with a new ambassador now perhaps things will change… but the U.S. Embassy track record in the 32 years I’ve been in Haiti doesn’t leave me too optimistic.

    • You’re absolutely right! I feel sorry for a lot of the people that have to go in and do business there – Americans, Haitian-Americans and Haitian nationals. I understand that working cross-culturally is difficult, especially when the majority of Haitians don’t actually speak fluent French, and the majority of FSO’s don’t speak Creole, but there should be a certain amount respect given people. Sadly we find this attitude even when we fly or drive across borders between Canada and the US. At Christmas we drove down from Canada to Seattle to fly back to Haiti after visiting my family. When my husband presented our passports the Immigration officer badgered him because our kids didn’t have US passports yet. It was ridiculous. As a Canadian it’s always interesting to me to watch the actual exchanges. TYPICALLY, when it’s an exchange with any US government official there is an air of frustration, suspicion, antagonism etc. Not always, but a lot of the time. It makes people feel nervous and wonder why they’re being spoken to that way. On the Canadian side, exchanges happen more quickly and efficiently because of the respect. When you don’t feel you’re being suspected of something you can clearly communicate what you need and actively participate in reaching a solution. Something to think about.

  5. American citizen here with children who are dual. We live in Nova Scotia and I cannot even begin to tell you how amazing the US Consulate is here in Halifax. I’ve heard stories throughout the years about the poor service in Haiti and it makes me sad. As an American I feel so blessed to be treated so well with staff often going above and beyond the expectations of their position; always taking time to answer my questions when I just “drop in” without an appointment, and assisting us when our Haitian born children have not had the required documents. I’m so embarrassed that the same courtesy is not extended to Americans and others in Haiti.

    • Hi Beth!! Nice to “meet” you :) I didn’t know you were American. I’m so glad that the service you get is good. I imagine it’s a case by case, or rather, embassy by embassy, situation. It’s just unfortunate that it’s so consistently poor here in Haiti. It’s already hard living and working here, it’s just so frustrating to go there and be treated so poorly.

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