Duty Calls

Growing up, the phone in our house often rang at 2 a.m. My mother spent much of her career delivering babies, thus we spent much of our childhood hearing (and generally ignoring) middle of the night phone calls. They were as routine and unremarkable to me as any other phone call. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that calls after bedtime were out of the ordinary for most people.

My revelation came when, after getting a call from a drunk friend at 1 a.m., I found my roommate standing transfixed at the end of my bed.

“Who died?” she mouthed to me.

“What??” I said (probably too loudly and no doubt looking at her incredulously). “Why would someone have died?”

It turned out, according to my roommate, and somewhat surprisingly to me, that apparently for most people any call after 10 p.m. automatically portends some level of doom.

As the years have gone by I’ve thought a lot about how something as unremarkable as a phone call can be experienced so differently by two people. I’ve also realized that my roommate was right and middle of the night calls are not normal for most people.

But, like many things in Foreign Service life – at least overseas – what is normal for “most people” is not normal for us. I have gotten used to middle of the night calls once again, because every six months (and in some posts much more frequently) almost every officer at every post in the world gets to be The Duty Officer.

The Duty Officer is the de facto “on call” person after-hours at every U.S. Embassy and Consulate on earth. Bottom line – if you are an American citizen in trouble – no matter where you are outside of the U.S. – you can call the closest Embassy or Consulate and someone will answer the phone. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. 365 days a year. Every evening (usually after 5), every weekend and every holiday, the person who answers the phone will be the Duty Officer.

B and I had back-to-back “Duty Weeks” recently – his over a holiday weekend – so we were treated to the unmistakable duty phone ring (loud and insistent) several times every night – and multiple times, day and night, during every weekend/holiday – for two weeks. It made me not only appreciate the dedication my mother had in accepting middle of the night calls for almost 30 years, but also the State Department for providing us, and all our fellow U.S. citizens, a human being at the end of the line 24 hours a day, every day, during times of crisis, trouble or, sometimes, just inconvenience.

The calls we get range from Americans who have lost their passports, to being denied boarding on a flight (this has been especially common during COVID times), to reporting a loved one missing. Sometimes the calls are, in fact, because someone has died. Sometimes they are because someone has been arrested. Occasionally they are calls from someone in the U.S. who is traveling to Turkey next month and “is just wondering what the situation there is right now?” Needless to say, these can be particularly frustrating and it’s difficult not to say “Well, the situation here is that we are 7 hours ahead of you, so you are waking me up at 3 a.m. to ask this very much “non-emergency” question, but otherwise all is well – enjoy your trip!” Tempting as that is, however, we simply answer the question and wish the caller well.

And, while I’m pretty sure many Americans have no idea that the duty phone exists, or who is answering the line if they call the “emergency” number at a Consulate or Embassy (or what time it is there), even fewer understand how limited our ability to help can be. Because the calls we receive are generally from Americans who are in Turkey, it can take some time and effort to remind them that they are in a sovereign nation that controls its own immigration, customs, visas, and all other laws and regulations. Likewise, we don’t have control over private companies (US or Turkish), so if Turkish Airlines decides not to board a passenger, our most useful guidance is usually “continue to work with Turkish Airlines.” That sort of “non” help can be extremely annoying to our callers, but in truth it is the best we can do in most circumstances.

As anyone who has braved international travel during the pandemic knows, things can – and do – change rapidly and significantly, so these types of issues occur daily now. B and I even found ourselves at the wrong end of the head spinning travel advisory flip-flops this summer. We were supposed to fly from Spain to Bulgaria to visit friends, but, the day before our scheduled travel, Bulgaria decided that Spain’s COVID numbers were too high and Spain went from being an “orange” country to a “red” one. No Bulgaria for us! But as we learned – and as we routinely tell our duty phone callers – such is life when you choose to fly during a global pandemic.

Regular (right) and EPDP (left)

It is also eye opening to realize how many things about international travel that we take for granted are mysteries to people who are less used to customs and immigration regulations. We routinely talk to Americans who didn’t realize that American citizens are required to exit and enter the United States with a U.S. passport. Because the U.S. has no consistent exit controls (as opposed to, say, Turkey, where your passport is stamped not only every time you enter the country, but also every time you exit) many dual citizens leave the U.S. on their foreign passports (not having obtained a U.S. passport) and then find that they cannot return home without getting an emergency U.S. passport while they are overseas. Every day my colleagues and I process at least one (and sometimes as many as 5) “EPDP” (Emergency Photo Digitized Passport) for someone who has arrived in Turkey without a U.S. passport, or has had their passport lost or stolen. At least once a week we have someone who has recently been naturalized who believed they could travel with just their new Naturalization Certificate.

Sometimes the duty calls are really difficult – parents whose children have been taken by the other parent, families calling because a loved one has died in Turkey, people who are searching for friends or relatives they cannot reach and who they believe to be in trouble. Twice in the time I’ve been working in “ACS” (American Citizen Services) we’ve had elderly Americans who have been stranded in the “transit” area of the Istanbul Airport because they missed their onward flight. One woman spent almost a week lost in the airport. Her family (and I – through them) knew she was there because she was going twice a day to the same snack stand and getting herself some food and coffee with her credit card, but beyond that no one could get in touch with her. Because of COVID we are not allowed into the airport at all – and we are never allowed beyond passport control. Without knowing where this woman could be found we could not convince the Turkish airport authorities to look for her. Eventually, one of her children flew to Istanbul from the U.S., then had to buy an onward ticket to an other destination so that she could enter the transit area. She found her mother and got her home, but it was a very stressful week for everyone.

From the FTC scam information website

We also get a lot of calls from victims of scams. Most are romance scams and many are incredibly elaborate. The caller usually believes that his/her finance (even occasionally “spouse”) has been transiting Istanbul when they have been involved in an accident, or have been pulled over by security/the police/customs because they are carrying large amounts of money/gold/medical equipment. They tend to follow a similar story line – the person is believed to have been working for the UN or NATO or the U.S. Military in a war zone (Syria most often) or on an oil rig in the Black Sea – and, after being paid with cash/gold, they are on their way home to reunite and marry the caller. The victims often have copies of a passport or ID card that they send to us as “proof” that the person exists, but, inevitably, we can see at a glance that the passport has been tampered with electronically. It can be heartbreaking to try and convince someone who believes they are in love – and are often older individuals who appear to be really lonely – that the person who has been wooing them – and to whom they have often sent thousands of dollars – is not real. According to the FTC, romance scams cost people a total of $301 billion in 2020 – yes that’s a B! Sadly, often the victims have been duped so effectively that nothing we say or do seems to help and we routinely have people who continue to email us begging us to help their stranded American “fiancee” even after multiple calls and emails from us confirming that the person is not a U.S. citizen.

Being the Duty Officer is never high on anyone’s list of fun things to do, but it is one very tangible way that those of us living and serving overseas get to see how our work can directly impact – and sometimes help – American citizens. I have noticed in the weeks since B and I finished our most recent Duty Officer service that we both jump any time we are out and about and someone happens to have the same ring on their phone as is programmed into the Duty Phone. Luckily, that only happens during the day and our nights are back to being phone call free – that is, I suppose, until the next time one of us is the Duty Officer.