Ithaca College Quarterly, Summer 1998

 

A Sense of the World

By Liz Holmes

U.S. Foreign Service officer Jamari Salleh '71 has covered a whole lot of ground since leaving Little Italy behind.

Growing up on Mott Street in New York City, Jamari Salleh ’71 and her siblings didn’t quite fit in. In the middle of Little Italy, they were the children of a Malaysian father and a Puerto Rican mother. "We used to get hit with eggs," she remembers. "The Spanish gangs would come over" to clash with Italian gangs, "and we’d hide out at home."

Now she sees the meeting of distinctive cultures from a different angle, as assistant general services officer in the United States Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua. Her fluent Spanish helps her move easily between cultures, and she works comfortably with a large staff, most of whom are Nicaraguans.

Jamari Salleh '71Salleh’s Foreign Service career, which began in 1981, has taken her to posts in Mexico City, Montreal (for which she learned French), Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic), and Washington, D.C., at the Bureau of Consular Affairs. She also worked in the State Department’s human rights office, studying and making recommendations on the cases of Central Americans seeking political or humanitarian asylum in the United States. As a consular officer in foreign capitals, she issued immigrant and tourist visas and performed all kinds of social services for Americans abroad. At times she would have to report a birth, let a U.S. citizen know that his family back home was desperate to hear from him, or visit an American in jail. Once, an elderly American who was traveling alone became ill in her office in Mexico City. She called an ambulance, accompanied him to the hospital, and stayed with him until he died that evening, later arranging for notification of his family.

Fortunately, she has seldom had to deal with the kind of cultural collisions that happened back in Little Italy, since most travelers, she finds, tend to be tolerant. After all, "the reason you travel is to experience difference."

Salleh’s job in Managua is primarily administrative, involving things like property leasing and the purchasing of equipment for the embassy. Despite her liking for the consular work she had done earlier, she took administrative training so she could work in the same embassy with her husband, consul general Bob Blohm, without incurring the nepotism charges that might arise if both tried to work in the consular field.

When they were first assigned to Managua, Salleh was dismayed. "I had said I’d go anywhere [in Latin America] except Nicaragua. All I knew about it was that it was poor, and there had been a war --- and an earthquake." Today, though, Salleh describes herself as "very happy" in Managua. Since her arrival in 1996, conditions in the country have improved considerably. Nicaraguans who fled to the United States during the war years are returning, and so are foreign investors. "It’s the only place I know," says Salleh, "where the archbishop and the president of the country would attend the groundbreaking for a Holiday Inn!"

The country still has severe problems. The vast majority of its people are poor, a small minority are wealthy, and there is virtually no middle class. The streets of Managua are full of hawkers and beggars, many of them homeless children addicted to glue sniffing and crack. But Salleh feels that efforts are being made to address the problems, and she likes the people enormously. "They all suffered in the war," she says. "Everyone lost a brother, a sister, their property." Whether rich or poor, "there’s something humble, something approachable about all of them."  

 

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