Children of diplomats displaced by strife often caught between two worlds

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 11:29 AM

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.

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