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Linda Hoover and children at the Khaki Afghan refugee camp
Linda Hoover hands out notebooks and pencils to children at the Khaki Afghan refugee camp near the city of Mansehra, Pakistan.

Easing the plight of the displaced

Love of travel and adventure leads to foreign service career

By Nancy Wesenberg

Beneath Linda Hoover's professional exterior — dark suit and sleek haircut — lurks the spirit of an adventurer. For proof, just ask her about the list of cities with Foreign Service posts on which she last bid in the fall of 2005. They included Beirut, Tripoli, Sarajevo, Islamabad and Khartoum.

"This was the first time I didn't have to worry about taking my children along," explained Hoover, who has worked in the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service for the past 14 years and has a son and a daughter. "They were both in college by then."

In 2006 Hoover was posted to Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. She works for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), which she said is one of the smaller bureaus within the State Department. She is the refugee coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, monitoring and evaluating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose health, education, water and sanitation projects are funded by the United States for the benefit of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

In April, just after returning from a trip to Afghanistan to review settlement options for returnees, she returned to the United States to see family and friends for a few weeks, and en route from Illinois to northern Wisconsin she stopped at UW-Eau Claire to talk about her most recent posting and her career in the Foreign Service.

"I love my job," Hoover said. "It's exciting, depressing, frustrating and wonderful."

According to Hoover, there are still some 2.2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. They first started coming about 28 years ago when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

"The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan the Durand Line is very fluid, very porous," Hoover said. "So there are close links between the two populations, and some are ethnically related."

Hoover works closely with the United Nations High Commission-er for Refugees, which assists host countries working with refugees and migrating populations. She said the G-8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), along with the European Union, are involved in donating funds to help Afghans who have been displaced, and they are working to establish new townships back in Afghanistan as they continue to repatriate.

"PRM funds a number of NGO projects that are working to provide basic services like water, sanitation, housing, roads, schools and clinics, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Hoover said. "I visit projects here to monitor how the funds are being spent and see the education, clinics and water source programs that are being implemented. There is also an emphasis on training the Afghans to help themselves."

For example, Hoover said she had recently attended the opening of a new obstetrics health clinic where they were training birth attendants to deliver babies. Save the Children rehabilitated an old clinic, which now serves several Afghan refugee camps as well as neighboring Pakistani women.

"Some of these projects reach so many people for so little money," Hoover said. "I have enormous respect for these NGOs. They really know how to stretch a dollar."

Save the Children, Mercy Corps, Church World Service, the American Refugee Committee and the International Medical Corps are just a few of the organizations with whom Hoover works.

In her free time, Hoover and her husband, Darek, an engineer also employed by the State Department, socialize with some of the NGO staffers, members of the U.K. and Canadian high commissions, Embassy staff, and some Afghans and Pakistanis.

"This is the first post where we couldn't have visitors from home because of the danger," Hoover said.

Still, Hoover said she and Darek enjoy living in Islamabad, and she has already signed on to extend her stay by another year. She explained that while most Foreign Service postings are for two to three years, those in more dangerous or "hardship" areas are usually just one-year commitments, unless officers volunteer to stay longer.

"There is a saying that Islamabad is about 20 miles outside of Pakistan," Hoover said, explaining that the city is quite modern in comparison to the rest of the country. It was built in the northeastern part of the country in the 1960s to replace Karachi as Pakistan's capital, so it is a carefully planned city, laid out in a grid with different sectors and zones: the diplomatic enclave, commercial district, educational sector, industrial area and so on.

Temperatures in the city range from a daytime low of about 70 degrees to as high as 105 or more.

Hoover and her husband live in an older residential area of the city, and, for safety reasons, their movements are somewhat restricted.

"We are only allowed to drive within the city limits we go to the market to pick up fruits and vegetables, for instance but when we go anywhere outside the city we have drivers."

Hoover has learned a smattering of Urdu, just one of the languages spoken in Pakistan, but she usually travels with a translator for her work.

Hoover's interest in foreign languages and travel date back to her years at UW-Eau Claire, where she majored in German and minored in English for secondary teaching. During that time she went to Germany for a summer and ended up staying a whole year.

"This was before the European Union was formed, and it was easier for Americans to work in Europe in those days," Hoover said.

After she returned to UW-Eau Claire, receiving her bachelor's degree in 1976, Hoover's desire for travel and adventure led her to teach English in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Eventually she married, settled down to raise a family, and taught high school German and English in the Midwest for a while.

But as her children grew, so did Hoover's desire for more exciting work, and for some time she worked in the international division of a musical instrument company.

"I had always been interested in the Foreign Service, but somehow I always thought diplomats must be very special people a breed apart," she said.

Finally, though, Hoover decided to go for it. She went to her local library to get information about the Foreign Service and signed up for exams. In 1993 Hoover was informed that the Foreign Service wanted her, and she moved her family to Washington, D.C., for a 10-month training period. Her children were in the third and sixth grades at the time.

Hoover's first tour of duty, with cycles that run summer to summer, was in Warsaw, Poland, from 1994 to 1996, when Poland was dealing with privatization in a pre-European Union environment. There she performed different kinds of consular work, learning her new profession. Her next tour, from 1996 to 1998, was in Frankfurt, Germany, and 1998 to 2000 found her back in Warsaw, following economic trends to report to Washington, working to further the policy goals of the United States, and dealing with everything from cell phone ranges to Poland's efforts to join the European Union. From 2000 to 2004 she was again in Germany, this time in Munich, where she became a section head responsible for seeing to the welfare of the more than 100,000 U.S. citizens living in Bavaria at the time, from private citizens to military personnel. Issues for her section included passports, consular reports of births and deaths of Americans, and international custody battles.

The typical Foreign Service career, according to Hoover, involves working about 60 percent overseas and 40 percent at the State Department, so from the summer of 2004 to that of 2006, she worked in Washington, D.C., as a desk officer in charge of the American citizen service units in East and West Africa, covering 14 to 20 countries.

"You have to be available for worldwide service," Hoover said, explaining the change from European postings to her desk service covering Africa.

Hoover said she would recommend the Foreign Service to any UW-Eau Claire graduates interested in foreign languages and cultures.

"In your first two tours you do all kinds of different things," Hoover said. "But then you typically pick an area to specialize in political, economic, consular, management or public affairs work and stay in that area for most of your career. My career, however, hasn't really been typical," she said, smiling.

Nancy Wesenberg is a writer for the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

 

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