FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: June 8, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Hello, my name is Bonnie Miller, and it is June 8th, 2022. I’m here with Louay Azar, and I’m going to interview him on having a successful career as an EFM [Eligible Family Member] and moving all over the world. Welcome Louay.
AZAR: Thank you, Bonnie. Thanks for having me.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and the evolution of your career? Maybe it didn’t start out the way it is now.
AZAR: I was born and raised in Syria. I’m an IT engineer. I immigrated to the U.S. in 2006. I started working as an Arabic teacher at IC Lingua. Now, it’s ICA. It’s a language provider that teaches diplomats and DOD [Department of Defense] students. It was just for a short period of time until I joined the NDU, the National Defense University. I was their web content administrator. I started doing the web/Arabic but not for too long. It didn’t take long to just figure it out that I love teaching, and IC Lingua reached out to me asking if I was interested in a part-time position with them, as some of my students liked me and they wanted to go back to my classes. Along with my IT job with NDU, I went back to teaching. That was 2008 to 2011, well before my wife, Kayla, joined the State Department in 2011, and when we started our journey and started going from place to place.
Q: When you married Kayla, was she already in the Foreign Service?
AZAR: No, she was still a student studying Arabic in Syria at the University of Damascus with Fulbright. We met at my local church called the Nazarene Church, and the relationship developed over time. We met in 2004 and we got married in 2007.
Q: When did she and you together decide to join the Foreign Service?
She was applying for multiple jobs, and the State Department came through in May 2011. I was doing an IT as a full-time job with SOS International (SOSi). We had our first son, Laith, meaning baby lion, in 2011, and we left for our first post of Melbourne, Australia in December of 2011.
Q: You had a lot of adjustments. You became an EFM [Eligible Family Member] and father, and then you moved to Australia. When you were in Melbourne, how did you continue your work? Or did you do something new?
AZAR: This is interesting because this whole telework culture is not new to me. We left for our first post at the end of 2011, about 10 months before I started working for SOSi as an IT engineer. My company allowed me to telework for a testing period from January 2012 until March 2012 to see how things would go. Remember, this is well before people would even think about teleworking. I was based in Reston, Virginia, and at that time, I was pitching the idea to telework from Australia. Amazingly, I was able to continue working for this company remotely for nearly six years.
Q: Did you have crazy hours because you were 14 time zones away?
AZAR: That’s an excellent question. I did have crazy hours but nothing that I couldn’t manage because it was more project-based than hourly-based. There were definitely crazy days and crazy weeks and probably crazy months whenever we had some emergency. I had to not only deal with Washington time, but with Afghanistan time because we were running a project for NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. It was dealing with all different time zones and then adding Australia to the mix wasn’t helping. But it worked out amazingly, and six years later, I was still with them. What started as a three-month testing period ended up as six years. In late 2012, I started Done By Native. In late 2017, I decided to devote my time to my business after we were awarded a sizable project with the U.S. Government.
Q: That’s great. So, you can work remotely. Where did you go after Australia?
AZAR: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was our second post, and we found out about it early in our Melbourne days. We were pretty much mentally ready and prepared.
Q: You could continue working and you spoke the language.
AZAR: Yep, exactly. It wasn’t a big challenge to me because Australia, obviously they speak English, and moving to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia— Arabic. It wasn’t a big change. As of now, I haven’t been in a situation where I had to face a foreign language to me as of now, but who knows.
Q: In Saudi Arabia, did you do any work in-person with teaching students?
AZAR: I was still doing SOSi, so I was still at my IT job, but this is when I started teaching some students at the embassy, and I was doing a small contract with the embassy for teaching and for interpretation for a few days here and there beside my job. But yes, this is when I started giving more attention to Done By Native. We started primarily as a translation service. I wanted to create a way to help people in Syria make some money so I just took some small translation projects and passed them to people who can do translation, and then slowly that grew to be more. I lined it up with my teaching ability. I started teaching. I started exploring more about the bidding process. I was reading more about how you get jobs for the U.S. government. In Riyadh, this is when I started teaching a few people inside the embassy as a business, not as a person. I added more people to the team later on. I started winning small projects with the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh doing translation and doing interpretation seminars for five-day seminars until 2017 when we were awarded the first sizable project with the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan teaching Arabic for diplomats and other EFM’s [Eligible Family Members]. This is when I basically made the decision to leave SOSi and start focusing full time on Done by Native. Now we do not only translation, not only teaching, but we also do media monitoring and HR services, and we’re trying to expand that branch more.
Q: Do you supervise other Arabic teachers or are you the only one in your organization doing the in-person teaching?
AZAR: Right now, we have about 20 teachers, and we have contracts with the U.S. Embassy in Amman, U.S. Embassy in Rabat, U.S. Consulate in Casablanca, U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in addition to the New Zealand Embassy, Canadian Embassy and a bunch of other private students. We grew to be a good and big instructors’ team, in addition to our administrative team.
Q: You are a real company, and you provide employment for a lot of other people.
AZAR: I worked with a couple other EFMs, which is amazing. I love working with EFMs. Right now, we have two EFM’s working with me, and I hope, inshallah [God willing], in the future to be able to work with more.
Q: If anybody who’s reading this, because it’s in written form, is not in any of the countries or the embassies where you’re working, are they able to access Arabic teaching by Done By Native?
AZAR: Arabic or French or Darija. Darija is the spoken form of Arabic in Morocco and Algeria. We also have the post language program in Algeria. I forgot to mention Nigeria as well. That’s what we currently do. Anyone who is interested just has to reach out to the post Language Program Officer to inquire, but every embassy has its own registration process which is usually open to the entire community. Whoever wants to study French if you are in Morocco, or Arabic if you are in Riyadh or Jordan. The process is slightly different from embassy to embassy, but the goal of the post language program is to allow officers and EFMs to study the language in the country.
Q: You make it easy to access this learning for anybody who is in a foreign country and just even wanting to navigate at the market or start a simple conversation.
AZAR: A big part of our courses is what we call survival, especially in Amman and Riyadh, to learn the basics, enjoy the culture, and not bother with the grammar.
Q: So basically conversational, which is so important. Did you need to get permission from the countries where you were working in person? And how did U.S. bilateral work agreements for family members play into that? Also were you able to get support from the State Department, including the Global Employment Initiative, Professional Development Fellowships, or other opportunities provided by the State Department to help in your business?
AZAR: We basically got permission for outside employment while we were in Jordan. It was a straightforward process. As for State Department help, no, but it’s on me. I have not fully researched these support mechanisms. I look forward to taking advantage of these in the future. I know there’s lots of stuff, but I have not done it.
Q: It sounds like you’re thriving, even without these supports that are helpful to others, and that you have found a way to be successful without using them.
AZAR: I’m sure there’s so much. Every time I just keep telling myself, “I have to look more. I have to dig more.” Then time just flies, and we are pretty busy. Like you said, alhamdulillah [Thank God], things are going well. But I have to do more.
Q: Okay, I’m learning a lot by doing these podcasts with Partners in Diplomacy, as well as these interviews for AAFSW [The Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide] about these Professional Development Grants for increasing your skills or even getting a degree. Also, the Global Employment Initiative is for people who are looking for jobs, and there is help on the ground in each post, or at least regionally, to help match their skills with employment. It sounds like you’ve done that already— big time.
AZAR: I’m sure that there is also more than education. I’m sure there’s so much stuff for businesses. Again, I’m looking forward to doing more digging.
Q: Did you need approval from the State Department’s Legal Department for any of your professional activities, especially those that you’re doing overseas?
AZAR: No, not yet. Besides employment permission? No.
Q: Any ways in which the State Department has gotten in the way of your work?
AZAR: That’s an interesting question. I always wonder and ask myself, “What would my life have been like if we stayed in Reston?” SOSi is a pretty good company. I really had a great time with them, and they were great people. They just opened that amazing opportunity for me to really work and explore life, which basically led me to where we are now. But again, I’m happy and content with where we are now, but it’s always like a question of, “If I kept my life as an IT engineer, how would it have been now?” I don’t know. But I’m happy where we are.
Q: You never know what the other paths are, but it sounds like this one worked for you. What were the years that you were in Saudi Arabia and where did you go after that?
AZAR: We were in Melbourne from 2011 to 2013. We were in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from 2014 to 1016. Amman, Jordan, from 2016 to 2020. From 2020 to 2022, we’re here in DC. We are heading to our next post in the UK.
Q: Can you tell us what are some of the other resources that you or other EFM’s that you know, have used, including Facebook groups or other resources that might be helpful to EFMs who are reading this?
AZAR: I’m a member of a few WhatsApp groups of other EFM entrepreneurs, which is really helpful to exchange ideas and advertise services. Beyond that, I’m not the best digger. I really look forward to digging more into finding other tools and even connecting with other people. I’m missing out on a lot. Maybe I’ll email you later to thank you for opening my eyes to this big world.
Q: It sounds like you’re doing amazingly well in something that’s really new with the telework, hiring others, teaching in-person, and all of the things that you’re doing that help people in other countries who want to learn the language and who really can be helped by learning the language.
AZAR: We recruit local people, obviously, to teach the language. We also had the opportunity to work with one EFM who was a native French speaker, and he’s teaching now for one of our programs in North Africa. I’m really blessed to have a really nice and amazing team of local program managers doing the best they can to keep the team connected. With technology today, it’s just not that difficult to stay connected. If you have the infrastructure and if you have the right people, you can do it.
Q: It sounds like besides the language skills and the technological skills, you also need the management skills to run this business that employs these 20 people.
AZAR: Definitely. With the right tools and the right people, anything is achievable.
Q: Great. What is your best advice for EFMs, regarding having a successful career as an accompanying partner?
AZAR: My best advice is that every move or every post is a new opportunity, a new place, new people, new doors to knock on and explore. Probably just go in with an open mind and explore the available doors and then start knocking. If you like stability and no change, this is probably not for you, but I really enjoy being in a very different place. It doesn’t have to be super nice. We went to different kinds of places, but every place is unique in its own way, and every place has new opportunities. My EFM friends, just go in with an open mind and start knocking you never know. A lot of the time we ended up with a project that we never imagined, but we ended up being able to do so by being physically in that location. It allowed us to explore a whole world of opportunities.
Q: Being open-minded is the one thing that I hear from everybody in terms of having a successful career and a happy life in these places and taking risks. Moving to a new place, you’re saying opportunities come up. You could have said “no.” You could have said, “I can’t do that.” Instead, you said, “Done By Native can adapt to this. We can take this on.” It involves being able to jump into it and take risks.
AZAR: Absolutely. Change of scenery has always been fuel behind thinking outside the box. It’s just amazing how our North Africa projects were basically started when we were here in DC, not in Jordan where we are physically close. Just the change of scenery is like a trigger to this explorer side of you. You want to start exploring and just looking outside, see what’s happening, and what you can do more of. With this lifestyle, you are where you want to be if you’re looking for that kind of next adventure.
Q: Absolutely and being adventurous is a big part of it. Louay, I thank you so much for sharing your experiences and giving your advice. I’m sure it will be helpful to our readers. Thanks so much.
AZAR: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you, Bonnie.
End of Transcript
Download a copy of Louay Azar’s interview transcript below.