Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Visit to the Consulate General of Pakistan in Houston (TX)

May 20, 2016
By Saeed Qureshi

It is not by way of a complaint but under feeling of acute sadness that I am writing this account and the drawbacks that I witnessed as a journalist at the Pakistan Consulate General in Houston. After entering the building from the backdoor where you park in the open space, it looks all chaotic inside. I have been here once or twice before. 

However, the overall conditions were not as desperate as these were this time. It is another matter that despite knowing that I am a former diplomat the then Consul General Mr. Baloch and his vice consul Mr. Naeem didn’t oblige me by renewing the passport of my daughter.

After repeated reminders and soliciting the help of the local influential friends to convey to the consulate staff that I didn’t receive the passport with a new endorsement even after more than month. I wondered then that if it can happen to a colleague of the same service who had been doing the same work in the embassies what could be said about the plight of the common folks.

Ironically, I had to face the same embarrassing situation for the second time also. Way back in 2013, I sent through first class mail, a power of attorney to the Consulate for attestation I started calling the Consulate when I didn’t hear from the consulate for several weeks. 

It was through the intervention and express help  of  Saadia Altaf Qazi, the Consul and  Head of Chancery that finally the packet was recovered from an  isolated dumping  place and the needful was done in a couple of days.

The building of the Consulate must be very old. It is simply small to cater for and accommodate the in-flowing visitors to the tune of over hundred or so daily from various parts of the state of Texas. Two opposing small rooms situated on the left side in a rectangular hall deal with visas and passports and the attestation of such documents as Power of Attorneys etc. 

The two gentlemen sitting in the visa room were exposed to the crowd from the door. They seemed to be under as enormous pressure as the needy visitors sitting on the ramshackle chairs. Those among them who would not find vacant chairs were standing or restlessly loitering in the open space in front of the main entrance or for a while in the grassy open space outside.

All the staff members whose number is ten (10) including the Consul General sit on the upper floor. The Consulate’s monthly income from the services is estimated roughly to be between $ 60 to 80 thousands. With this income a new spacious building can be rented or even purchased. Yet truthfully the conditions were more dismal and degrading this time than what I witnessed way back in 2103.

There seems to a pervasive hassle and an atmosphere of disconnect, boredom or disgust from both the attending officers and the visitors. When waiting for a long time, the papers were not returned to me with attestation, I called one of the erstwhile retired officials of the consulate to help me. 

After some time when an official of the Consulate came down to hand over the papers he looked at as if I was a street urchin. He handed over the documents with a sly and dry facial impression and went up: No Salam, no Kalam, no pleasantries exchanged or saying hello-hi.

While I was waiting in the open street with my wife and brother-in-law, a relatively old and bearded person appeared from behind and after uttering a few Quranic Ayas coupled with filth slogans for the prime minister walked away. I could understand one sentence, “I threw the documents on their face and am now I am going”.

I saw another young person in a sheer panic imploring the female official sitting at the documents’ attestation window to accept his papers as he had to fly soon. The officer asked him to go back and bring the complete set of documents. But he insisted that those were complete in all respect.With me her attitude was reasonably less questionable but asked me to pay for the photo copies which I did and thanked God for the acceptance of the application.

Instead of the staff sitting in the open rooms, it would be efficient and handy if the elevated counters are built within the open hall or room where the people can talk to the respective officials while standing out in the line and the officers sitting on the other side. We have seen such counters in every office in the United States: be it the drivers’ license or Tax payment offices, the Social Security department and even the courts and the police stations.

Just by way of comparison I may state that a few years ago I visited the Indian Consulate with an Indian citizen and it was through the counters that the conversation took place and that saved lot of time and frustration of the applicant.

Since as a former diplomat I had faced the similar situations in East Europe, I would suggest that a protocol officer should sit in the lobby near the main hall and guide every visitor to his window The protocol officer can issue the token numbers to the applicants and guide them which window to go. During my visit on May 16 the token machines were out of order and that made the people nervous as they would push each other to be in front of the window.