THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
MatthewR. (Matt) Johnson has been refugee coordinator
for the U.S. Mission in Turkey since September 2014. He
previously worked on refugee issues at State’s Bureau of
Population, Refugees andMigration as a programofficer
covering the Balkans and the Caucasus. He joined the Foreign Service
in 2002 and has served in Bogota, Sarajevo andMadrid, as well as on a
Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan, Afghanistan.
eaving the familiar and comfortable confines
of Madrid and Western Europe behind me,
I arrived in Turkey in mid-September 2014
as the first refugee coordinator sent there by
the State Department’s Bureau of Population,
Refugees and Migration. I landed in the eve-
ning, checked in (partially) at the consulate
in Adana the next day and immediately set
off on a five-day whirlwind trip to Istanbul,
Gaziantep and Antakya (Antioch) in support of a visit by PRM's
principal deputy assistant secretary.
Arriving back in Adana, I thought I would have a chance to
breathe and do some of the mundane things we take for granted:
unpack, buy groceries, familiarize myself with my new home.
Instead, the so-called Islamic State group (ISIS, or ISIL) began
its siege of Kobane, in northern Syria, and as I tried to organize
myself—setting up my own computerized operational space in
my nearly vacant apartment—my computer, iPad and phone
were all buzzing with emails and calls fromWashington. I
worked through most of the first few weekends to provide infor-
mation to decision-makers.
Autumn 2014—Into the Crisis
Tens of thousands of refugees fled the violence over one week-
end to Turkish villages like Suruç, just across the Syrian border.
Camps and other shelters were erected, while humanitarian
agencies began providing assistance: jerry cans to carry and save
water, food, hygiene kits, setting up sanitation facilities, vaccina-
tions, medicine and treatment for those who had been injured by
landmines. My job was to keep Washington informed and help
determine how the United States could help, so I was talking with
U.N. agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Turkish
government officials—and to refugees themselves—to gain an
understanding of the events on the ground and the needs of the
incoming refugee population.
After a week, I hopped into a car to visit Suruç. Halfway there,
I received a phone call from diplomatic security canceling the
trip—ISIL had beheaded a journalist and humanitarian worker,
and coalition air strikes were underway in Syria. We headed back
to the security of the consulate.
From Consulate Adana I monitor and evaluate the use of U.S.
funding to support refugees, advocate for humanitarian prin-
ciples with the Turkish government, prepare for mass displace-
ments and assist in the response, visit refugees and NGOs to
learn of the needs so we can use our funding appropriately, and
provide political reporting so that policymakers in Washington
are aware of ground truth in areas like Kobane and can make
decisions on how best to address this complex situation.
Recently this has meant flying to Ankara to work with U.N.
agencies and the Turkish government to learn how they plan to
implement new regulations that would provide more medium-
On the Ground
These notes from the diary of an FSO refugee coordinator in Turkey
convey the realities of the humanitarian crisis spreading from the Middle East.
BY MATTHEW R . JOHNSON
ON HUMANITARIAN DIPLOMACY