Written by Emily Wax
It’s 9 p.m. and Sarah Chan’s high heels are clacking at top speed across this Woodley Park hotel lobby. She’s rushing hundreds of her South Sudanese brethren into cabs so they won’t miss President Salva Kiir, who’s speaking at a hotel a mile away.
With the birth of a nation comes the birth of its embassy, a powerful emblem of its legitimacy and an assertion of the country’s identity on the world stage. South Sudan will soon officially join Washington’s 190 embassies, and Chan is one of 14 employees working for the fledging mission, whose first big undertaking is Kiir’s mid-December visit here as part of a U.S. government-hosted South Sudan development conference.
It was a grand, two-day coming-out party for the world’s newest nation, with a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and meetings with a lineup of elites from Washington’s international, political, diplomatic and aid-and-trade communities.
Kiir’s location wasn’t announced until the very last minute, a reminder that not everyone was eager to welcome the new country, whose July 9, 2011, independence redrew the map of the world.
“Sisters, brothers — hurry! Our president has arrived! We have to go!” Chan called out.
Tonight, Chan commands attention. That’s partly because she’s the daughter of Sudan People’s Liberation Army commander Chan Dak, who was killed while fighting in the region’s long struggle for independence.
Newly emerged from a brutal 25-year conflict that killed an estimated 2 million people, South Sudan is still building its foreign diplomatic service. While some of the Washington mission’s top envoys are trained in diplomacy, others, like Chan, are homespun talent.
What they lack in polish, they make up for in pathos.