By Romina Garber/Herald staff
May 1, 2004
[Reprinted with permission of Miami Herald]
MIAMI--Afghanistan is a world away from Hialeah, but former Hialeah residents are among the U.S. Government employees helping to re-establish the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Amber Baskette, 29, joined the team in Kabul as a consular officer about a month ago, welcoming the chance to work "side by side with very dedicated people. The United States needs to have a presence here," she said.
Alberto Fernandez, 44, a public affairs officer, also arrived about a month ago. "It's quite a large embassy, and it didn't exist 6 months ago," he said. "It's a beehive of activity here.''
Everyone at the embassy works 7 days a week. ''Afghanistan is a special case because you do work such long hours and the job does consume you, so there's not a clear division between personal life and work life,'' Fernandez said. "The temptation to work every day is hard to resist.''
Living conditions for the U.S. team in Afghanistan are difficult. There are more than 150 people living and working on a 4-acre compound. Permanent staff, like Baskette and Fernandez, live in trailers on the compound, two people to each trailer. Temporary staff have up to 12 people per trailer.
For a single person like Baskette, the close quarters and intense work provide an opportunity to forge bonds. "You get to know colleagues by working, living and eating on the compound. You make friends with people you otherwise wouldn't meet," she said.
Her inspirational story? "One of my employees in Afghanistan was jailed multiple times by the Taliban just for working for the U.S. Embassy and he still loves his job. I think that's incredible," she says.
The situation is not the same for Fernandez, who is away from his wife in the United States.
The two believe the American presence in Afghanistan is helping the country recover. "I think the American presence here has been a force for good," said Fernandez. "It's one of the poorest countries in the world, but there's been a lot of good done by the Afghani and American people."
Kabul is considered a critical threat post since it is a "war zone," and the two are on 1-year assignments.
The city is just starting to rebuild its infrastructure, and travel outside the embassy is severely limited during the day and banned at night.
Shortly after arriving at her post, Baskette had to drive 90 minutes to Bagram to visit the battalion aid clinic at the U.S. air base there. On her way, she passed "camels, overturned trucks and bombed-out buildings. There are mines everywhere," she says.
With such sights, it's easy to get depressed, especially in an environment where everyone is working all the time. So it can be productive to have a little fun as well. "My birthday was last week, so we had a big party and everyone came," says Baskette. "There was dinner and a dance--it was a time to relax."
Baskette is a consular officer, whose duties include helping Americans do everything from replacing stolen passports to evacuating in an emergency. A graduate of Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School, she joined the foreign service 5 days after graduating from Georgetown University with a bachelor's degree in African studies.
Before going to Kabul, she helped evacuate Americans fleeing fighting in Brazzaville, Congo, and she even spoke on behalf of the United States at the UN General Assembly. "I love the State Department because you get to move around all the time," she says.
Both Baskette and Fernandez are proud of one project that will come to fruition this week: The first group of Afghan women scholarship students will embark for studies in the United States. "They're young girls, very smart, and they're going to the U.S. I can't wait to see how they do a year from now," Baskette says.
As a woman with power, Baskette--by her very presence--sends out a strong message in the male-dominated society. "I am a woman in charge of a section of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan," she says. "That is a statement--a form of diplomacy in itself."