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Former Croghan resident to continue foreign service in Mexico

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CROGHAN — As a U.S. foreign service worker for several years, Wilbur G. Zehr had special interest in reports on last week’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

“It’s kind of like living in Lewis County,” said Mr. Zehr, a former Croghan resident who works for the Department of State. “If you don’t know someone, you know someone who does.”

Mr. Zehr, 45, who recently completed a two-year stint in Istanbul, Turkey, said he did not know the U.S. ambassador or the three other Americans who were killed in the armed attack, but he does know a woman who worked under the ambassador.

“The foreign service is actually not that large,” he said.

State Department funding comprises less than 2 percent of the federal budget, and there are more military band members than foreign service workers, he said.

Mr. Zehr and his family are enjoying a short respite in Lewis County before heading to Washington, D.C., for three months to prepare for a two-year tour in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. “I’ll be brushing up on my Spanish,” said the graduate of Beaver River Central School, Beaver Falls, who also speaks Turkish.

Mr. Zehr, son of Arthur and Linda Zehr, was born in Kentucky but spent his formative years in Lewis County before attending CUNY Hunter College in Manhattan. He joined the State Department in 2004 and served as an office management specialist in Ottawa, Ontario; Beijing, China, and San Salvador, El Salvador, before being named a foreign service officer in 2009 and assigned to Turkey as a consular officer.

Mr. Zehr and his wife, Dora Maria, a native of Guatemala, previously had been missionaries in China and Hong Kong. They have three children: Kimberly, Christian and Rebekah.

Despite the turbulence in the Middle East region, Mr. Zehr said, he and his family “felt very safe in Istanbul.”

He spent the first year and a half of his stay conducting short interviews of Turkish residents who were seeking visas to visit the United States for work, study or travel.

“We do about 100 interviews a day,” Mr. Zehr said, noting the vast majority of visa requests are granted.

During his final six months, he assisted American citizens in Turkey with passport and other paperwork issues, absentee voting and other matters and visited U.S. prisoners there.

The Istanbul consulate also helped with the evacuation of American citizens from Egypt and Libya during periods of civil unrest in the neighboring countries in northern Africa, Mr. Zehr said.

His next foreign home, across the Mexican border from El Paso, Texas, will offer much more experience with visa work, given the large volume of immigrant requests at that office.

“It is one of our largest consular sections in the world,” Mr. Zehr said.

While the frequent moves can be difficult on the family, the diplomatic lifestyle has offered the children a chance to see many different places and meet influential people, including the last four U.S. presidents and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, he said.

“I tell our kids that when I grew up, I didn’t know who the mayor of Croghan was,” Mr. Zehr said.

However, he credits his small-town, Christian upbringing with helping him to better represent the United States in foreign lands and to dispel negative American stereotypes.

“We’re all ambassadors for the United States,” Mr. Zehr said.

The connectivity provided by the Internet and Facebook also makes the job easier by allowing contact with friends and family members in Lewis County and throughout the world, he said.

“I’ve found what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Mr. Zehr said.

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