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The Kindness of America's Foreign Service Officers

As a Zimbabwean whose life has been enormously affected by United Stated Foreign Service Officers, I was deeply disturbed by the news of the recent attacks on the US Embassies in Libya and Egypt. I was sickened that people would resort to senseless violence to register their grievances. While I won't pretend to understand all of the issues at play in the Middle East, for me, an attack on a US Embassy, and the diplomats that work there, is incomprehensible. Even if one expresses frustration at American foreign policy, the diplomats that represent the United States are a picture of kindness and respect, providing an important, and perhaps heroic, role in maintaining foreign relations.

When I hear about violent incidents on American Embassies by local mercenary groups, it touches me on a personal level. I grew up with Foreign Service families and experienced first hand their compassion and generosity towards individuals of different cultures. Their humanity has touched and influenced my personal life. While many foreigners tend to have a negative perception towards the United States, I feel that I am in a good position to talk about how well American diplomats represent their country abroad.

My mother was a housekeeper all her life, working almost exclusively for US Embassy families. From the time I was born until adulthood, all of the families she worked for treated my sister and I like their own. My mother used to fondly tell me of one American family who would come back from work and play with me so she could concentrate on her duties. She said the family would take me everywhere they go, help with my baby needs, including visits to the clinic to such an extent that nurses believed that I was actually a son in the family.

After growing up in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, I joined my mother in Harare as a teenager, and was welcomed to live with the American family she worked for. Like previous families, they were sensitive to our relative poverty and would chip in with clothes, study books, bus fare even providing me with part-time work. This was enormously helpful at the height of the Zimbabwean economy crisis, when the price of goods literally doubled everyday. With the help of American diplomats, I attended college for a few valuable years. My mother often wondered how we would have survived the economic crisis without the generous support of the Americans.

There was Lucy Hall. My mom credits her for helping us buy a house, an almost impossible task for a single housekeeper woman in Zimbabwe. It was an incredibly difficult endeavor for her to qualify for home ownership, but Ms. Hall took time take from her busy Embassy work to drive my mother through one bureaucratic Harare City Council Office to another. My mother used to say Ms. Hall's biggest wish was to leave Zimbabwe knowing my mother had a place to stay when it was time to stop working. She left with her wish having been fulfilled.

There was Win and Sue Dayton, a Foreign Service family who paid for my driving school lessons fees, which were notoriously expensive at that time. There was Glenn and Randee Warren, who helped helped me raise the exorbitant visa and transport money to travel to South Africa.

But what makes the Foreign Service families truly unique is not what they gave, but their desire to continue the relationship with the people they meet, through all walks of life. They constantly exhibit a desire to continue to share life experiences through real reciprocal relationships. Many of the families my mother worked for continued to send letters to her after they left, at times with photos of graduating children she used to carry on her back. They would remember her birthday, and send Christmas packages for our entire family. They would write to ask how she was doing, how the health of the family was, and how her new employees were treating her.

Every one of the Americans Foreign Service officers I met exhibited an authentic desire to understand our Zimbabwean culture. They sought to find common ground, valuing our common humanity over any perceived differences. Even though I was poor, and they gave much to me, they always asserted that I had something valuable to offer to them. They asked me about my hopes and dreams, for both my country and myself.

I understand there is a lot of anger in Libya, Egypt, and the Middle East. But whatever is at stake, no grievance justifies an attack on a US Embassy, and American diplomats. Their kindness and dedication is one of the more unappreciated aspects of American foreign policy, and if nothing else, I hope that these attacks can highlight the good work that American diplomats do. They changed my life, and they change lives in the countries they serve every day.

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