Administrator Samantha Power at the Swearing-in Ceremony for Sean Callahan, Mission Director to USAID/Afghanistan

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Thursday, August 11, 2022

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much Ann Marie, for getting us started, and for your leadership of the Bureau. We’re so lucky that you’re back here with us for as long as we can have you.

If those of you on the screen who haven’t put your cameras on, I’m sure Sean would love to see your smiling, groggy, or other faces. 

I am thrilled to be able to participate in this swearing-in, and really grateful to all of you who’ve come in person and those of you who have gathered virtually. It’s just a very, very special occasion.

And grateful, again, to the Asia Bureau and Afghanistan team for all the work that they did to contribute to this event, which is a seminal event, as we send off our newest Mission Director, Sean Callahan, to Afghanistan.

I just had the chance to meet a critical mass of Sean’s family. I can’t say most, because the denominator is too large. But I want to thank them for being here today, in person and virtually. Sean has been a paralegal, a private sector attorney, a refugee field coordinator, and a member of USAID’s Foreign Service for more than twenty years – and his wife Kristin correctly characterizes his four daughters as “his biggest assignment.” 

We have with us today, three of them: Kate, who is a soccer player and rising high school senior; Madeline, a sophomore and the family comedian, I’m told; and Mimi, a high school freshman and the household’s resident chef and poet. 

Sean and Kristin’s oldest daughter Ella could not be with us today because she is beginning a new public service journey of her own. Tomorrow, Friday, is Ella’s final day of what’s known as plebe summer at the U.S. Naval Academy, where she is enrolled this fall as a freshman, or midshipman, as it’s affectionately known.

So these plebe parents and plebe siblings are heading to Annapolis tomorrow to reunite with Ella. 

I also want to welcome Sean’s parents – David, who is with us here, and Suellen who is tuning in virtually. And Sean’s four siblings, Mike and Joseph who are here, and Brendan and Anastasia who are tuning in as well. 

If you’re doing the math, you are already struggling. This is an Irish Catholic family of seven from upstate New York – Camillus to be exact; a small blue collar town just West of Syracuse. The oldest of five, Sean has described his childhood as being “like the movies” – summers camping in state parks; riding his bike to the town pool; delivering the Herald Journal to earn some money. 

When Sean was twelve, one of his older paper route customers told him that he shouldn’t be a lawyer, a banker, or a cop because that’s what her sons were doing. Instead, she said, he should be a diplomat. Sean, being twelve, wasn’t quite sure what she meant by diplomat, but he smiled because he was taught to respect his elders. And while he didn’t take her advice to not become a lawyer, the idea of being a diplomat – in this case, a development diplomat – must have stuck.

Sean’s family describes him as someone with an immutable sense of adventure, never flinching at challenges and never afraid to do the unpopular thing, like sticking with the boy scouts when his friends were dropping out or taking on additional responsibility teaching swimming lessons as a lifeguard at the Camillus Park Pool. 

Even though he seemed to bask in the challenges and opportunities of his high school years as a member of the swim team and student council president, Sean was eager to see the world beyond Onondaga County. 

Like his father, Sean attended Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass, where he credits his Jesuit professors for teaching him how to think constructively and live a life in service to others. After graduating, he looked for opportunities to serve abroad while working as a paralegal and teaching English to immigrants in New York City. 

He had heard stories from a friend who recently completed a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship… stories of courageous Chinese students, the same age as Sean, who protested for their freedom on that fateful day in Tiananmen Square.

These stories helped motivate Sean to join the same program, teaching in Thailand as a Princeton-in-Asia fellow, where he was exposed to the network of NGOs that worked with refugees from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

He remained in Thailand, deferring graduate school four times to work with the International Catholic Migration Commission and the International Organization for Migration, helping to resettle Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. 

When he finally returned to New York to pursue joint law and public administration degrees at Syracuse, Sean was late to his first class – Property law, who can blame him. But he wasn’t the only one who was late, fortunately. One behind the other, Sean and Kristin slipped into the two vacant seats in the front of the classroom. 

The two tardy students went on to work together as graduate assistants before entering the world and beginning their careers. In the swirl of post-graduate confusion, Sean knew he had to focus on two things: First, finding a way to work in development overseas. Second, marrying Kristin. 

Knowing that he needed more professional experience and some time to pay off loans, Sean worked for an international law firm in Washington. Not long after he began, however, he convinced the firm to support a leave of absence in the summer of 1999 to help the International Organization for Migration manage an influx of refugees into North Macedonia amidst the war in Kosovo. In a matter of months, Sean had found his calling in development work overseas and that September, he proposed to Kristin. 

At the time, USAID was seeking to hire attorneys into our Foreign Service, and between Sean’s credentials and his work abroad, he had just what the Agency was looking for. After spending a couple of years as an Attorney Advisor here in Washington, DC, Sean began his overseas service as a Resident Legal Officer, first in Jakarta, then Tbilisi, then as Senior Resident Legal Officer in Cairo. 

Each of the countries where Sean was posted early in his career endured significant hardships that required our Missions to respond with urgency, and with caution, to support people and communities in desperate need.

In Indonesia, Sean and Kristin both supported the response to the devastating 2004 Christmas tsunami, with Sean working around the clock to coordinate getting relief supplies to Banda Aceh. 

Following the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2007, Sean’s legal expertise and negotiating skills allowed USAID to deliver tax-exempt financial assistance to the Georgian Ministry of Finance and the National Bank of Georgia to support an economy devastated by the invasion and to provide housing, animal feed, and economic opportunities to displaced Georgians. 

And as USAID’s senior legal ninja in Egypt during the Arab Spring, Sean was one of the few remaining Foreign Service Officers left at post to continue the Agency’s work after most staff and their families received departure orders.

When the Egyptian government issued arrest warrants for international NGO staff working in the country, Sean led a high-level group of emissaries tasked with devising and executing the U.S. Government response. Thanks to their efforts, Egypt lifted the warrants and allowed the safe exit of eleven European and American citizens while avoiding a diplomatic rupture in U.S.-Egypt relations. 

The Resident Legal Officer in Cairo who reported to Sean during this turbulent time across the region said, “I learned so much from Sean, including how to gauge how serious an issue really is, how to handle the mix of politics and technical that is at the heart of what we do, and how to be a good and collegial partner to those around me.” 

I should mention, the same colleague also said she could tell whether or not Sean was having a good day or a bad day by how high his hair was standing – the higher the hair, the more stressful the day. 

It is no surprise that Sean rose through the ranks to serve as Deputy Mission Director in Cambodia; Deputy Assistant Administrator for our Bureau of Legislative and Public Affairs; and most recently as Deputy Mission Director for the Philippines, Pacific Islands, and Mongolia. 

Sean has never strayed from his devotion to serving others or to meeting challenges with his intellect and drive. And critically, Sean’s “biggest assignment” – his four girls, Ella, Katherine, Madeline, and Mimi – are at the heart of everything he does.

In fact, the driving force behind Sean’s service – and his legacy at USAID as a caring leader – is his desire for his daughters, and all young women around the world, to have the same opportunities that he has had.

With this in mind, as we approach one year from the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, I have no doubt that we are sending the right leader to lead USAID’s Afghanistan Mission in its new location.

We are just days from the one year anniversary of the heartbreaking fall of Kabul, and the searing events of that day in August of last year. Heavily armed fighters surging into the capital threatening and brutalizing innocent people. The fear and panic that gripped the Afghan people as they waded through the chaos to try to bring children to safety, gathering as little as a small plastic bag or a backpack with what they could take of their belongings before rushing to the airport to try to escape a future under Taliban rule. Those who chose to stay and the heartbreaking goodbyes. The flag coming down over the American embassy.

For so many, next week’s anniversary will bring very difficult emotions. The shock, trauma, anger, and pain of that day continue to weigh heavily on the Afghan people, on our Foreign Service Nationals and their families, as well as the entire community of development partners who had joined with Afghans over two decades to try to build a free and peaceful Afghanistan. 

And while it is important, in these days especially, that we reflect on this devastating collapse of the Afghan government and the return of the Taliban to power, it is just as important that we continue to do all that we can to never ever give up on our shared ambition, doing all we can to support the Afghan people and their aspirations for economic opportunity, prosperity, human rights, and basic freedom. 

Since Embassy Kabul’s closure in August 2021, the United States remains the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to the country as it grapples with economic catastrophe. Since last year, we have provided more than $774 million in humanitarian assistance to support the people of Afghanistan, including more than $573 million from USAID for food, shelter, water, psychosocial support, and other necessities. 

When a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck eastern Afghanistan just a couple months ago in June, we were responding within hours with vital relief including emergency health care, food, shelter, and water, sanitation, and hygiene assistance. And with our support, our partners have reached 11 million people with food and nutrition assistance.

Today, and looking ahead, as the country faces a dire humanitarian crisis and an existential threat to hard-won social and development gains over those last twenty years, we have our work cut out for us. 

A ban on girls’ education from seventh through twelfth grade is just one of the many threats to Afghanistan’s present and its future. Backsliding on women’s rights significantly challenges our ability to reach Afghan women in need, and it makes it harder for women to find jobs or access critical services. 

Still, the United States’ commitment to the women of Afghanistan – and all Afghans seeking freedom, opportunity, access to education, and essential services – remains unequivocal. And I think I can speak for Sean in saying that is also true of his commitment to rebuilding our Mission and to achieving these goals in partnership with the Afghan people. 

As Sean travels to Doha, Qatar, where he will begin his tour, he’ll be working with teams throughout the region to stand up our Afghanistan Mission in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan – a daunting and complex charge, to be sure. But in Sean’s time with USAID, Sean has led teams that have spanned countries and continents. He has implemented programming that has undoubtedly saved countless lives. And he has forged the strong partnerships that ground all of USAID’s work around the world. 

He will begin with the critical task of determining the workforce needs of our Afghan Foreign Service Nationals in close collaboration with the Mission Foreign Service Nationals Council to understand the issues that affect local staff – especially those who remain in Kabul. And I know Sean is eager to get started.

Anyone who’s had the privilege of working with Sean knows that our local staff and the people we serve are his top priority, and that he has the dedication, the zeal, and the acumen to bring people together to chart a better future for communities in need wherever he is stationed. 

I also know that everyone who’s tuned in from around the world for today’s ceremony is desperately waiting to see what kind of avant-garde fashion he might be sporting for the occasion of his arrival. As one colleague said, Sean’s suits “leave no color behind.” He’s very tame today, although the socks, you know, you can tell what’s lurking within. 

Sean, we look forward to your vibrant leadership in Afghanistan, and I congratulate you. I thank your girls, your parents, your siblings, your beloved wife, Kristin. And I thank you again, for answering the call of service in a very challenging mission, but one for which you are perfectly suited to take on. 

It is now my privilege to make it official and to swear you in as our new Mission Director to Afghanistan.

Ronald Reagan Building

Last updated: August 11, 2022

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