Children of diplomats displaced by strife often caught between two worlds

March 2, 2011

With each regime that teeters, each uprising that forces a U.S. embassy to be evacuated, more American diplomats, aid workers and their families seek shelter at a nondescript Falls Church apartment complex with a nondescript name: Oakwood. The only hint of its connection to international affairs is the United Nations flag flying overhead.

Most families are there to enroll their children in Northern Virginia’s smallest school district, Falls Church, and to wait for the world’s uprisings to subside before returning to their foreign postings or deploying to new ones. The surge of recent arrivals began with an exodus from Ivory Coast in January and was followed last month by a group from Egypt — 33 students and their families from Cairo alone. A wave from Libya began landing over the weekend.

During their stays at Oakwood, named for the national corporate housing chain that owns it, children leave each morning for classes at Falls Church schools. Parents take shuttles that run between the complex on North Roosevelt Boulevard and the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters.

“It’s like the State Department ghetto,” said Rob Rose, a development consultant who left Cairo for Falls Church with his wife, a U.S. Agency for International Development employee, and two daughters.

Such moves are jarring for students who are scrambled out of global hot spots and delivered to this placid corner of suburbia. Oakwood’s modern, furnished apartments are part of a complex of four brick buildings sandwiched between a cemetery and a busy street.

“Someone asked me the other day if I speak Egyptian. They ask if we ride to school on camels. I don’t think they really understand us,” said Hadley Rose, 13, who is in the eighth grade at George Mason High School.

Oakwood has been a landing spot for displaced U.S. diplomats since at least 1998, when about a dozen arrived after the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was bombed. The relationship was formalized in 2006 when the State Department contracted with Oakwood to house diplomats passing through Washington. They pay $5,400 per month for a two-bedroom apartment, and that fee is covered by the government’s housing allowance.

Oakwood officials at the apartment complex and corporate headquarters declined to comment.

Falls Church is known in the diplomatic corps for its small, high-achieving schools. With 2,100 students spread across a high school, a middle school and two elementaries, the midyear arrivals get noticed.

“As soon as I saw the images from Egypt, I knew it was only a matter of time,” said Lois Berlin, the district’s superintendent. “Whenever there’s unrest, we expect an influx of students.”

The Cairo group arrived after violence in that city’s normally quiet diplomatic neighborhood had kept families in their homes for nearly a week. “It didn’t seem that bad at first. But then we started hearing gunshots. The tanks started rolling closer,” said Liam O’Dowd, a high school junior.

Families watched as police officers who protected their apartment complex disappeared, and they listened for updates on an embassy radio station until the evacuation order arrived.

The students left Cairo American College, the city’s preeminent international high school, in the middle of cross country season, a few months before Advanced Placement exams and days before the performance of the semester’s musical. Less than a week later, they started classes in Falls Church.

The diplomats’ children expected to stay briefly, just long enough to wait out the revolution’s fever pitch. But three weeks later, they were still biding time in a school system that feels at once foreign and familiar. Although they’re American citizens, this is the first time some have attended school in the United States.

“I’m just ready to go home,” said Phoebe Bredin, 17, meaning Cairo. “We lived through the beginning of a revolution, and now we’re here waiting in the suburbs. It’s weird.”

Bredin learned that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down during a college visit to Virginia Tech. When she jumped and squealed in the admissions office, “people looked at me like I was crazy. But this is something I really care about.”

Some of these students wear high school athletic uniforms with the word “Cairo” emblazoned on their chests. Some refuse to change their watches from Egyptian time. They get news through friends’ Facebook pages, where Egyptian classmates have posted photos from Tahrir Square and exultant messages in Arabic.

“There are a lot of rumors: We could go back next week, or next month, or it could be much longer than that,” said Arden Rose, 16. “I just wish we knew for sure.”

Falls Church isn’t the only school district that has received students fleeing unrest. Fairfax has received 28 students from diplomatic families based in Egypt, and other Virginia districts have enrolled some, prompting the Virginia Department of Education to send a statewide message to school officials about how to handle American students who have returned to the United States, sometimes without parents or housing.

The State Department uses the term “third-culture kid” to describe young people who live the Foreign Service lifestyle — often jolted between postings and hemispheres, not entirely adapting to the cultures of their home nations or adopted ones.

That description feels stale to some of Falls Church’s newest students, for whom the amalgamation of cultures at Cairo American College hardly seemed unusual. So what if cross country practice takes place in a dried-up river bed not far from the Nile? So what if they find themselves in U.S. history classes with the grandchildren of Mubarak and Anwar Sadat?

Even though most of the students have adjusted academically — many say the workload in Falls Church is more manageable than in Cairo — their frustrations are mounting.

The seniors in the group are particularly eager to return. In June, they are due to graduate in front of the Pyramids of Giza, dressed in red and white robes. They hope to get their diplomas, grab hold of the limestone — normally off limits — and climb the base of the monuments, posing for photos that might one day decorate college dorm rooms.

“It’s something we all look forward to,” said Phoebe Bredin, 17, “graduating with all of our friends, in the middle of such an amazing place. I just hope we’re back in time.”

sieffk@washpost.com

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan since 2012. He served previously as an education reporter in Washington, and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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