CLOs in KL

A few weeks ago I traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a week long Community Liason Office (CLO) training. It was my first trip to Asia, and the first job training I’ve had in a very long time, certainly the first since JR joined the Foreign Service. There were 19 other CLOs and the whole week was wonderful. The group leading the training did a fantastic job of keeping things interesting, and I have a ton of great new ideas (now I just need to find the time to implement them) for Tbilisi. I also feel like I made 19 new friends!

It was a long journey to KL, with two interesting things that happened just before we landed. With no warning or preamble, a voice on the intercom announced  “Carrying drugs into Malaysia is a federal crime and punishable by death.” Alrighty then. Images of Brokedown Palace flashed through my mind as I imagined a lifelong prison sentence in a foreign country, with no Kate Beckinsale to keep me company.

A few minutes later, another unexpected announcement: “In accordance with local laws, the flight attendants will now walk through the cabin spraying insecticide.” Um, okay? I covered my face and hoped for the best.

Once I reached my destination, it was pretty smooth sailing. The days were packed with training and then some scheduled evening events, and when we didn’t have something organized as a whole group, smaller groups broke off and made plans for dinner, shopping and sight seeing. I had a great time and enjoyed the chance to do something new and different. Here are some pictures from the trip.

Although it was only a week away from post and I met so many amazing people, it was probably the longest I’ve been away from my family. Traveling solo was fun but I was ready to go home!

Frozen

No, this is not a post about letting it go or sisterly love.

Sorry.

It’s about my current EFM (eligible-family member, that’s what I am as JR’s spouse overseas) employment situation. While we were on our maternity med evac, I interviewed for and was offered the position of CLO Coordinator at the Embassy. I’ve wanted this job basically since I learned it existed and I cried when I opened the email. Granted, I was 57 weeks pregnant and an emotional time bomb, but the point is, I was super excited. The Community Liaison Office (CLO, get it?!) is tasked with things like welcoming and helping newcomers adjust at post, providing crisis management and support services, acting as a liaison for spouses and family members interested in employment and schools, planning events for the Embassy community, and being a general source of information.

We had a wonderful CLO when we arrived in Kosovo (cheers to you, JBF!). It was our first post and in many ways, we were clueless. For me, I was anxious to feel settled and to start working as soon as possible. The CLO was helpful in sending out job announcements, discussing possible opportunities for other community involvement in Pristina, and they had weekly events that we could participate in to get to know the city and people. As soon as we learned we were headed to Tbilisi, I immediately emailed the CLO here. I asked to be added to their newsletter and weekly mailing lists. Both of those include advertisements for nannies and vehicles, which allowed us to line up a nanny and a car before we had arrived at post. I also reached out to ask about employment opportunities, and the CLO wrote back right away with information about the types of positions that would be available when we arrived.

Transitioning to a new post and home is not easy for me. In the Foreign Service, some of life’s most stressful events happen not only all at once, but repeatedly every few years. Moving to a new country, where English is definitely not the main language, establishing a new home, starting a new job (or being without a job), making new friends – it’s a lot. You are living in a brand new place, but often only in your temporary housing, you don’t have most of your things, no car (super fun when you need to install a 30lb car seat to take your child anywhere – and then you made it to the grocery store in a taxi but you STILL have the 30lb car seat to deal with), not even knowing how to find a grocery store or a Diet Coke (spoiler alert, they only have Coke Zero here). While others may land on their feet faster, I rely on the CLO office a lot in the beginning, and their support has made a huge difference for me and I want to pay it forward.

I’m super, super excited about this new opportunity. But there’s a REALLY big catch. Perhaps you recall that the new President signed a Federal Hiring Freeze on January 23, 2017. This freeze has major implications for current and hopeful federal employees, and it’s also a pretty big deal to us EFMs. It can be extremely challenging to find an Embassy position as an EFM. At our current post, there are more spouses who want to work than there are available jobs. Financially, it would be really hard for us to continue in this lifestyle if I were not employed. Mentally and personally, I want to be working. I like working. I’m lucky that my current/old position is allowing me to stay on until things are resolved. It’s mutually beneficial because they can’t announce the vacancy for my position or hire for it until the freeze is over. But others here are waiting and waiting and WAITING for a job. And it sucks (sorry Mom, I know how you feel about that word.)

EFMs provide critical support to our Embassy missions around the world. It saves the government a big chunk of money to hire someone who is already living here as opposed to paying to move an officer here. It’s also impacting spouses and families in ways I hadn’t considered. There are several posts that are unaccompanied – meaning they are considered too dangerous for families to live there. An exception can be made in some situations for spouses who obtain an EFM job at the unaccompanied post. In those instances, the spouse can live and work with the officer at the post, so it’s no longer unaccompanied. For people who had these plans coming up in the next few months, everything is on hold for them until the freeze is lifted. This could mean the officer will depart for the post as arranged, but the EFM/spouse can no longer go because they no longer have a job. Or a place to live. Oh and they’ll now be separated from their spouse for an unknown amount of time.

To bring it back to how this is directly affecting me and my fellow EFMs at this post, we are all in a crappy state of limbo. Waiting for the freeze to end, waiting on security clearances, waiting for jobs to be posted, just waiting. Our current CLO coordinator is departing at the end of April. She has one part-time assistant who will be leaving in June. Those positions – and a second assistant – cannot be filled until the freeze is over. The work they do is particularly important during upcoming transition season (starts in May because many FSOs with children try to move during the summer to be ready for the next school year) and if we were to face any type of security or crisis situation here.

I can’t put into words how frustrating and disappointing this situation is as a whole. We are constantly reading news about major threats to the State and USAID budgets. I want to yell – do you not know what kind of work is being done here and why it’s so important? Even our top military leaders think cutting funding is disastrous and would threaten citizens at home and abroad.

I don’t know that anyone is listening, though. To be more productive with my frustrations, I’ll include these links that explain the issues further (and far better than I can). If you only have time for one, please click on the first as it’s super short and really explains how much the State department does with such a small amount(1%. One teeny tiny percent!) of the federal budget.

So until next time, I’ll just be waiting for the thaw.

What do the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) do for the American people? With just over 1% of the entire federal budget, they have a huge impact on how Americans live and how the rest of the world perceives America.
https://www.state.gov/r/pa/pl/2017/267416.htm

State department funding is critical to keeping America safe.
http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/27/politics/generals-letter-state-department-budget-cuts/

Trump’s Cuts to USAID Would Imperil the United States

A helpful breakdown of foreign aid.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/which-countries-get-the-most-foreign-aid/