At around 4.45pm local time on 26 October 2008, two US Black Hawk helicopters landed in Eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. They were accompanied by two smaller helicopters, hovering above the Blackhawks as two dozen CIA paramilitary soldiers scaled down to the village ground. What happened next changes depending on who you talk to. The US soldiers ran towards and entered a building – some say this only happened after they grabbed and shot some Syrian locals – and a firefight ensued. Minutes later, eight were dead. Then the Americans were gone.
And the Syrian Government was mad.
Over the next two days, tension shifted from the streets of Eastern Syria to the embassies of Damascus. The Syrian Government delivered messages of furious denouncement to the US – labelling the attack an act of ‘terrorism’ – and the US responded, predictably, by denying this. For a Syrian public that demanded justice, the focus shifted from the measured words of their TV screens to angry mobs and protests in the streets of their city. To them, this was a violation of their fundamental sovereignty.
Demonstrators didn’t just focus on the embassies in Damascus, but on one particular American school – the Damascus Community School – which had created divided opinion since it began in the 1950s. In the days after the US raid, Victor Munagala could hear the protests and shouting from inside that contentious school. Embassy protection forces were brought in to ensure the children’s safety. By 29 October, in figuring out a way to punish the US for the attack, the Syrian Government’s course of action was clear – they would shut down the Damascus Community School.
For Victor, the son of parents who both worked in the UN Diplomatic Services, this wasn’t as destabilising as one might think. As is the life of a diplomatic family, he had up-and-gone before: born in Bonn, Germany, Victor had lived in Syria before Ethiopia, and was about to move on to India and finally Australia. And he enjoyed it. The nomadic life of a diplomatic family allowed Victor to ‘better understand people’ and ‘get a good understanding of how we think’. He could see the Syrian community he spent late primary school with as friendly, warm, and human: ‘You could start chatting with randoms … taxi drivers, just about anyone, and they would start talking to you for four hours.’
Interestingly, Victor struggled the most when living in India, his parents’ country of origin. He was the kid with the funny accent, the different fashion and unusual interest in movies and TV shows. There weren’t exactly many screenings of Bollywood movies in Syria or Ethiopia. It was confronting for Victor to re-accustom himself with a culture that he was only faintly familiar: his neighbours criticised him as a bad influence on their own children, and school reminded him that he was ‘this diplomatic kid … and they were just, sort of, Indian.’
Victor isn’t alone. Egshiglen Chuluunhuu, the daughter of the Mongolian Ambassador to Australia, also felt the alienation of returning to her country of origin after stints abroad in Turkey and the US. By the end of Year 12, Egshiglen had moved between seven different schools but found the period between Year 7 and Year 9 in Mongolia to be the hardest. She found herself oftentimes caught between preserving her own identity ‘and wanting to fit into the community.’ When Egshiglen spoke about her experiences, she talked about a ‘blended’ lifestyle: she saw herself as a mix of both the values of countries she had lived in and the values of Mongolia.
There were always those short moments of insecurity where Egshiglen felt less confident speaking Mongolian when she arrived back home; or those doubts about whether she identified as a Mongolian national after living in other countries for more than half her life. Over time, both Victor and Egshiglen have come to realise that these doubts are unfounded – for these diplobrats, it was just a matter of recognising their own unique brand of identity, which was a conglomeration of multiple nationalities, languages and lived experiences.
This is a studied phenomenon. The term often coined is ‘Third Culture Kid’: which is, according to the former Education Counselor for the US Department of State Kay Branaman Eakin, ‘someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture[s] other than [their] own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture into third culture.’ Studies have found that Third Culture Kids have a greater tolerance for other cultures, are often quicker to take up new languages, and are significantly more likely to enrol in and complete tertiary education.
As our world shows increasing cracks along an increasing number of diplomatic fault lines, the need for measured diplomacy will continue to grow. The ability to cross-culturally empathise and understand will be critical in clearing the way forward.
And maybe these Third Culture Kids – just like their parents in the embassies of Syria, Australia and beyond – with their lived lessons in diplomacy and grown tolerance for difference, are best placed to lead the way.