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Welcome to "Ask the State Department" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to State Department officials.

Over 14,000 U.S. citizens passed through Cyprus and Turkey upon departing Lebanon recently. A trying situation turned to relief when ships and planes ferried U.S. citizens out of harm's way. Ronald Schlicher, U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus, answered questions about the scene on-the-ground in Cyprus during the assisted departure of U.S. citizens from Lebanon.

Ronald Schlicher, U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus
Ronald Schlicher,
U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus

Barbara from Grand Junction, Colorado writes:

Not a question, just a thank you. I was one of the thousands of evacuees that landed in Cyprus last week. I appreciate all of the organization and the coordination of all involved in our evacuation. Thank you very much, I'm sure you and all your staff were stretched as thin as it gets.

Ambassador Schlicher:

Thank you for your expression of appreciation. As you indicate, the Embassy, our military colleagues, and volunteers from the Cypriot and American communities worked 24/7 to help bring Americans back home to their loved ones.

Gary from Nashville, Tennessee writes:

Ambassador, Greetings from an old law school classmate. What can the troubled history of the nation of your current posting, Cyprus, teach the U.S. and the international community about dealing with seemingly intractable ethnic, religious, and national disputes such as those faced in the Middle East? Do the Cypriots have lessons--positive or negative--to offer their neighbors to the east?

Ambassador Schlicher:

Cypriots have recent memories of 1974, when 200,000 people out of a population of 600,000 were forced to leave their homes. Many Cypriots have told me that they identify with people in Lebanon who are displaced or seeking refuge. This could be one explanation for the tremendous outpouring of support we have witnessed here in Cyprus for Americans arriving from Lebanon to Cyprus before returning home.

This is a good opportunity to thank the Cypriot government and people for the tremendous support they provided. The government opened its ports and airports to us, provided us with hundreds of cots at an emergency shelter. Businesses donated milk, baby food, cereal, bread, and medicine for Americans who were waiting at the fairgrounds for onward flights, and individuals by the hundreds volunteered their time and made individual donations as well. It was a heart warming outpouring of support.

I think a lesson learned here is that sometimes the most difficult times bring out the best in people. On a more political level, my personal impression is that both Cyprus and Lebanon, in order to achieve stability and meet the aspirations of their people, must find domestic political frameworks which, while somehow taking account of ethnic and cultural and religious diversity, provide a common basis of guaranteed rights, rather as our forebearers did in writing our own Constitution. This is the essence of the political task before the Cypriots, with the UN serving as the mediator in the effort. The Cypriots have sensibly decided that the best way to achieve a solution is through a political process, rather than through communal violence and militarization. This is a good example to other countries with similar issues in need of resolution.

Andre from Florida writes:

Congratulations on your competent job you did and are doing in Cyprus. How can we find out about people who have been left behind in Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey?

Ambassador Schlicher:

Thank you, Andre. The first place I would contact for inquiries of this sort is the toll-free information line at the Department of State. If you are in the United States, you can call 1-888-407-4747. If you are outside of the U.S., you can call 001-202-501-4444.

Larry from College Park, Maryland writes: Is it true that the U.S. has been slower to evacuate its citizens than other countries?

Ambassador Schlicher:

Our mission was to help over 13,000 Americans and their family members return home safely and quickly. The priority for us was in planning a major effort that would need to help many thousands of people, a much larger pool of people than most nations need to help. So far, the United States has brought more than 13,000 people, 12,500 of whom are Americans citizens from Lebanon. We have already sent over 10,000 people back to the United States. I would also like to emphasize that countries around the world are banding together and cooperating to assist departures from Lebanon. The first group of Americans who arrived in Cyprus by boat, for example, arrived on a Norwegian-chartered ship. Similarly, we have helped hundreds of citizens from other countries leave Lebanon safely.

Raphaella from Maryland writes:

Could you describe how you handled such a huge evacuation because I heard that over 12,000 Americans were evacuated from Lebanon? There are mixed reviews. However, I believe it was handled well.

Ambassador Schlicher:

Thank you, Raphaella. The Embassy here had to start from scratch to respond to this emergency. We have worked 24/7 for over two weeks and set up an infrastructure to move thousands of Americans out of Lebanon and back to the U.S. To meet the challenge, we enlisted the efforts of every single American and Cypriot member of our local staff, plus the services of dozens of colleagues "borrowed" from other embassies around the world. We set up command centers and control rooms in Nicosia, in Larnaca, and in Limassol. We coordinated very closely with our Cypriot government hosts, who responded with amazing compassion and efficiency. We chartered large commercial ships to bring out thousands of our citizens, while our Navy's ships brought out thousands more. We used military and civilian chartered aircraft - more than 50 large planes - to take our folks back to America. We also s coordinated close with our military colleagues, and this was a real success. There was also a smaller, parallel operation to ferry some Americans out by helicopter. Here on Cyprus, we had to mobilize bus fleets to take sometimes as many as 2,000 people at a time from the ports to airports, or to the international fairgrounds in Nicosia, where they stayed in an emergency shelter we had set up, until a flight was available. All of these people needed consular assistance, from entering and departing Cyprus, to lost passports and papers, to meeting medical needs, translation assistance, and contacting their loved ones. I would also note that we saw extraordinary volunteerism from Cypriot citizens and our local American community in taking care of our people in need.

Felipe from Bethesda, Maryland writes:

What has been the biggest challenge for the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus?

Ambassador Schlicher:

The biggest challenge was, undoubtedly, a multifaceted logistical task undertaken on short notice at many levels on many issues: first, getting sufficient airplanes to send our fellow citizens home and, secondly, trying to coordinate the arrivals of ships, often carrying more than 1,000 Americans, with the onward flights. We had to set up an emergency shelter at the fairgrounds, where more than 8,000 stayed. We would move 1,000 out and take another 1,000 in. We also had to find them food and water and medical support, set up security to keep them safe, sponsor recreation activities for the children, and arrange for onward travel to the U.S. We even set up a travel agency in the fairgrounds. We provided more than 6,000 blankets; 4,000 sheets; thousands of towels and pillows; 1800 cots; a 6-person shower unit; 50 wheelchairs; approximately 20 portable fans; hot meals as well as countless Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's), and health and comfort kits. We also installed phone lines, a DSL Internet line, and a registration service on Google that allows families to track their loved ones.

Jason from Rockville, Maryland writes:

What are you doing to help Americans get home?

Ambassador Schlicher:

We're doing everything we can. Lots of the earlier questions give you a lot of the details. I have to say that our Embassy team has shown tremendous dedication working 24/7 to help over 12,000 of our fellow citizens arrive home safely, while our colleagues from the military have provided outstanding material, logistical, and planning support for this mammoth humanitarian operation.

Ehsan from Iran writes:

I know you have made a real big task on evacuating U.S. citizens from Lebanon and send them to the U.S. But I am a student and waiting for your consulate to issue my visa and start my studies in the U.S. When will they start working on this?

Ambassador Schlicher:

Helping Americans depart Lebanon and return to the United States has been a huge job and took up nearly all of our time and resources. Now that most Americans have returned home, we are going back and finishing all the work that had to be put aside during the crisis. We are making a special effort to assist students and others who need visas to travel quickly to the U.S.

Christian from Vermont writes:

With thousands of refugees in Cyprus and continued fighting in Lebanon, how will this affect the security situation in Cyprus? Our institution sends 12-15 U.S. undergraduate students to Nicosia every semester to study.

Cyprus continues to be a very safe country. The vast majority of people who arrived in Cyprus have already left. News reports indicated that of the almost 50,000 arrivals from Lebanon, fewer than 6,000 were still in country. Please consult http://www.state.gov for information about travel advisories.

Mike from California writes:

Hi Ambassador Schlicher, I was wondering is the condition in Cyprus, the tension between the Northern Turkish government and the Southern Greek government, worsened or improved in recent times? Also, since many evacuees from Lebanon have sought haven in Cyprus which portion of Cyprus is more willing to open its doors to these evacuees, the Southern or Northern portion? Are Americans fleeing the violence more safe if taken by ship to the Turkish or Greek portion of Cyprus? Best Regards.

Ambassador Schlicher:

First, let me note that the United States Government recognizes the Government of Cyprus in Nicosia as the sovereign government of the island, and does not and will not recognize what is known as the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus". Still, in our effort to help reunite the island, we work with both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in the pursuit of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation.

Recently, there has been some movement on the Cyprus issue. United Nations Undersecretary General Ibrahim Gambari visited the island a few weeks ago and brokered an agreement between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders to begin talking about confidence building measures, day-to-day issues and questions of substance that could pave the way for a comprehensive Cyprus settlement agreement. The United States is very supportive of this process, and we will do everything we can to assist the UN's efforts to broker a deal that is acceptable to both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.

With regard to your other question on the assisted departure of Americans from Lebanon: the vast majority of the arrivals from Lebanon have come through Limassol, Paphos, and Larnaca, and our operations in Cyprus have been conducted exclusively through these ports.

Cody from Lewiston, Idaho writes:

Dear Ambassador Schlicher, This year my 7th grade class will be studying the U.S. Government. My teacher asked me to ask some people what it means to be an American. So, I thought it might be a good idea to ask some people who serve us in the government this question. I know you are very busy, but I was really hoping you might answer what it means to you to be an American so that I can present it to my class at the beginning of school. I was also wondering what you think Ms. Rice would say to this question.

Ambassador Schlicher:

Cody, that's a very good question and entire books have been written on that subject. America is a unique country in that freedom-loving people from all over the world can become American citizens, and enjoy the rights and protections afforded us in our Constitution. In spite of the regional, religious, racial, and other differences, certain traits are shared by all Americans. First and foremost, I would say that Americans are freedom-loving. This trait often expresses itself in the famous American individualism, in respect for individual rights, in the belief that all people are created equal, and even in the belief in a free market. Given our belief in equal opportunities, we feel we can shape our own future and get ahead through hard work. This sort of thinking characterizes our domestic life and also our approach to pursuing our foreign-policy goals. I would also note that pursuing a career which has required me to live most of my adult life outside the United States has made me even more appreciative of our country and the values embodied in our Constitution.
I cannot speak for Secretary of State Rice, but her life is an inspirational example of how a woman born in the segrated south could overcome the evils of bigotry and racism and devote herself to public service at the highest level.

Paulette from San Francisco, California writes:

Did you find the U.S citizens landing in Cyprus from Lebanon to be appreciative or demanding?

Ambassador Schlicher:

We have had a tremendous outpouring of gratitude from the overwhelming majority of Americans whom we helped. The general reaction was one of enormous relief to be getting out of harm's way and on their way home. They appreciated all that we and our colleagues in Beirut did to help them. It was a difficult situation for all, and we understand why people sometimes felt frustrated.

Heather from Washington, DC writes: Ambassador, the operation you put together to accommodate the citizens evacuated from Lebanon was phenomenal. How did you organize resources so quickly? How is personnel put together in that short a period? I'm interested in the tactical aspects.

Ambassador Schlicher:

Thank you for your comments. To help make this happen, every American and every Cypriot member of our local staff worked flat-out, along with temporary help from approximately 150 of our colleagues from Embassies around the world. Our military colleagues provided naval engineers, a full-time medical support unit, and helicopter connectivity to Beirut. They also moved humanitarian assistance into Lebanon. Our military responded to our every need here in Cyprus, specifically at the fairgrounds, where many from their own team also were staying. They made beds, took care of individual needs, cleaned, carried out administrative duties, and assisted in the offloading and onward movement of Americans leaving Lebanon. We also had extraordinary support from Cypriots who donated truckloads of water, food, and other necessities.

To help entertain the children at the temporary shelter, we organized soccer games, clown and magic shows, and set up a children's corner. We took people on shopping trips and tours of Nicosia. Local teenagers opened up a cafeteria in the shelter where they provided fresh food and beverages, while American children helped coordinate the distribution of health and comfort kits and arranged activities such as art contests. The American community donated reading material, games and toys. So you can see, it was a real community effort.

Ashley from Winona, Minnesota writes:

How do you as the American Ambassador to Cyprus and your staff deal with an influx of American nationals flowing in and out of your district due to mass evacuations from other areas in the region? What goes through your mind?

Ambassador Schlicher:

Our first thought was always the safety of our fellow citizens and their safe return home as soon as possible. The whole Department of State was mobilized for this mission with full support from the Department of Defense and other agencies. The answers to the other questions will give you a good taste of how we did this in practical terms.

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