Demetria Charlifue’s work on the U.S. State Department’s Afghanistan Taskforce reflects a desire to serve the vulnerable in crisis situations.
By Micaela Burrow
Demetria Charlifue, a second-year Master of International Affairs (MIA) student at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, begins her shift as an intern at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs by skimming through hundreds of field reports from the ground in Afghanistan.
In the best case scenario, Charlifue overlooks information a congressman or interest group might need for satisfying constituents’ interests. In the worst case, a policymaker fails to receive critical intelligence that would support decision making on issues involving the lives of American citizens.
She has thirty minutes.
“I felt very prepared,” she said, referring to the technical demands of her appointment. Professors at the Bush School had assigned stacks of complicated reading to students each week, reflective of the real demands placed on individuals in public service careers. “I’m grateful to have had two semesters of that reading load under my belt.”
The Bush School requires that all students in the International Affairs program pursue either an internship or language immersion in the summer between their first and second year.
But for Charlifue, beginning a virtual Pathways internship with the U.S. State Department in summer 2021 meant more than just fulfilling a degree requirement. A desire to serve the vulnerable through diplomacy has motivated her since long before beginning her graduate studies. She worked the visa window at the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt during the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016.
“I got to see the plight of these people coming to the U.S. Embassy at their most vulnerable moments,” Charlifue said. That image remained with Charlifue as she applied and was accepted into the program, which allows participants to transition into a civil service appointment upon fulfilling a yearlong internship.
Initially, the Bureau stationed her in the Office of Children’s Issues, where she assisted in policymaking and implementation to support the Department’s interests regarding children’s welfare issues, such as intercountry adoption and parental abduction. Her duties involved providing communications services to mediate between the office and other stakeholders, such as Congress, the Department of Homeland Security, and other consular offices overseas.
When the opportunity arose to participate on the Afghanistan Taskforce to facilitate the U.S. withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Charlifue put the skills she learned at the Bush School to the test.
“The Afghanistan mission was deeply personal to me. It was something that I wanted to give back to support our Afghan allies and American citizens abroad,” said Charlifue. Her parents, both career Foreign Service officers, previously served at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
For anyone in the Foreign Service community, assisting in lifesaving missions is “not a requirement, but an expectation,” according to Charlifue. Nearly the entire Office of Children’s Issues, consisting of roughly 100 people, stepped up. Charlifue said she volunteered “not knowing that it would mobilize into the huge conglomerate that it did.“
After the United States withdrew its forward military presence in Afghanistan and shut down its embassy, Afghanistan’s capital city, the Taliban overcame the Afghan Armed Forces and swept into Kabul. Thousands of American citizens and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders were endangered.
According to Charlifue, the Afghanistan Taskforce had begun making arrangements for potential mass mobilization of personnel and qualified individuals from Afghanistan since the Taskforce was created in mid-July, before the first provincial Afghan capital fell to the Taliban.
“The stepping stones were in place,” she said. “People forget that the Department did a mass repatriation during COVID to help repatriate American citizens who were abroad, so a lot of my colleagues were very well versed in what crisis management looked like from that effort. We were ready to step in.”
Two weeks before Charlifue shared her experience, on August 14, the Bureau issued the mandate to commence emergency evacuations from Afghanistan. Charlifue explained that the Taskforce anticipated a chaotic, unpredictable, and at times dangerous exit, and they were right.
“The security situation was so fluid that we had to redirect at a moment’s notice,” she said. And when the circumstances on the ground shifted, guidance from top officials about how to conduct the evacuation would change along with it. “The information coordination channels had to be almost picture perfect to manage that really fluid timeline.”
For example, Charlifue described how the Taskforce had issued guidance to approved individuals regarding which airport gate was safe to pass through. The information leaked within hours to the throngs of Afghans who had fled to the airport in hopes of escaping. “People were crowding the gates and then nobody could get through. We had to quickly reconnect and issue new guidance,” she said.
Working twelve-hour shifts through the night, Charlifue supported the congressional team of the Taskforce. Much like in her function in the Office of Children’s Issues, Charlifue was charged with liaising between the Taskforce and Congress, relaying critical information minute-by-minute.
“I felt like because I’m young and don’t have childcare responsibilities that I could serve the mission best if I took the graveyard shifts. I don’t think it’s something I would do again, though.”
Others in her office coordinated with embassies in other countries to organize and staff call centers for evacuating endangered individuals and expedite processing to get them into the United States or “lily-pads,” temporary sanctuaries in third countries.
“It was a mass effort,” said Charlifue. “It was a huge commendable effort and a testimony to how quickly we had to mobilize once the situation really gained momentum.”
Charlifue recalled photos of unaccompanied Afghan children that circulated on news and social media platforms. While most Americans could only watch events transpire from afar, Charlifue had the opportunity to influence the fate of many Afghan refugees, including some of those children.
“We would always get emails whenever those children had landed in Dulles airport, or we’d get pictures of them sometimes. And you’d recognize certain cases you had seen, and you’d see those kids get reunited with family overseas or be at Dulles airport with caregivers who would assist them now in moving forward. Those tugged at your heart strings and made all the other twelve-hour shifts feel really important.”
Not only was the world watching Afghanistan, but it was also watching—and often criticizing—the actions of the U.S. State Department, where Charlifue served.
“The workload was really intense, and the expectations were really high—the expectations for career folks to rise to that occasion and to do so at a very high-profile level,” said Charlifue.
“You’re talking to people who are at their most vulnerable moments. It was very difficult to separate yourself from the chaos in Kabul in order to do the work and to continue doing the work. So I think everybody who has had to serve in a crisis has a crisis mentality—a front they put up.” She said she and her colleagues will have to learn how to build resiliency and to process the pressure that comes from high-stakes assignments.
Charlifue’s participation on the Afghanistan Taskforce ended on September 3, 2021, but her internship extends until May 2022. She plans to move to Washington, DC, in December so she can work at her internship full-time in the spring while taking evening classes at the Bush School’s DC campus.
“Crisis moments are what define diplomats,” said Charlifue. “I am just so in awe of our consular officers who were working out of an embassy in Kabul one moment and then were working out of an airfield. I am constantly thinking back to the resiliency they must have had and how I can mirror that in my own way.”
At the end of her shift, Charlifue takes just five minutes to compose a shift report, preparing the person who occupies the post next for whatever the day requires.