ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much, Craig. Thanks to all of you who have joined in person. This is definitely what counts for the “fullest of full houses” in the COVID era. For those of you who are on the screen, welcome as well. If you don’t mind, those of you who don’t have your cameras on, if you feel comfortable, it would be great to see your faces. For Gabe and his family to be able to see you smiling at him. Thank you so much.
Thank you, Craig, for your leadership and serving as our emcee today.
Being part of this swearing-in gives me enormous pleasure. Getting to swear in Gabe Grau as our newest Mission Director for USAID Sri Lanka and Maldives.
A few acknowledgments at the top. First, again, to the Deputy Chief of Mission from the Embassy of Sri Lanka, Rohana Ambagolla. Thank you for your words, and thank you for your tribute to the relationship that exists between our two countries, which we want to deepen, particularly in these very difficult times for the people of Sri Lanka. Chaturi Perera, as well, First Secretary from the Embassy. The fact that both of you are here means a lot, and, I think, again speaks to the enthusiasm for the relationship with USAID, which means a lot to us.
Welcome as well, virtually, to Ambassador Thilmeeza Hussain from Maldives and Mr. Adam Hassan, Minister Counselor from the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Maldives to the United Nations. Thank you for joining us for this event, and we look forward to strengthening our partnership in the years to come.
A special welcome to our colleagues from USAID Afghanistan, many of whom worked directly with Gabe when he was Deputy Mission Director. And Nawabi, so good to have you here. Nawabi was the leader of our Foreign Service Nationals in Afghanistan. He did tremendous work, work that was the stuff of legend before the sky fell. And when the sky fell, it was Nawabi who helped organize our Afghan Foreign Service Nationals. First to advocate fiercely on their behalf to work with Gabe and Nitin and Peter and everyone else to try to facilitate what was just a heartbreaking evacuation. Nawabi, I’m so glad you’re here in the area, and that you’ve landed. And if there is anything we can do for you or your colleagues, we’re here. And thank you for coming to cheer Gabe on on this very special day.
Welcome, also, to Gabe’s family. His other family, apart from his Afghan family.
Stacy, his wonderful wife, who has found ways to serve in every posting that Gabe has had, and we’re looking forward to seeing the impact she makes in Sri Lanka.
Gabe’s parents, Elsa Rueda and Gabriel Sr. And this is very cool: they have flown all the way from Colombia to be at this event today. We really want these swearing-in ceremonies to be special, but nothing makes it more special than when Mom and Dad get on a plane and fly a long way. Gabe, the very fact that they have done this for this day and to celebrate you gives me some insight into what you’ve grown up with, and how in your corner they have always been. We feel so lucky.
And I should say that Gabriel Sr. is himself a lifelong public servant. He worked initially as an engineer in Colombia, but then was recruited, plucked by the World Health Organization, went to FAO, and made a major contribution within the UN family.
Gabe’s brother Iwan, is joining us virtually. And welcome to the dozens of guests currently on the livestream.
This is Gabe’s first Mission Director posting, after more than two decades here at USAID. But it’s also, as the Deputy Chief of Mission alluded to, a homecoming of sorts, for Gabe, because Sri Lanka was where he spent the first eight years of his life.
Gabe’s family moved to Sri Lanka when he was just three months old, living first in Colombo and then in Kandy. It was there that Gabe discovered his love for beaches, there that he explored the then-pristine coral reefs that dotted Sri Lanka’s shores, there that he eventually learned that the proper way to clean fish is not to pour shampoo all over its skin.
But it was also here that Gabe discovered another lifelong love, not yet Stacy: spicy food.
When Gabe was a toddler, he loved spending time with his nanny off the kitchen. One day, his parents discovered why. His nanny had been spiking his baby food with red chilis, a staple in Sri Lanka. Every afternoon, Gabe would sweat buckets, his face turning cherry-red, all the while opening his mouth enthusiastically for another bite. No pain, no gain.
Gabe loves spicy food, and as I understand it, is now able to enjoy spicy food without the sweat and tears. Even as a baby he was adventurous and determined, demonstrating what would become a characteristic: grace under pressure.
He grew up as a “UN brat.” His father, Gabriel Sr., worked for the United Nations, and the family frequently moved from city to city, country to country. It was a lifestyle that exposed Gabe to many languages so many that he would sometimes get them mixed up. As a native Spanish speaker, Gabe learned the word for moon as “la luna.” But because he studied English, he often called it “la moona.”
But Gabe worked hard at his languages, and his skills came in handy when he was drafted into the Colombian army as a high school senior. Thanks to his strengths in English, he was sent to the Sinai Peninsula, where he worked as an English-Spanish translator for a high-ranking military official.
His time in the military, his knack for languages, and his childhood spent traveling and living in diplomatic communities around the world deepened his love for diplomacy and international work. And it led him, eventually, to USAID as a career Foreign Service Officer. His 21 years at the Agency have taken him to Thailand, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Djibouti, Peru, and Afghanistan.
Everywhere he went, Gabe quickly won the trust of everyone who met him from high-ranking officials to everyday citizens. As one of his coworkers said, “Gabe can relate to people at any level.”
And I really do mean any level. When Gabe was still a Presidential Management Fellow, he traveled to Peru to help farmers find alternatives to coca farming. Within just a few days, he was on a first-name basis with high-ranking officials in the Peruvian government, and to the amazement of his boss, he even had acquired the personal cell phone number of the director of the Peruvian drug enforcement office.
Some may credit this accomplishment to his childhood growing up in diplomatic circles. And yet Gabe was just as comfortable talking to rice farmers in Bangladesh, who were pleasantly surprised by his fluency in the issues they faced and the solutions that could help them; or to grade school children and elderly citizens in Guatemala. As his coworker said, “he treats people with dignity, no matter who they are.”
And he never takes himself too seriously. His wife Stacy remembers an interaction in Djibouti with the U.S. Ambassador and Djibouti’s Foreign Minister. At the time, Gabe was still learning French, but with his trademark fearlessness, he earnestly attempted to convey his understanding of unemployment as one of Djibouti’s biggest issues. Unfortunately, his French wasn’t yet quite as good as he had hoped, and he actually told the Foreign Minister that “Djibouti’s biggest problem is the cheese.”
The conversation could have curdled from there. But luckily, the Foreign Minister didn’t let it grate on his nerves.
Gabe approaches his work with remarkable humility, making an effort to listen and speak directly to the communities he serves. He is always looking to help in ways that were needed and effective, according to a coworker, who added that “Gabe was helping us speak to our beneficiaries long before it was cool.” And I hope it is long cool now.
Nowhere was that more evident than in Afghanistan, where Gabe served as our Deputy Mission Director. From the moment he arrived, Gabe got to work strengthening the Mission’s relationship and engagement with our Afghan Foreign Service Nationals. He re-initiated the Foreign Service National Committee and worked to help make sure women colleagues had a voice in that forum. He served as our local staff’s main point of contact in the leadership of the Mission.
Last fall, after we evacuated most of our Afghan staff, Gabe worked around the clock to help 140 of our team find refuge in the United States. All of them had to leave behind possessions, homes, and most importantly, family members, arriving on American soil at one of eight camps before finding homes across the country.
Gabe helped our colleagues look for jobs, enroll their children in schools, and process the enormous transition and trauma that they had faced. And he talked to all of them at length, answering all of their questions and doing his best to make them feel taken care of.
Gabe’s work in Afghanistan is just one powerful example of his deep commitment to his work at USAID and the Agency’s broader mission—a commitment that makes him a perfect fit for this new role: Mission Director for USAID Sri Lanka and Maldives.
And he takes the helm at a critical time for both countries.
Today, Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in its history. Food, medicine, and fuel are scarce, and power cuts are frequent. Just a few weeks ago, blocks from our Mission, weeks of protests boiled over into violence. Vehicles burned in the streets and civilians were wounded and killed. Following the events of May 9, Prime Minister Rajapaksa resigned, and protestors still rallying across the island have tasked the new government, led by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe with embracing the reforms necessary to bring Sri Lanka back to better days.
Our Mission staff though performing heroically well through a very difficult stretch of time, including after the bombings of churches and hotels on Easter Sunday in 2019 and then during the COVID-19 pandemic, this staff will benefit from Gabe’s calm, effective leadership. And USAID is expanding our commitment to help the country weather this current crisis.
Meanwhile, Maldives faces crises of its own. A small nation spread across dozens of islands and atolls, Maldives is one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations, facing a rising threat of sinking into the Indian Ocean. Economically, development across the atolls is far from uniform, requiring a range of community-specific economic solutions and efforts to strengthen local governance and inclusivity.
American engagement is expanding in Maldives as well. Originally small and mostly focused on environmental issues, our USAID Mission has since grown to include programs supporting democracy and governance and fostering economic growth and resilience. The U.S. has just announced a new embassy in Maldives, and the first ever U.S. Ambassador to Maldives will be named while Gabe is Mission Director.
Both Sri Lanka and Maldives are going through times of immense turmoil and change. But there is perhaps no one better to lead that change than Gabe, a natural diplomat, a thoughtful and empathetic leader, and someone who is fearless in the face of a challenge. He has shown, time and again, his ability to lead people through difficult times. I am immensely grateful that he will represent our Agency at this crucial time for our partners in South Asia.
And with that, it is my pleasure to administer the oath of office.