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Consumer Report : Aid for Those at Home

February 12, 1989

Travelers who run into trouble abroad naturally find it distressing, and for the family back home it can be equally worrisome.

A friend, for example, was trapped in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Her parents were frantic, unable to get through to her (or she to them) because of security on telephone lines.

As it transpired, she was safe in a hotel on the outskirts of Haifa.

More recently, another friend was in Jamaica when Hurricane Gilbert hit last fall. Again, there were agonizing hours of uncertainty as members of his family tried to get through to his hotel, only to find that the lines were down.

He, too, was safe. But for a desperately long time, people closest to him didn't know anything.

In another instance in 1985, the son of friends decided to "find himself . . . maybe write a book" in the northern part of the Canadian Yukon. With a warm coat, stout shoes and a backpack, he took off on his great adventure, promising, of course, to keep in touch.

Typical teen-ager that he was, he didn't.

Weeks went by, then months, and not a word from the young man. His parents were beside themselves.

Communing With Nature

Here again, the story had a happy ending. He was living in a tiny makeshift logging village, communing with nature and the locals, quite safe and having a whale of a time.

But there wasn't a telephone within 100 miles and, as he later said, there wasn't exactly a post office on every corner, either.

What do you do when you're at home and you are concerned about the welfare of a relative or friend who was last heard of abroad and who, you believe, may be in danger?

Meet the State Department's Overseas Citizens Service, which comprises the Citizens Consular Service and the Citizens Emergency Center. OCS, a branch of the State Department's Consular Affairs Bureau, just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

The OCS considers itself the government's "people's desk," serving individual Americans, while the State Department takes care of broad policy and government-to-government contacts.

When a war breaks out overseas or when a natural catastrophe occurs, the OCS, through the Citizens Emergency Center, goes into action, establishing contact with the appropriate U.S. embassy or consulate.

Provides Assistance

The first aim is to determine the condition of any Americans who may be in the area and to provide assistance and information to their families.

Sometimes, of course, there is no natural or man-made catastrophic event. In the case of the young man in the Yukon wilderness, his parents, had they known of its existence, could have called the center and asked for aid.

The specialists at the center would have contacted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other branches of the Canadian government that could help. They also would have contacted the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa, so that it could take whatever steps at a local level.

The Mounties claim that they always get their man. The Citizens Emergency Center has a pretty good record in that regard too.

And why not? It's had a lot of practice.

In its 10-year history the Center has processed 1.5 million "welfare and whereabouts" requests. It has assisted the families of 33,000 Americans arrested abroad, some of whom eventually went to jail, in which case the CEC remains the liaison between prisoner and family.

The Overseas Citizens Service gets involved in some of the saddest events ever to befall Americans. One of its first jobs, for example, was to provide aid to the families of the 900 victims of the Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide.

Money Matters

The OCS also offers, through the Citizens Consular Service, simpler, more routine assistance. It will arrange money transfers from families to Americans stranded abroad, and will expedite government loans in some situations--$5.5 million since 1978.

The Citizens Emergency Center telephone line--(202) 647-5225--is staffed from 8:15 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. At other times call the main State Department Operations Center at (202) 634-3600.

To reach the Citizens Consular Service, call (202) 647-3444 during the same hours.

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