Not just tales of many travels during a too-short life, they are the story of an FS community that supported her, and supports us all.
BY LESLIE BASSETT
Expatriates share the wanderlust gene embedded deep in our DNA— perhaps a throwback to nomadic ancestors, perhaps just a tick in the evolutionary clock. Whatever its origin, it prompts us to constant movement, exploration, investigation and introspection. It means we carry with us always the cords of childhood that connect us to family and the bonds of global adventures (and misadventures) that link us to a found community of like spirits. We carry home in backpacks, suitcases and shipping boxes. We carry families in our hearts, our stories, our much-thumbed photos and our social media.
Jessica el Bechir was an explorer, a truth-teller and a colleague whose indelible spirit made her a cherished member of many families, both genetic and peripatetic. She was itinerant even in her youth—first an exchange student, then a Peace Corps Volunteer before joining the State Department Foreign Service. I knew her as a consular officer and general services officer in Seoul. From there she transferred to Rangoon to run the Office of Human Resources. Wherever she was, Jessica’s passion for life and for her daughter, her blistering frankness and her irrepressible energy were effervescent. She shared her views, her plant-garnished cocktails, her friendship and her compassion with equal fervor. When Jessica was tragically killed in an accident in Vietnam in March 2017, her birth family and her traveling families came together to grieve, to remember and to bring her home to Louisiana and to all the other places she loved.
Jessica’s journeys are not just tales of many travels during a too-short life. They are the story of an FS community that supported her—and supports us all—on our itinerant journey through life.
Like all of her many friends, I was shocked by the news that Jessica had died while on vacation in Vietnam. We exchanged what little we knew on Facebook, united by a quickly established memorial page. She had taken a last-minute weekend trip with embassy friends, then came a motorcycle accident and tragedy. We shared photos and memories as the news spread; we shared our shock and sorrow, as well. Like the other 500 people who eventually joined us on Facebook, I couldn’t believe she was gone.
I could imagine, though, what it would take to bring her home. The death of an embassy colleague is devastating. You are torn between overwhelming grief, the need to inform and comfort others, and the imperative to make decisions. It fell initially to her traveling companions and embassy teams in both Vietnam and Myanmar to care for the surviving victims, protect Jess and support her family. As the news spread around the world, Jessica’s friends and families began to pull together.
In Rangoon Jessica’s supervisor and friend, Lisa Povolni, was enjoying a slow Sunday when she heard the news. Many of the responsibilities were hers as management counselor; she would take on many more as Jessica’s friend. Lisa remembers: “I went to the embassy and started logging on to the computer to get Jess’ next-of-kin information. I sent that to the ambassador and deputy chief of mission; and the ambassador called Jess’ mother. He asked her mother how she wanted to notify Jessica’s daughter. Jess’ mother asked us to handle the notification, but then to immediately Facetime her, so she could talk to her granddaughter.”
“A small group of us went to Jessica’s apartment,” Lisa recalls. “We broke the news to her daughter, and spent the next hours comforting her and talking to her family. We found out that Jess’ grandfather was in Australia and could get to Rangoon quickly.” That quickly turned into a three-country odyssey that involved Consulate Sydney, Embassy Kuala Lumpur and continued engagement by Embassy Rangoon to overcome visa and travel obstacles; but he made it in time to attend Jessica’s flag ceremony the first work day after the accident.
“The entire embassy community gathered at the flagpole; and staff, mostly local staff, had purchased hundreds of flowers,” remembers Lisa. “The ambassador said a few words; we observed a moment of silence; and the Marines took down the flag, folded it and presented it to Jess’ grandfather. After that, each embassy staff member came one by one to the flagpole to lay flowers in memory of Jess. It was an incredibly moving moment.”
That same day a survivor of the accident, Jessica’s colleague and friend R.C. Bitting, spoke with Jessica’s family from his hospital bed in Hanoi. He remembers: “This was the most difficult phone conversation I’ve ever had, but Jess’ mother, father and grandfather were so supportive of my recovery. Others have credited them for bringing me back from a growing dark depression.”
At the embassy in Rangoon, the ceremony was over but not the grieving. Lisa continues: “Our medical officer suggested turning Jess’ office into a memorial to allow people a place to mourn and absorb the loss. After the flag ceremony, management staff filled her office with vases of flowers and set up a small memorial with a photo of Jess and a blank memory book for staff to use to write memories of her. We left the light on and the door open so anyone could come in.”
Jessica’s scattered community of friends was still grieving too. Facebook served as our memory book, and also as a call to action. Jessica’s Washington friends collected toys and gifts for her daughter. Others curated a playlist of Jessica’s favorite songs. Former Peace Corps colleagues gathered photos that poured in from around the world. Amidst it all Jessica’s mother, Suzette Daniel, and her family offered comfort and grace to Jessica’s farflung friends.
Lisa volunteered to bring Jessica’s remains back to Louisiana— an honor, but also a nightmare tangle of “Fly America” and other rules. Managing sorrow and bureaucracy at the same time is a superhuman task. Lisa recounts: “On the third day after Jess’ death, I became incredibly angry in my grief; and for lack of a better target, my anger was directed completely at our bureaucracy. I woke up to multiple action messages from Washington offices that obviously were not coordinating with each other. Digging through their to-do items for us was taking me away from supporting Jess’ family and our team. The bureaucracy does not step up in situations like this, but people do.”
We followed Jessica’s homecoming through Lisa’s Facebook posts. From Rangoon to Hanoi, and then to Ho Chi Minh City, supported in both places by embassy and consulate staff. Then the long flight to Dubai, then to Dulles and bad weather that delayed their onward travel for agonizing days. Then a flight to Atlanta and yet another delay.
And finally, as Lisa remembers: “As we were landing in New Orleans, I talked to the head flight attendant to make sure I could get off the plane first to meet Jess’ family on the tarmac. He was a retired Army veteran and he asked, ‘Who are you bringing home?’ I told him about Jess, and about her daughter; he had tears in his eyes as we talked. I met Jess’ family on the tarmac, and the first person I saw was her mother. She walked over to me and gave me a big hug. The only words that came out of my mouth were, ‘I’m so sorry. I loved her so much.’ As we watched her coffin come off the plane, I noticed that the flight attendant had joined us. He was standing at attention and saluting.”
Lisa’s Facebook post read: “She’s home.”
Those who could flew, carpooled, bused and trained their way to St. Francisville, Louisiana, in early April for a somber, loud, joyous and sorrowful celebration of Jessica’s life. Her favorite songs played loudly. People toasted her with plantgarnished cocktails and shared their many stories of Jessica as a red-headed handful in school, as an exchange student in Ireland, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mauritania, as a dedicated and fun-loving mother, as a friend and as a Foreign Service officer. As the sun settled into the horizon, her friends and families launched dream lanterns into the starry night sky, each one representing the many good memories. At Embassy Rangoon friends and colleagues looked to the sunny sky, thought of Jessica and created a sundial in the garden to mark the light she left in many lives.
Nomads call many places home. Jessica’s family shared her ashes with her many wandering friends, with the request that they leave some in the places she loved best. Jessica now swims in the clear waters of the French Caribbean. She smiles from the tallest limbs of a North Carolina pine tree. She waits on the banks of the Nile. She dances on the westernmost point of Africa. She applauds at Madison Square Garden. She is remembered at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and in the embassy garden there whenever the sun shines. Her parents left her along every beach in California and at the Sea of Cortez. Most important, Jessica basks in the Louisiana heat, watching her daughter flower into a young woman.
Life in the Foreign Service can seem lonely, and our lives can feel remote from those we love most. Jessica reminds us that the communities of friends we build along the way are family, too. We have room in our hearts, and in our lives, for all and then some.