THE BLOG
09/29/2014 03:29 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

Hearts and Minds

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It's Tuesday, September 2, 12:30AM, and I'm on the phone with Islamabad. A Pakistani accent answers:

"US Embassy, how may I direct your call?"

"Hello, yes, I have a constituent whose daughter is in Panjpar and --." Click.

I've been transferred before finishing my sentence. Typical "customer service".

"For English, press one. Urdu ke liye doh dabai. Welcome to the consular section of the US Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. The Consular section does not accept phone inquiries about non-immigrant or immigrant visa cases or policies. Inquiries are only accepted through our website. You can access our website at islamabad.usembassy.gov. Thank you.

I turn to my City Council aide, Dan, who is working with me into the wee hours of the night, so that we can make this call on behalf of a constituent. It's a bit unusual for us to be making overseas calls, so there's some excitement. I try again:

"US Embassy, how may I direct your call?"

"Hi, I was just on the phone with an operator there and I was directed to your recording. I do not want to be connected to your recording, please just listen for a quick second-." Click.

For English, press one. Urdu ke liye doh dabai. Welcome to the consular section of the US Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan...

"US Embassy, how may I direct your call?"

"Hi, I need to speak with your supervisor. Your voice message is not helping us. E-mails to you are not helping us. My constituent showed up in person in Islamabad to get this resolved, with his US Passport in hand, and was turned away at the door. He was told that only American Born US Citizens could be admitted to the embassy, for security reasons. I don't even need to complain about how we're being treated here, I just need to speak with someone who can address his issue."

A hopeful pause. The operator is considering our plea. She has to, right? Surely this customer service stonewalling is unusual for an American Embassy.

Click!

For English press 1. Urdu ke liye doh dabai. Welcome to the consular section of the US Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan...

"US Embassy, how may I direct your call?"

"Hi, I need to speak with your supervisor. I do need to complain."

"What is your complaint, sir?"

"I've called a few times. You have to understand that, like you, I work in government. I was just trying -- ." Click!

Dan is laughing riotously and I'm dumbfounded. The message bounces around my imagination and the recording morphs in my mind:

Thank you for calling the American Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. We cannot help you. Turn back. There is no hope for you here. America does not want you.

One year ago, my constituent was told that his daughter-in-law's passport would be mailed to her address in Pakistan, so that she and her daughter could join her husband here in Cambridge. The applications were approved -- it was a time for celebration, when two lovers could finally plan to be reunited. Then, my constituent claims, he received a suspicious call, informing him that the passport may not reach its destination unless a $10,000 cash payment was made. Since then he has called, e-mailed, and visited Islamabad in person, at great expense, simply to resolve this issue.

When I first heard the story, I thought there was no way -- no way -- that sort of corruption could exist in an American Embassy. I told the constituent: "There are probably two ways this will go when I call on your behalf. Either you've made a mistake and they're going to tell us how you can remedy it. Or, they've made a mistake and will correct it by ensuring the passport gets to Panjpar."

But now I'm wondering..."Could this man's incredible story be true?" I've visited this place -- of naked abuse of power -- before. I'm Egyptian-American, I've been shaken down for baqsheesh by government officials. And one bends to corruption when the men on the other side of the glass essentially have a rubber stamp in one hand and a gun in the other. Once in Uzbekistan, a police officer stopped my vehicle because of our foreign plates. He gestured as if to rip up our registration and wouldn't release us until we bribed him with the only thing we had in the car -- a tin of sardines. After the fear subsided, we laughed: "Post-Soviet Republics, amiright?"

Right now, the scariest thing for my constituent is the not knowing. Not knowing when his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild will be reunited. Not knowing when -- and if -- he might break through the bureaucracy to a sympathetic ear, in order to redeem what the American government has promised.

For me, this anecdote is even more unsettling when put into context amidst American foreign policy in the post-Bush era. I remember when Rumsfeld said that we would win over "hearts and minds" as part of our misguided brand of American nation-building. So this whole ordeal is a kind of simple, unexpected litmus test: if we can't get consular services right and can't treat new citizens with basic human dignity, we can be fairly sure that higher level foreign policy directives are off kilter. And what does this mean for Cambridge -- or for America? Just another helpful reminder that a whole set of residents across this country may be suffering quietly, in ways quite a few of us will never be subjected to -- and many will difficulty even imagining.