Story by Isaac Feldberg ·
THESSALONIKI, Greece – From storing an American expatriate’s amputated leg in her home freezer to dodging bullets in Baghdad, life as a diplomat dictates a fair share of adventure, said Rebecca A. Fong, U.S. Consul General in Thessaloniki, during a wide-ranging lecture on Wednesday.
Touching upon her considerable breadth of experience as a foreign service officer and exploring the colorful particulars of her lengthy career, Fong regaled her audience – student journalists from Northeastern University – with a mixture of wry wit and world-worn wisdom.
“I was in charge of Saddam [Hussein, the deposed Iraqi president], after we found him, in the hole,” she said, sunnily reflecting on one salient experience while serving at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq in 2003. “He was hungry, so we gave him Cheetos; he loved Cheetos. Made him happy. But then, you know, our food trucks kept getting bombed out of Kuwait, so we ran out of Cheetos, and we started giving him Doritos, and he liked the BBQ Doritos, not the plain ones.”
Fong’s work with Hussein involved more than simply supplying snacks for the fallen tyrant; she collaborated with U.S. marshals to organize trials within which he could be tried for crimes against humanity.
Such an unusual balancing act is typical for the diplomat, whose responsibilities across about 15 years in multiple foreign service positions have frequently required of her “a little bit of everything” to get the job done.
Fong, in her early 60s, cast a wide net during the talk, discussing issues including the Syrian refugee crisis, the Greek economic crisis and diplomatic difficulties under a Trump presidency as she repeatedly returned to lessons learned throughout her tenure.
Prior to serving in Thessaloniki, where she was assigned in 2015, Fong had placements in the U.S. Consulate in Herat, Afghanistan; the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria; the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan; the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq; the U.S. Embassy in Manama, Bahrain; and the U.S. Mission to OECD in Paris, France.
In each of those locations, Fong said the situations she encountered required a mix of sensitivity, determination and ingenuity, from helping to negotiate a Bahraini free-trade agreement to shepherding religious minorities to polling stations in Iraq.
While posted in Thessaloniki, Fong has been instrumental in working with Greek governmental officials to address the Syrian refugee crisis. Her responsibilities expanded along with the size of the issue last year, when Macedonia’s construction of a border fence left 62,000 refugees unexpectedly stranded in the midst of a country unprepared to deal with a permanent population of such volume.
Fong recalled accompanying Victoria Nuland, then the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, to the border in early March, where more than 17,000 refugees were living in tents and exposed to biting cold.
“I talked to a Yazidi woman who was 109 years old, and she said, ‘I didn’t survive the mountain in Sinjar with ISIS to die in a tent in the snow in Greece,’” said Fong. “And that kind of summed it up – why was this 109-year-old woman, in December, still in a tent with no heat and eight inches of snow on top of it?”
Alongside others in the American and Greek governments, Fong pushed to shift the refugee population indoors, succeeding amid escalating, international outcry about the situation. Ultimately, an unusual and creative situation presented itself, in part due to Fong’s efforts; refugees were transitioned into the luxury bedrooms of resort hotels that had already been closed for the winter.
The debt crisis in Greece has been another prevalent issue throughout Fong’s tenure in Thessaloniki, she said. However, from the diplomat’s perspective, Greek-American relations throughout the past two U.S. administrations may be benefitting from the country’s dire financial straits in ways that are not yet common knowledge.
“People at the State Department are helping to negotiate the austerity measures here and helping to secure debt relief and also not have such austere measures where you can’t grow an economy and recover,” she said. “That has put us in a better light, and so I would say that in many, many years, this is one of the best pro-American attitudes in Greece.”
Fong openly admits that, though the U.S. may still be partnering with Greek government figures to work through economic issues, the current administration has presented a fair share of challenges to individuals in the foreign service – especially those who identify as both diplomats and Democrats.
“[President Donald J. Trump] is just a one of a kind; he’s very unpredictable, and we’re learning to work with a very unpredictable president who has a different way of communicating with the public and informing the public, which is Twitter,” said Fong.
The drastic shift from how President Barack Obama versus Trump implements executive orders – long briefs as opposed to tweets issued at all hours of the night – has prompted anxiety among diplomats around the world about their job security. Such fears proved warranted after Trump’s transition team indicated early this year that no politically appointed ambassadors from the Obama era would be granted extensions beyond inauguration day.
“Trump has fired career officers, which has brought about this point where you suddenly realize your job is not secure, and that’s difficult, because we’re tenured,” admitted Fong. “[Usually, after] five years, you’re considered to be like a tenured professor at a university.”
Aside from touching on the tribulations of working through hot-button political issues, Fong spent time throughout the lecture exploring the finer details of her diplomatic experience, some sensational, others somber.
With a broad smile, Fong at one point recalled an unforgettable instance in which she was called upon to a retrieve a frozen leg – the unfortunate consequence of an American expatriate’s drunk driving accident, preserved five years later in a Bahraini morgue – and return it to its rightful owner.
“My boss says, ‘We’ve got to find the owner and make sure he doesn’t want it,’” Fong explained. “And it’s like, okay, but what do you do with a frozen leg in the meantime? So I bring it back to the embassy, and they’re like, ‘No, no, don’t bring that leg in here.’ So, I had a freezer at home. And that’s where it stayed for a month, while I did the research in finding out who this guy was.”
Later, Fong grew solemn while discussing her “worst experiences” in foreign service: namely, colleagues lost along the way, including J. Chris Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, killed when militants attacked his Benghazi compound on the evening of September 11, 2012. Describing Stevens as a “dear friend,” she paused as his picture appeared on her slides to briefly memorialize the ambassador, referencing his love of the country in which he died as well as his extensive experience serving there.
“[With] the al-Qaeda attack against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was there giving a speech, like today, to 90 newly graduated Iraqi diplomats,” she added of another haunting moment in her career. “Literally three minutes after I left, a truck bomb came and exploded the whole building, and killed all 90 of them.”
Throughout the conversation, even during detours into resolutely grim territory, Fong generally remained cheery and upbeat, despite acknowledging the moments of danger, distress and despair that can impact foreign service officials regardless of where they’re posted. The diplomat’s disposition, she explained at one point in the lecture, is owed largely to the profound sense of fulfillment a career flush with memorable experiences and momentous initiatives has afforded her.
After a decade and a half in the foreign service, Fong gives no indication that she’s considering retirement – on the contrary, though her next posting is undetermined, the diplomat says she’s beginning to weigh her options. And in Thessaloniki, her work is far from done.
Particularly in a global political environment that has proved increasingly susceptible to Russian influence in recent years, the consul general’s presence remains crucial.
“What we see now in all the Western European countries, especially countries that are having elections, is Russian influence and how they’re trying to shape those elections either through computer hacking or through media or through paying off politicians,” said Fong, reflecting on the fluid political landscape she’s observed from her most recent post. “If I was Russia and I found a country that works on the corrupt ideals of political influence, it’s a perfect environment to enter in and then control things.”