Monday, January 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: From Florida to Afghanistan and beyond, American diplomats like me have your back

Living in Afghanistan without family is rough, and often I find myself thinking about my next trip home to Florida. I love visiting my family and friends in Spring Hill, driving past my old school — Springstead High School and its theater, where I have so many fond memories — visiting Pine Island and just enjoying the quiet, small-town life. It's a treat to get a break from the fast-paced and dangerous environment of Kabul, although the work here is interesting and presents unique challenges.

I'm currently in charge of American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. My job is to help American citizens in Afghanistan, whether providing routine services like passport applications and notarizing documents, or through the special citizen services we offer like ensuring the welfare of U.S. citizens in trouble or working with U.S.-based families when an American loved one has passed away.

We are also the first stop when it comes to voting overseas. One of my favorite parts of this job is assisting U.S. citizen parents to officially pass on their citizenship to their children born in Afghanistan. The babies are so cute, and the families so happy when their applications are approved.

The work here is challenging but equally rewarding, especially when I can help an American citizen in danger. Afghanistan obviously has serious security concerns and is not a safe place to travel, but every once in a while we have visitors here for work, tourism or as dual citizens.

One of the most meaningful experiences I have had in Kabul was providing assistance to some American citizens who found themselves in physical danger due to accusations of proselytizing. We worked for hours to assist in getting them back to the United States safely. It was a long night for those of us who worked on this issue, but it was great to know that we helped keep Americans out of harm's way.

If you intend to travel overseas, I recommend checking out travel.state.gov to read up on all the requirements and safety tips for the country you plan to visit. You should try to behave in a culturally appropriate way and always sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP.state.gov), which will send you important safety and security updates and help us reach you in an emergency.

Make sure to leave a copy of your itinerary, passport, foreign visas and other documents with a trusted family member or friend and have medical and evacuation insurance in case of an emergency abroad.

I hope my story will provide others the information they need to travel safely overseas. If you want to travel abroad, please know that the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your tourist destination is there to help you, so always reach out if you need assistance.

Stephanie Parenti is the head of American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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