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By Amanda J. Richard

Each and every day, Foreign Service nationals (FSNs) provide invaluable support to U.S. diplomatic missions around the world. Their institutional knowledge and contributions are a significant part of the framework that enables and enhances America’s bilateral relations. The FSN of the Year Award is the Department of State’s most prestigious award for locally employed staff, honoring the value of their work in accomplishing and exceeding Department and USG foreign policy goals and objectives. Six individuals were chosen, one from each regional bureau, that represent an unwavering commitment to service. From their work forging partnerships and cooperation, to advancing U.S. national security objectives, to making personal sacrifices to keep American citizens safe, the winners truly embody honor, courage, and excellence. 

In an unprecedented and difficult year exacerbated by a harrowing global pandemic, FSNs went above the call of duty to help the Department overcome challenges and keep missions running. Their dedication to their work, their colleagues, U.S. citizens, and their missions is the definition of nobility and is worthy of the highest esteem. 

Amanda J. Richard is the multimedia editor of State Magazine. 

Abdullah “Hadi” Abdulhadi | Global FSN of the Year 

NEA | U.S. Consulate General in Erbil 

For sustained superior performance in protecting the lives, well-being, and interests of U.S. citizens. 

“At least a dozen people owe their lives to Hadi, while dozens more owe him their safety and well-being,” said Abdulhadi’s nominator, Consular Section Chief Deborah A. Miller. Serving as an American citizen services assistant, Abdulhadi is typically involved in challenging cases—many involving children—providing a crucial role in ensuring their successful repatriation and safety. He was directly involved in reuniting children who were brought to ISIS and then abandoned, with their families in the United States. While risking his personal safety, he facilitated the transfer of children at the Syria/Iraq border and made sure they had a safe place to stay while he arranged for their departure. He played a crucial role in successfully repatriating a 3-year-old U.S. citizen orphan, using his contacts and spearheading an effort to collect donations for a local orphanage where the child would be staying until they could arrange her return to the United States. He was also involved in a case helping a teenage U.S. citizen flee a forced marriage, securing an exit visa and permission from Erbil’s fortified airport in order to allow the teen a smooth transfer. In some cases, Abdulhadi even traveled with the repatriated children to ensure their safe arrival in the United States. Abdulhadi consistently maintains extensive contacts with local law enforcement, which directly affects the consulate’s prompt notification of detentions of American citizens—many of whom have crossed illegally into Syria to join the fight against ISIS and are then detained upon their return to Iraq. Overall, “U.S. citizens are safer because of Hadi’s commitment, professionalism, and dedication.” 

Dalia Sava | Global FSN of the Year (Runner Up)

WHA | Embassy Buenos Aires

For sustained special contributions to achieving U.S. government foreign policy goals, including exceptional leadership in service to U.S. citizens, overcoming the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, overseeing the repatriation of more than 4,500 citizens, and serving families impacted by international parental child abduction. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Argentina, Sava, who serves as a supervisory American citizen services assistant, leveraged deep connections with contacts across 23 provinces to overcome a nationwide lockdown and conflicting travel restrictions to facilitate successful repatriation of U.S. citizens. Her outstanding and tireless negotiations reduced wait times at checkpoints. Her direct influence with the Argentine government allowed for swift action in assisting U.S. citizens regardless of where they were located within the country. In one instance, her professional courage directly resulted in the repatriation of an elderly couple involuntarily being held in quarantine by the local government. “If it weren’t for her efforts, [we] would probably still be in that isolation facility now,” the couple said in a statement after their successful arrival in the United States. Additionally, Sava provided the mission with subject-matter expertise related to international parental child abduction policy. She proposed strategic policy solutions, secured high-level meetings, and “moved mountains to facilitate the safe return of a child abducted six years ago.” Her relationships with key contacts have proved vital for the mission, and her exceptional dedication to the most vulnerable U.S. citizens overseas is honorable. “Her professionalism is of the highest standard, and her creativity, persistence, and positive outlook make her an invaluable asset.” 

Hatab Fadera | Finalist FSN of the Year

AF | Embassy Banjul 

For consistent superior performance to ensure the success of the full range of Public Affairs Section activities in support of The Gambia’s transition to democracy, strengthening U.S. -The Gambia relations. 

Serving as a strategic content and media coordinator, Fadera single-handedly performed the duties of three of Embassy Banjul’s locally employed staff positions for an extended duration when overt support to the Gambian transition to democracy was the most crucial. Using his “deep understanding of the media environment, civil society landscape, and culture in The Gambia, Fadera ensured the embassy’s engagement across the spectrum of public diplomacy activities impacted positively by this nascent democracy.” Through times of transition and uncertainty, Fadera has consistently offered innovative solutions to complex problems. With limited staff, a government shutdown, a global pandemic, incidents of civil unrest, and multiple high-level visitors he was able to guide embassy engagement to influence Gambians on important U.S. foreign policy priorities. His eye for media opportunities has made Embassy Banjul’s social media platforms some of the most followed. Nominated by his peers to serve as vice president of the FSN committee, Fadera led the development of a Gambian corollary to the Department’s Ethos, ensuring that Gambians and Americans alike could culturally share the fundamental principles of “One Team, One Mission.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, Fadera used his excellent communication and negotiation skills to assist in the evacuation of American citizens, spontaneously organizing a press engagement for the ambassador to encourage public health measures such as social distancing and hand hygiene. Fadera “consistently shows not only the skill, but the absolute commitment and willingness to advance U.S. national security objectives in The Gambia [while strengthening] Gambian affinity for the [United States].” 

Fang Fang Wang | Finalist FSN of the Year

EAP | U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan 

For quickly adopting new roles and responsibilities, establishing a network of new government contacts, and designing and executing evacuations of several hundred U.S. citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. 

In response to the coronavirus crisis in Wuhan, the Chinese government, without forewarning, quarantined the city of 11 million people—stopping public transportation and closing the airport and train stations. Defying the lockdown, Wang rode her bicycle to the consulate each day to serve as the senior of only two locally employed staff in the office during the crisis. Typically a criminal fraud investigator, Wang stepped into the protocol and political staff roles, developing contacts from 10 different local agencies and became the consulate’s primary source of information on the lockdown. She tracked social media and government announcements, supported the consul general at meetings with provincial authorities, and accompanied officers who went out to assess city conditions. Most importantly, Wang persuaded reluctant local officials to help her design Wuhan’s first evacuation, transporting U.S. citizens from Wuhan deemed the most vulnerable. She negotiated every ground-level detail of the entire operation. “Fang Fang liaised between two governments on a politically sensitive operation and succeeded under enormous pressure,” said Wang’s nominator, Consul General Jamie Fouss. She was critical to the evacuation flight’s success. Overall, her plan helped to develop the framework used by evacuation planning teams from the United States and other foreign missions for 30 more flights from Wuhan. “She demonstrated the highest levels of courage and dedication, and her incredible success in a fluid and complex environment saved lives and allowed the Department to achieve its goals while the world watched.”  

Arnold Maxhelaku | Finalist FSN of the Year 

EUR | Embassy Tirana 

For his extraordinary efforts to protect the safety and security of U.S. citizens in Albania during a year marked by two major earthquakes and the COVID-19 global pandemic. His phenomenal contributions advanced a top Department of State priority and embodied the United States’ unwavering dedication to its citizens overseas. 

Back-to-back devastating earthquakes (including the deadliest worldwide in 2019) and the COVID-19 pandemic became a driving force to overcome for Maxhelaku, who serves as the sole American citizen services assistant in Tirana. As all three crises unfolded, Albania’s intractable bureaucracy risked shackling the United States’ efforts in assisting American citizens in need of help in Albania. When the earthquake struck, Maxhelaku tapped his extensive network of crisis contacts to get information regarding casualties and structural damage that would affect the U.S. citizen community. He fielded hundreds of calls, emails, and congressional inquiries, drafted public messages to keep the U.S. citizen public informed, and fielded a relentless barrage of calls from area hospitals reporting potential American victims. He became “a lifeline to U.S. citizens who lost everything, connecting them with local social services and the Red Cross to [ensure] they had access to the basic necessities.” When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in Albania, Maxhelaku engaged a solution to evacuate U.S. citizens—helping to organize 13 flights over a span of more than two months. He managed logistical details, fielded more than 3,000 inbound calls and emails, steered Americans through the process, and ensured that everyone wanting to return to the United States did so safely. “Arnold worked tirelessly, seven days a week for weeks on end, to send hundreds of grateful U.S. citizens home.” 

Ayesha Pirzada | Finalist FSN of the Year

SCA | Embassy Pakistan 

For playing a vital role in the socialization, implementation, and overall readiness of Pakistan for a formal partnership with the United States under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. 

The Hague Abduction Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction provides a civil framework to resolve international parental child abduction cases. Encouraging Pakistan to implement the Convention effectively was a key goal for the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) Office of Children’s Issues, as well as Embassy Islamabad. Pirzada, who serves as a supervisory American citizen services specialist, employed extensive outreach and engagement which ultimately resulted in the CA’s approval of Pakistan’s partnership request. Pirzada encouraged Pakistan’s central authority to spend its own time and energy to develop its capacity to implement the Convention, including drafting a standard operating procedure for handling abduction cases and a Convention application and resource website. She was also able to get all six of Pakistan’s staunchly autonomous provinces to use their existing resources to form provincial central authorities to carry out the full range of protocols outlined in the Convention. Overall, her effective diplomacy with Pakistan officials set the stage for a U.S.-Pakistan bilateral partnership under the Convention. However, she knew any bilateral partnership to return abducted children to their place of habitual residence would require support from Pakistani society. Therefore, Pirzada organized three conferences—in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi—bringing hundreds of leading Pakistani attorneys and judges, as well as law enforcement and civil society stakeholders around to the U.S. position on the Convention. Her outreach and attention to detail opened the door for combined U.S.-European Union/United Kingdom/Australia/Canada efforts to assist Pakistan in its effective implementation of the Convention. “Ayesha has helped establish the United States as the first Western nation to partner with Pakistan under the Convention, sending a strong public message of cooperation, at a time we are seeking to rebuild our public image in Pakistan.”