With easy access to the Capital Beltway and Dulles International Airport, the Oakwood Apartments in Falls Church boast all the slightly sterile conveniences of a temporary corporate housing complex: a fitness center, tennis courts, free shuttles to stores and a pool.
From that pool you can hear planes whooshing overhead to points overseas. For the families of Michael Hoza and Donald Lu, those flights are a reminder of what might have been — and what they hope will still happen.
If things had gone according to plan, Hoza would have jetted off to Cameroon last year and Lu to Albania, both destined for the top job in U.S. embassies there. But these Foreign Service nomads have become Foreign Service exiles, stuck in their home country but not in their own homes.
Suddenly, one of the Oakwood’s other benefits — its location in an excellent school district — turned out to be important. Chris Hoza, 18, just finished his junior year at George Mason High, and Kip and Aliya Lu, ages 12 and 9, went through the seventh and third grades in neighborhood schools.
Now Chris Hoza says he has “no idea” where he’ll go to school next year — at George Mason or in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde. Or (and this is what his father calls “the worst-case scenario”) whether he will start school in Virginia and live out his senior year alone if his father moves to Africa. The Lu children, eating Cheerios for breakfast in their cookie-cutter two-bedroom apartment one block away, mull similar academic uncertainties.
Which is it to be, Aliya? Fourth grade in Falls Church or Tirana? Or a bit of both? There’s no way for her to know.
Their fathers are members of a growing group of ambassadors-in-waiting, senior U.S. diplomats caught up in an unusual and decidedly undiplomatic domestic political wrangle. Both came back to the States last summer — Hoza from a posting in Moscow, Lu from his in New Delhi — and now can be seen as part of the human fallout from the Democrats’ historic decision last fall to take the “nuclear option” in response to Republican filibustering, resulting in mutual recriminations and a whole new round of delays. Their fate is having repercussions not only in these rental units, but also around the world: 25 percent of the 169 countries in which the United States has embassies don’t have U.S. ambassadors.
That doesn’t sit well with leaders of countries such as Cameroon, explains Hoza across the faux-wood table in a living room stacked, as it has been for several months, with 500 pounds of air freight ready for shipment to Africa — contact lens solution, rolls of toilet paper, a bundt pan, jars of Jif peanut butter, spare parts for a new Toyota truck and a basketball hoop that will perch on the tennis court at the ambassador’s Yaounde residence.
“We could be out of here in 30 minutes,” says Chris, a basketball player, if only they got the go-ahead. That would surely please Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, who, Hoza says, like many protocol-conscious leaders is loath to deal with the State Department’s unusually youthful crop of junior staffers.
"That makes it kind of tough” in Cameroon, says Hoza, where the Nigeria-based Islamist sect Boko Haram “is on the prowl,” threatening to rock Biya’s relatively stable government. Boko Haram gunmen are suspected to be responsible for the violent abduction of the wife of Cameroon's vice prime minister on Sunday.
Not only is Camaroon a "key partner" in the struggle against Boko Haram, says Hoza, but in "supporting anti- piracy efforts in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, supporting UN peacekeeping efforts in strife-torn Central African Republic, protecting elephants against commercial poaching."
A new ambassador to nearby Niger was approved Monday, after a wait of almost exactly a year.
In the neighboring apartment block, the Lu family seems similarly stoic about the logistics of living in limbo. Lu’s wife, Ariel Ahart, a public health specialist, isn’t employed for the first time in the 22 years the couple have known each other, because the family might (or might not) leave any day now. That’s been true for months.
The four black suitcases with which they arrived a year ago are stacked in a closet alongside toys, books and clothing accumulated over ensuing months. As temperatures dropped last fall, the Lus bought extra layers one by one — a sweater, a jacket, gloves — because they didn’t want to invest in full wardrobes when their own winter woolens are carefully stored away. (They’re in Antwerp, Belgium, along with the Hozas’ stuff, because the State Department has a warehouse there.)
Lu and Ahart finally broke down recently and bought the kids bikes, which are stored on the balcony (the Hozas keep tires for the new Toyota on theirs). And if their confirmation doesn’t come through by the end of this month, when the Senate leaves for its August recess, they have promised themselves a consolation prize: new adult bikes, so the whole family can explore the cultural quirks of suburban America together.
Another Africa-bound ambassador-designate, Eric Schultz, has been living in a series of two- and three-bedroom apartments elsewhere with his wife (a grants coordinator, also temporarily unemployed) and their 12- and 9-year-old sons since returning from Ukraine last July. He says his older son was hesitant to make new friends in the United States given the family’s supposedly imminent departure for Zambia. “I don’t want to be in the position like I was in Kiev,” he says the boy told him, “and put myself out there and then get hurt.”
Later that morning, Schultz’s younger son said, “You know, Dad, I’ve made so many friends here in America that I don’t want to go to Africa.” That was last fall, when they could have been leaving for Lusaka at any moment. They still could.
And Amy Hyatt, living in a one-bedroom apartment until she gets the go-ahead to fly off to the Pacific island of Palau, said her college-age children told her, “Mom, we’ve never been homeless before.”
Many factors are at play in this bizarre game of international musical chairs. Zambia seemed like a “great family post,” Schultz said, but countries in crisis come first, so his family waits while those bound for Iraq and Egypt leapfrog ahead.
As ambassadors go, “we’re not controversial,” he says.
He is alluding to some political nominees whose lack of diplomatic credentials raised eyebrows recently. But, according to the State Department, about three-quarters of the nearly 50 ambassadors in waiting, including Schultz, Hyatt, Hoza and Lu, are career diplomats — men and women trained in the art and business of diplomacy who typically sail through the confirmation process.
They are cautiously optimistic that their status could be resolved next week, before the Senate starts its recess. Secretary of State John F. Kerry wrote to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in late June suggesting that nominations of career Foreign Service ambassadors be confirmed “en bloc,” like military promotions. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Thursday that he will push for some kind of breakthrough soon, because the current vacancies and “confirmation by crisis” are undermining the United States’ credibility overseas.
Until their confirmation comes, though, the families look ahead in two directions. The Hoza and Lu kids have signed up for classes in Northern Virginia and are learning about the schools in Yaounde and Tirana. Their diplomat parents are finding piecemeal ways to stay busy, helping with recruitment and promotion, using their experience from former assignments to advise on trouble spots overseas — and in some cases, traveling there.
“What a waste of talent!” says Schultz, who considers himself “kind of fortunate” to be so well placed to help with the crisis in Ukraine. “Train someone to be an ambassador, and they sit in the refrigerator.”
Don Lu, who has been in full-time language training, says he is spending more time with the kids; they aren’t enrolled in camps because they didn’t think they would be here.
The would-be ambassador has been using the time to brush up on Albanian, which the speaker of eight languages confesses is “surprisingly difficult.” He is hoping, as he leaves for class in a recently purchased second-hand BMW (he and Ahart bought the car after month-to-month leasing became impractical), that a week from now the whole family will be packing up at Oakwood and preparing to board a flight from nearby Dulles. If not, don’t be surprised to see Lu making the short trip through Falls Church on his consolation prize: a brand-new bike.
This article was updated to include recent developments in Cameroon.