By Katherine Brucker
Canada is a country of immigrants, and approximately 78 of the Mission Canada’s 140 locally employed (LE) staff members began their careers with the Department of State at one of 40 different U.S. embassies or consulates in their home countries. These experiences have brought them, and in turn, Mission Canada, many combined years of valuable U.S. government experience.
Many of the Mission’s foreign-born LE staff serve in the consular, human resources (HR), management, and information technology sections, as well as the general services office. The obvious benefit to Mission Canada employing such an experienced cohort is the ability to quickly incorporate these new employees into substantive work due to their preexisting experience with Department policies and procedures.
“When I arrived, I just needed to open the door and turn on the computer to do my job,” said Grigor Gyonjyan, an LE staff member.
The Department has its own culture, which helps incoming LE staff immigrants. Omar Abu Snaina said his experience working in the Information Systems Center (ISC) in Amman, “allowed me to approach my interview in Ottawa with greater confidence. Having never been outside of Jordan before immigrating, being able to find a job I was well-suited for was daunting. Having another professional opportunity with a U.S. embassy has made my transitional experience that much more amazing.”
Colleague Md. Mosarraf Hossain agreed.
“Working previously for Embassy Dhaka gave me the global exposure to learn and develop my hard and soft skills and now that I am working at Embassy Ottawa, the familiarity to my workplace environment helped me feel more comfortable in a new society,” he said.
Mission Canada’s HR teams have eagerly hired LE staff that were formerly employed at other posts abroad. Each employee brings not only HR expertise but also an interesting mix of best practices from recruitment and work-life balance initiatives to ways to celebrate awards and holidays.
“The [LE staff members] share good ideas from past posts and regions to adopt in Mission Canada, and eliminate ‘best intentions’ but failed initiatives, saving us time and energy.,” said Human Resources Officer Cassandra Hamblin. “They observe a multitude of holidays—both religious and secular—bringing their own celebrations into the office for us all to enjoy and learn from. Social time includes rich storytelling and amazing food.”
Another benefit Mission Canada has seen from hiring LE staff with experience from other missions, is they often bring specialized expertise. ISC Manager/Supervisor Martin Castillo arrived in Vancouver from Embassy Lima, which had more modern computer systems. Castillo saw his knowledge and training as a competitive advantage because he was well-positioned to install and maintain the new technology once it was deployed in Canada. Abigail Reyes Gonzalez, Calgary’s Nonimmigrant Visa LE staff supervisor came from Nuevo Laredo where her work on two hurricane task forces helped her support Calgary’s participation in the first mission-wide crisis management exercise. Moreover, Reyes Gonzalez’s experience and network in Mission Mexico metrics qualified her to help create Mission Canada’s Center of Excellence for Metrics and Efficiencies.
Like Foreign Service officers, Mission Canada’s LE staff enjoy career progression through their diverse postings. Irakli Nakaidze advanced from watchman to security guard and then guard-dispatcher at Embassy Tbilisi before becoming a security guard in Montreal. He credits his experience in Georgia for his promotions to senior guard and local guard force (LGF) supervisor. His colleague Levin Ferhati, surveillance detection (SD) coordinator, began at Embassy Tirana on the Mobile Patrol and Ambassador’s Protective Detail. He joined Montreal’s LGF, rising to SD coordinator. Regional Security Officer Ben Hammond values the experience and diversity the two bring, describing their contributions as “invaluable in providing perspective and differing opinions to our decision-making process”.
Language skills are crucial in diplomacy and many of Mission Canada’s LE staff are native speakers in dozens of languages and dialects. In consular sections across Canada, their émigré LE staff advise on language, cultural norms, and civil documents enabling officers to better discern inconsistencies in applications and to detect and deter fraud. Many consular customers, especially visa applicants, do not speak English so the LE staff members frequently assist with translation.
Madina Turdieva, a public affairs specialist in Toronto used her language skills from central Asia to expand outreach to ethnic media outlets and the Russian-speaking diaspora in Ontario.
Maggie Isaac joined Toronto’s consular team after serving in Dubai. Originally from Egypt, Isaac has used her extensive knowledge of Arabic dialects to facilitate communication at multiple U.S. missions. She has translated during Department of Homeland Security security interviews of Iraqi nationals in Toronto, and also used her language skills to negotiate an agreement between the consular chief and Yemeni ambassador to Algeria to expedite the processing of thousands of Yemeni immigrant visas.
The Department is not alone in having “transplanted” LE staff in Canada. Pavel Sevastian started at Embassy Chisinau, first in a USAID Regional Office and then in the political and economic section where he supported the Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) Partner Post program. After immigrating, he worked for 11 years in Montreal’s consular section until FCS hired him in 2020. Conversely, the Department benefits from experience first gleaned from other agencies. Grigor Gyonjyan worked in building maintenance and procurement for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at Embassy Yerevan before joining Toronto’s management section. Gyonjyan found that this experience helped with the transition, starting from software and hardware to Integrated Logistics Management Systems Records and other procurement systems.
World Map infographic showing former posts of Mission Canada’s LE staff. Click here to view text version. Illustration by Amanda McCarthy
Many LE staff changed jobs upon arriving in Canada, benefitting from earlier experience and giving post greater versatility. Vanessa Andre started in the consular section in Haiti but works in the management section in Montreal where she claims, “my knowledge of the regulations, the policies, and the organization has definitely made it easier for me to do my job.” HR assistant Alma Louis-Jacques worked both in HR and the consular section in Port-au-Prince and pitched in “with minimum training” as a visa assistant in Montreal to cover a gap. And some LE staff have an impact far beyond their immediate office. Laverne Bowie, Calgary’s computer management assistant, was a web content and training administrator in the Bureau of Information Resources Management at Embassy Kingston. In addition to supporting post and Mission Canada with her skills, Bowie was the first LE staff member in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs to serve as an adjunct faculty trainer for the Foreign Service Institute, sharing her knowledge enterprise-wide.
The consular team also benefits from vast skills from their LE staff members. Irina Namolovan’s experience at Embassy Chisinau’s Employee Recreation Association helped her refine her deft approach to formulating consular budgets, managing travel, and overseeing purchase requests from Ottawa. Most visa applicants in Canada are third country nationals, complicating the adjudication process. With Priya Francis’ previous investigative experience in India, and Alba Pinto Soler’s consular experience from Colombia, Ottawa’s consular section is better equipped to understand and advise other Mission Canada posts on their diverse applicant pool.
Finally, in small posts, such as two-officer Consulate General Halifax, rich, varied LE staff experience is a lifesaver. Halifax relies on LE staff members Sergio Nishida and Ahsan Hoque, who provide the full spectrum of management services. Nishida and his family immigrated from Brazil; he joined the consulate in 2016 bringing experience from Embassy Brasilia, UNICEF, and the private sector. As an alumnus of Embassy Dhaka’s general services office and the U.S. Peace Corps in Bangladesh, Hoque and his family took a more circuitous route, working first for the U.S. Consulate General in Toronto for a year before settling in Halifax in 2018.
Whether bringing their diverse skill sets to Embassy Ottawa or one of the many U.S. consulate generals spread throughout the country, immigrant LE Staff members bolster operations and outreach, and enhance the post communities where they serve. Their breadth of experience and diverse perspectives strengthen American diplomatic engagement in Canada and are yet another reason that Mission Canada is such a vibrant and exciting place to serve.
Katherine Brucker is deputy chief of mission at Embassy Ottawa.