Minnesota-born Deanne Sando Neiman has only visited Botswana a couple of times, but she flies the country’s flag outside her Santa Monica home with pride.
“I absolutely fell in love with Botswana and their people, and the animals took my breath away,” she says of visiting the landlocked African nation, situated just north of South Africa. “When I got back, I wrote to their Embassy.”
Neiman is what’s known as an Honorary Consul or H.C., a part-time, volunteer diplomat to countries that don’t otherwise have consulates in Los Angeles. Most H.C.s work out of their homes and many aren’t natives of the countries they represent, explains Grant Gochin, vice dean of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. For instance, Gochin isn’t from Togo, but he’s been its H.C. for nine years.
“I was born in South Africa, and my family has long been involved in politics,” Gochin explains. “My first involvement in the anti-Apartheid movement began when I was a child, and I left for America after the police detained me for a second time in 1986. I only had about $100 and the clothes on my back.”
Foreign embassies are always located in Washington D.C., but outside the nation’s capital, there are hundreds of consulates (which serve a similar function) in cities across the U.S. Los Angeles is home to 106 consulates covering every place from Afghanistan to Zambia, and over a third of them are Honorary Consulates. H.C.s are more likely to be found in homes in El Segundo, Fontana, and Costa Mesa than in exclusive enclaves like Hancock Park or Beverly Hills.
“Every country needs and should have an H.C. here,” says Gochin. “H.C.s play a complex role that includes intergovernmental relations, trade relations, tourism advice, and educating the U.S. public about their nation, as well as passport and visa issues.”
Gochin was recommended to the Togolese government by other foreign diplomats, but part time or not and recommendation or none, the lengthy vetting process involves reviews, State Department security checks, and even interviews in Washington.
Neiman has been the H.C. to Botswana for a decade; she and her late husband were both H.C.s. “Allen served as H.C. for Burkina Faso for nearly 40 years,” she recalls, “and our kitchen table was a busy place. One day it might be a businessman from Burkina Faso, the next it could be a group of students from Botswana. And then sometimes it was both together!”
Michael Soroy, a Brentwood lawyer, was born in Norway and has been that country’s H.C. since 2010. Norway was in the news recently when Donald Trump singled it out as a desirable source of immigrants. Soroy didn’t put much stock in the mention. “The Norwegian Prime Minster had visited the White House the day before, so it was just in his mind,” he says with a laugh, adding that California has a unique link to his home country: “Norway is the largest buyer of Teslas outside the U.S.”
Though H.C.s have diplomatic license plates and can use diplomatic bags on official business, the big screen clichés don’t really come into play. “It can help if I have to call immigration or the sheriff’s department, or am meeting a national at LAX, but I’ve never tried anything else,” Neiman says with a laugh.
As for immunity, the rules for that are, as Gochin puts it, “quite complicated.”
“The area of the home used for Consular business and holding Consular Records may not be searched by local authorities,” he says. “But while the Embassy in Washington DC is considered ‘in the country,’ that does not transfer to a local Honorary Consulate.”
Neiman especially loves her role as mentor to the Batswanian students sent to USC and Loyola on special grants from the government. For Gochin, the highlight of his career so far came when he funded a women’s center in Togo.
“To honor me, the prefect of the province appointed me as ‘Supreme Chief’ of the village of Babade. He gave me a chief outfit, which I sometimes wear to diplomatic functions, and village dancers came out to dance for me.”
Ten-thousand miles away from home, the sight of Neiman’s Botswana’s flag flapping in the breeze is a welcome sight for Botswanans visiting Los Angeles. “It’s huge, and I hang it outside on September 30, our national day, and when any dignitaries are scheduled to visit,” Neiman says. “Really, I try to hang it whenever anyone from Botswana is coming.”
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