Wednesday, February 2, 2011

US Citizens Left Behind by US Government


Taken while hiding out with my neighbors during the looting on Saturday, January 29
I am proud to be an American, but I am extremely disappointed in my government and the way it has handled the crisis in Egypt, particularly the evacuation of its American citizens.

When moving overseas, Americans are told to register with the State Department. If you incur any problem while in a foreign country, you are told to contact the US Embassy. How reliable exactly is our US Embassy? If my experience during this crisis in Egypt is any indicator, every American should be worried.

The Egyptian government cut access to internet on Thursday, January 27 and then our mobile phones were disconnected on Friday, the Day of Rage. As Saturday saw mass destruction throughout Cairo, many Americans, including myself, began calling the US Embassy.

No answer.

Then, because the only form of information we have besides our calls to one another is a message flashing across every international news screen: US Consulate urges all Americans to leave. That’s all well and fine in theory, but just how did they expect us to leave? The airport in Cairo was bombarded with people attempting to flee so much so that even the outside was full with people unable to get in the airport doors. Then there was the issue of curfew which called for no movement on the streets, meaning you were unable to get a ride even if you managed to get a flight out (although most flights were grounded).

Calling repeatedly. An Egyptian answers and immediately puts me through to an automated voice system that gives five options:
If you are calling to obtain information about your US passport, please press 1
If you are an American citizen traveling overseas and would like visa information for a specific country, please press 2
… and the list continues with other options that were not relevant to my situation whatsoever.

Then the television flashes to, “The US is evacuating Americans.” This was only partially correct. It should’ve read, “The US is evacuating American Embassy employees and their families, to hell with the rest.” Are our only concerns those that remain political? Non-embassy personnel registered with the State Department were never notified, and now no one is present at our Embassy to remotely offer any advice and/or guidance.

Then we begin to receive news slowly but surely. Two friends of mine were able to call out and were dispatched directly to the US. The person on the phone explained to both of them that the US was sending evacuation planes and in order to make a reservation, we would need to email egyptemergencyusc@state.gov including our name, phone number and US passport number. Excellent news considering we had no internet access. When this was brought to their attention, they said that we would need to have a family member or friend from the US email the information and then someone from the State Department would call that friend/family member who would then be in charge of contacting us to let us know the reservation was confirmed.

That’s not even the best part of this whole process. The US government said it would evacuate Americans on television, but I bet it didn’t mention how it was going to send us a bill for the evacuation. When asked how much this “bill” would be, the government worker said, “We can’t disclose that information at this time.” My friend said, “So can you assure me that I’m not going to get a bill for $10,000?” The response: “No, but if you can’t afford it, we can put you on a payment plan.” In addition to that, the evacuation planes were only going to drop us off at some yet-to-be-determined European country (reports claim Cyprus – although that small island can’t handle 100,000 Americans, Greece or Turkey) and then we were expected to fend for ourselves. So not only would we be billed some unknown amount from the US government, then we’re responsible to pay for room/board in some European country – because Europe is cheap and then expected to pay for a flight back to the US. Grand total: Bill Gates’ butt cheeks are clenched just thinking about it.

While I understand that there are 100,000 Americans living in Egypt, I cannot for the life of me understand how our own Embassy and government could treat us in such a manner. Not once did they ever notify us about the ensuing crisis, why even register with the State Department in the first place? They say it’s to alert us in case of an evacuation, but I’m proof that this is simply untrue. The US sends so much aid money overseas, we have so many people volunteering, working for NGOs and helping other countries’ fragile infrastructures and their people, but when it comes to a regular American citizen – the US government seems to be helping everyone else but its own.

Basically, I can’t afford for the US to rescue me. Cheers.

Brees and I inspecting our neighborhood watch's blockade

15 comments:

  1. Holy crap, LeAnne. I've been following your blog for about a year and a half now and since this crisis has been brewing in Egypt, I've thought about you. When your blogging went quiet for a few days I thought you had fled.

    To know you've been pretty much ABANDONED by our own country is disgusting !!! This post makes my stomach turn.

    Please stay safe and keep us all updated. Even your lurking readers are thinking of you.

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  2. Well said LeAnn - I don't even bother to register with the US Embassy anymore - although the warden for South Sinai is a neighbor of mine - so she kept me updated with what was going on. In the past, when I needed my Embassy they did nothing for me and I continue to expect nothing from them.

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  3. I think you're being unfair. It's hard for me to read this having worked at an embassy and having good friends who work at the embassy in Cairo and are dealing with this from the other side. Maybe it could have been handled better but I am amazed the US Embassy even tries to help its citizens abroad considering that most people move to a foreign country of their own free will and sense of adventure. I'm not trying to be cruel - I commented on an earlier post saying thank you for what you are saying. I just want to offer my opinion that there are people in the embassy who work very hard for US citizens and have to stay behind in situations like these even as their families (who give up a stable life in the US to move around every two years) are evacuated without them.

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  4. Hi Bridget,

    First of all, thanks for your comment. While you may not agree, this is my account. Furthermore, I would like a list and contact information of those that have remained "behind in situations like these even as their families are evacuated without them."

    The overall point of this blog entry was to highlight the difference in what the US government is saying on the national news as to what is really going on. It is 9 pm here on February 3 and even now, the only time I hear of planes is on the news (which I haven't heard of anything lately). No information as to how to get on, how much it cost, etc. That is the point and one in which I don't think you can dispute.

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  5. Just as one example, here is my friend's blog. She evacuated with her three small children as her husband stays behind as essential staff at the embassy (in his case, American Citizen Services). There are others who don't have blogs or whose blogs are private.

    I don't mean to discount your experience. Like I said, it was just hard to read this right after reading emails from friends on the other side and I wanted to stick up for them. But you are welcome to your own opinion especially since it sounds like it was extremely frustrating.

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  6. I have to agree with Bridget. The embassy has far bigger worries than finding each and every American who moved to Cairo of their own accord and help them out. The embassy there is far too bloated (and not very well run) anyway. You have to be responsible for yourself.

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  7. I can appreciate the outlook, but you're forgetting that the State Dept says they will notify us if we are registered. Not every American is registered. So if the US is "urging all Americans to evacuate" and sending planes - then isn't it their responsibility to ensure that every registered American knows rather than me seeing it on the BBC or CNN, but having no way of going? I'm pointing out simply that the government is allowing, and for the most part has allowed those of us living here, to believe that they are doing something when in fact they're not. This is undeniable and inexcusable. Actions speak louder than words, especially words that are untrue.

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  8. Totally agree ... but are you really surprised? When I lived there I did not even bother registering, even though some of my American friends urged me to. My thought was that I didn't necessarily want to be associated with the US government in a place that so clearly has issues with us.

    Governments (any govnt for that matter) rarely live up to their billing. Why should ours be any different?

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  9. LeAnne, I am one of those who left my husband behind. I have several friends (one with a baby, one with two small children, one with five children) who had to leave their husbands behind. In addition to those, there are at least ten more people that I know personally who are still in the Embassy. We do not know when we we will see our husbands again; it may be up to six months. The embassy personnel have been working late into the night and sleeping in their offices to help American Citizens get out of Egypt. I talked to my husband last night, and it was the first time he had been home since Sunday, and the first real meal since he had eaten breakfast with us on Sunday.

    Currently he is contacting a list of hotels to find any American Citizens left who would like to take a charter flight out. There is one more day, tomorrow, when you can do this, and here is the link with information: http://egypt.usembassy.gov/pa020411.html.

    Please keep in mind when you criticize the embassy that they are not your parents, they are not omnipotent, they are not omniscient. They are normal people who are simply trying to do a job in a situation that they've most likely never faced before.

    You are an adult. You were responsible for getting to Egypt, and you have just as much ability to think through your situation as anyone working at the Embassy. Now that the internet is available, you have just as much information as they do. The embassy has not tried to be opaque, it has not tried to hide information. This situation has taken everyone, including the US Embassy by surprise.

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  10. First of all, thank you for the information. I suppose I need to make it clear that at this time, I am not looking to leave although on Saturday, everyone – including myself – was terrified. My blog is based upon my account of trying to reach the embassy in addition to my friend’s account. I do not place blame in the individual men/women, but I am faulting the government.

    You are correct. I am an adult. And in with that, as I’ve explained over numerous other comments, I am letting people know that it isn’t as cut and dry as national coverage would allow you to believe. And your information is the first I’ve received as to what’s going on. Once again, as stated per registering with the State Department, we are supposed to be informed as to evacuation plans, planes, etc. instead of just receiving information about how we may a) email though no internet access was available at that time and b) will receive a bill for some undisclosed amount. No thanks.

    I understand that there are a great deal of Americans here. Most of us know one another and could receive information through the grapevine, though to date that has yet to happen. It isn’t about contacting all 100,000 Americans that were present and/or registered with the State Department, it was getting information to us. We were all playing the telephone game so it would’ve circulated. However, I was informed via some British friends that the same thing occurred with their embassy.

    And you’re right, perhaps I was a bit disillusioned myself. I remember living in the US and hearing news of evacuation of all American citizens and thinking that I was so thankful that we took care of our own in such a way. Therefore, I wanted to highlight that it isn’t like that. So whether you agree or disagree, once again, this is my account. That being said, I really do appreciate the information that you’ve provided and will post it in another blog for any other American living here to see.

    Kind regards and I hope your husband (and friends’ husbands) return safely.

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  11. Leave it to the U.S. government to tell Americans they can get info on how to get out of Egypt at an email address, nevermind their lack of internet access.
    That's like the time the government reformed medicare prescription packages for senior citizens and gave them a webpage link where they could go for more information on it, not paying attention to the fact that most senior citizens didn't have access to the internet or were possibly computer illiterate.

    And I really hope that the charging Americans an undisclosed amount to evacuate them isn't true. Considering many of them might have just lost their jobs since they were in Egypt, how exactly could they afford to pay for it? And dropping them off in a random remote European country to fend for themselves, that's just cruel.

    Ah, gotta love bureaucracy at it's best!

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  12. Here is another way for Americans to get help if they need to leave. Contact your representative from your home state. You can find their info at www.house.gov or www.senate.gov. I know of some people that have had success going this route.

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  13. Poor LeAnne you sound like a broken record having to explain yourself time and time again..they are getting the point this is your point of view ha ha.... My sweet girl I surely pray hard for you though these trying times and all american's stuck by their own accord or whatever fault.. Keep your head high your doing great

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  14. LeAnne,
    Thanks for the first-hand info. Nobody can speculate on accuracies or inaccuracies without having lived through something like this. I admire you for hanging tough and putting all of this info out to be seen.
    Peace and Blessings,
    Laura McShane

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  15. @Bridget/LizzieD/Sherwood family

    I'm sorry but I have to agree with LeAnne on this. I'm British, I too live in Cairo and ultimately I got myself out but the response of the two Embassies (US and UK) was nothing short of pathetic.

    Whilst I understand you having quite significantly skewed views and loyalties due to having friends and families within the bodies in question that does not make the response of the two governments either adequate or acceptable.

    I'm very sure that the individual embassy staff were working their behinds off, I am sure that they wished they could help everyone but the fact is, the response was feeble and, quite frankly, a shambles.

    However, the real issue LeAnne has and that I echo is the spin put out by the government(s) in question that they were airlifting out their citizens. They did nothing of the sort. They scooped out the embassy related folk.

    For the record, the families of these people DO have a choice in the matter, I have no great sympathy for them having to move every two years....that is part of the job/life. Just as is the case with regular expats in Cairo, they had a choice and they chose to have a life which necessitates this.

    Interesting to contrast the impotent response of the UK and US with that of, say, Australia which managed to both contact and evacuate its citizens perfectly effectively.

    I'm not criticising individual embassy staff members but I am 100% critical of the embassies in question. Exceptional though the circumstances are/were, they should and must learn lessons from this shambles.

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