"What do you want us to do?"
Over the frustrating past 10 months, we have heard some version of that question over and over from the elected and appointed officials who are paid to lead us at home and look after our interests abroad. When we call the U.S. embassies in the countries where our loved ones have gone missing, we vaguely expect (having watched too much TV) that someone in a wood-paneled office at the far end of the phone line is taking down a dark blue binder with official-looking gold lettering. The binder, we naively imagine, contains the standard operating procedures that go into effect when something like this happens. We expect to hear a soothing official voice say, "Okay, calm down, sir or madam. This is what we are going to do, and here is the information we need from you to make sure everything goes smoothly."
Instead, we get: "What do you want us to do?"
From here, our stories vary, depending on how many Congresspeople our families and friends are able to marshall in a ridiculously short amount of time. For all my family's frustration, we realize now that we were among the lucky ones, for no reason other than having a large and geographically dispersed network of people who are not shy about cold calling "people who matter." If the missing person is, for example, the only child of immigrants or part of a culture that is conditioned not to question authority or ask for favors, that person's family will get far less attention than my obnoxious, assertive clan was able to.
At the end of the day, however -- unless you have some special standing or important connections -- you are on your own.
The Missing Americans Project wants to change that.
Most of us in the project have lost people and felt the utter aloneness in which we must quickly become experts in things we never expected to touch: organizing an international search and rescue operation; working with the media; identifying, locating, and contacting relevant government officials; building relationships a thousand miles away with people you have never met, deciding on their trustworthiness within desperate moments so you can give them your credit card information and get their aircraft off the ground. We have had some of the the most painful educations imaginable, learning to work and hope without the benefit of expert advice or guidance. No matter what we do, we know in our hearts we are too late, but we go on anyway because -- what else can you do?
No family should have to do this alone. Not when their tax dollars fund embassies with something called an Office of American Citizens Services. Not when more of our tax dollars flow into these countries in the form of aid. Not when philanthropic organizations send still more money and people into these countries to provide humanitarian assistance.
And not when millions of tourists converge on these "vacation paradises" every year to be parted from their dollars, feeling safe in the pronouncements of travel websites and brochures.
The Missing Americans Project is an embryonic organization with outsized ambitions. We will, in time, grow to where we can educate travelers, provide rapid-response capabilities that our governments are unwilling or unable to provide, and address the needs of families of people who get into trouble. I have no doubt that we will succeed, but here is what we are going to need:
* Lawyers - We need lawyers with large global firms who understand the loopholes and pressure points of international jurisprudence. We need them not only to assist with the investigative aspects of our activities but also to advocate for the families who find themselves in the purgatory of having a family member who is, officially, neither dead nor alive.
* Guns - Let's pray it doesn't come to that.
* Money - We have all benefited from the kindness of friends and strangers in our efforts to find our loved ones. Nevertheless, this process is a bottomless money pit. We need to create a foundation that will be able to help fund our ambitious activities. We need people with expertise in the nonprofit world and fundraising.
We also need researchers (no one seems to collect and analyze the sort of data we need to convince our leaders that a problem actually exists); we need creative types -- writers, podcasters, filmmakers, etc. -- to help us tell our stories; we need networks of goodhearted people on the ground in every high-risk geography, people who are willing to be our eyes and ears on their soil.
And we need the harsh glare of media attention on the issue of missing adults in foreign lands because sunshine is still the best disinfectant. We need to get the State Department to either acknowledge on record that U.S. citizens who get into trouble abroad and their families are simply on their own without recourse -- or to explain what standard operating procedures apply in such cases and to defend their performance in terms of those standards.
We need transparency. We need accountability.
We need leaders.