People see embassy work as a cushy job full of perks and busywork, but a job at an embassy requires tenacity — lots of it.
I’ve worked at the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC for three years and five months, and my tour of duty will end in April this year. The job is challenging. In fact, I can honestly say it has never been easy.
I was hired to work as both a visa officer and an assistance-to-national (ATN) officer. As an ATN officer, I helped Filipinos who were in distress and who had reached out to the embassy for various reasons, big or small. Ultimately, the ATN unit’s mandate is to protect the welfare of Filipino nationals.
We receive a wide-range of concerns, including petty theft, traffic violations, domestic violence, child custody battles, illegal transport of drugs, rape, mental illness, and even death. Some people ask for repatriation, whereas some do not, even when the alternative is potentially fatal.
The reality of embassy work
Let me give you an example. I once received a call from a woman audibly panicked and in despair. She told me her partner had been physically abusing her for a long time. When I asked if she’d reported this to the police, she told me she had not, nor would she ever dare. We ended the call, and I made a follow-up call two days later when I did not hear from her. The woman picked up the phone and told me she was okay, that her partner was actually a nice person, and that his temper sometimes simply ‘got in the way’. I insisted she make a call to the police, but she adamantly refused.
Another case involved a man who worked on a cargo ship. He’d been detained by the police during a drug raid onboard the ship, which was docked in the Caribbean. The embassy made sure he was represented by a capable lawyer. I made numerous calls to check in on his condition, and every time he would ask me to pray for him and his family, who had no knowledge of his fate. He wanted to keep it that way.
A case that truly touched me involved a Filipino woman who wanted to return to her country from the US because she found she had virtually no one she could turn to. Her husband had left her and taken their children with him. This alone caused her intense emotional anguish. She could not find a stable job, and the only person who’d looked out for her in three years was an American neighbour.
She was so relieved when I told her that the embassy had approved her request for repatriation. We brought her to the airport, and the next day I called her sister to make sure she’d arrived safely.
Checking up on her even after her departure from the US was something I felt I had to do after thinking about her for so long. Her sister cried while thanking me for my effort. I told her it was the Philippine government that had brought her sister back home, not me. I was merely the messenger of this good news.
Taking your work home
Before taking this job, I’d been advised to compartmentalise information so as to separate my life from those of my cases. This is easier said than done. Sometimes the stories I hear get to me, and stay with me for quite a while. While the Philippines can be a very dutiful country when it comes to helping its citizens overseas, government resources are far from infinite. We still have to carefully prioritise cases, which after hearing so many detailed accounts of personal hardship is everything but a matter of rational calculation.
The job of working in an embassy may sound insulated from real-world affairs, but that misses the point of what an embassy represents. Embassies are safe havens for a nation and its citizens on international soil — their job is to recognise and respond to the dangers citizens face abroad. Their rooms and corridors may look cosy on the inside, but they are bastions of information most people would rather not know.
For those with the right level of tenacity, however, working in an embassy is almost always fulfilling. This is especially true when we see overseas Filipino communities receiving recognition for the contributions they make to their host countries.
This line of work may consist mostly of problem-solving, but don’t imagine it is without heart. On the surface, it may look as though I’m about to leave all that behind me, but I know my work in that role will follow me around for some time.