The UN of Boston


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  04/23/2006

On the sixth floor, a door opens and merengue pulses from a stereo. A dozen men and women wait next to a large picture of the Dominican Republic's president, Leonel Fernandez, wearing the red, white, and blue presidential sash, which faces three black-and-white portraits of the island nation's founding fathers and a map of Hispaniola that lops off Haiti, its neighbor and historic adversary.

Sitting there in the Dominican consulate one recent morning, Felix Almonte smiles. The 47-year-old from Santo Domingo, who has lived in Charlestown and worked in supermarkets over the past eight years, doesn't mind waiting for officials to renew his passport amid the pictures of Pedro Martinez, the music, and the dropped s's of his nation's rapid-fire Spanish.

"When I come here," he says, "I feel like I'm entering my country. This is my culture. It's nice to be here."

Through the glass doors, past the potted plants and the low-rent awning, scattered among the offices of lawyers, mortgage brokers and psychologists, the building at 20 Park Plaza is where the Dominican Republic and five other countries post their emissaries -- more than anywhere else in New England.

Call it Boston's Embassy Row.

Unlike the gilded mansions and multimillion-dollar compounds in other major cities, here the consulates are stationed above storefront fast-food shops and behind unadorned taupe doors marked by small plaques that scarcely hint at the worlds behind.In Boston, a capital of medicine and academia, the consulates look as grand as dentists' offices.

"This is kind of a mini United Nations," says Jeff Ross, an immigration attorney who works in the building, which abuts the Park Plaza Hotel.

Behind one door on the 14th floor, at the end of a carpeted hall, hundreds of people -- young mothers breast-feeding their babies, prisoners waiting to be deported, local residents seeking visas -- stand in long lines at the Brazilian consulate listening to instructions in Portuguese.

Four floors below, two security cameras keep watch from above the first of three doors required to enter the Israeli consulate. Inside, two men trained to kill pat down everyone who enters, even those who have worked there for years. Then, before visitors can pass through specially built doors, they must walk through a metal detector.

On the fifth floor, amid posters explaining how to vote in the country's presidential election this month, Peruvians wait in chairs lined in rows beside pictures of a faraway paradise: lagoons, ancient cities atop mountains, and llamas. Some 2,400 Peruvians registered to vote at the consulate.

The building's six consulates are part of a relatively sizable diplomatic corps in Greater Boston: The US State Department has registered 91 consular officers and issued 95 consular license plates (which allow diplomats to park for free at meters and designated spots) at 23 official consulates and 32 honorary consulates. Honorary consulates are often US offices designated by countries as a place where their citizens can seek help for anything from consular services to business contacts.

"We have diplomatic representatives from more than 25 percent of the world's countries," says Leonard Kopelman, honorary consul general of Finland and dean of the Consular Corps of Boston, which holds luncheons with local and state officials and this month raised more than $60,000 for the United Nations at its annual "Consul's Ball" at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.

Unlike other cities, such as New York and London, which have fought high-profile battles with diplomats over unpaid tolls and parking fines, Boston has a placid relationship with its foreign envoys, who can also park in commercial spots without fear of being ticketed or towed, city officials say.

"We don't have any problems to speak of," said James M. Mansfield, a spokesman for the Boston Transportation Department, noting diplomats can have their cars towed if they park in handicapped spots.

That doesn't mean there aren't stresses on the city's diplomats, most of whom are paid to deal with a host of crises. (Honorary consuls generally aren't paid.) The easiest part of their job often deals with life and death -- a baby born in the area who needs a birth certificate from their parents' country, widows seeking papers to send a spouse's body home.

At the Dominican consulate, which serves an estimated 70,000 of its citizens throughout New England, Frank Tejeda seems to be in constant motion, often 10 hours a day, six days a week, or a normal Dominican workweek. If he's not meeting officials in Providence or visiting Dominicans in a New Hampshire jail or local hospital, the vice consul is signing powers of attorney, authenticating travel documents, and advising the 70 or so people who walk into the consulate every day, many of whom don't speak more than a few words of English.

"Helping people in a crisis is what we do," says Tejeda, who stamps as many as 100 documents a day and visits about 25 prisoners a month.At the Israeli consulate, on a day when the 18 employees on staff await results of their country's national election, there's a different kind of tension.

For the past eight years, Eddy Caba has experienced it nearly every day. One of the building's janitors, Caba has received special clearance to clean the Israeli consulate, which, unlike for the building's other consulates and offices, he must do during working hours.

Though the staff knows him well, the consulate's security officials still pat him down, search his large, wheeled trash can, and thoroughly check his equipment, even scrutinizing the toilet paper he brings every day. When he's sick, replacements must provide their Social Security number, passport, and have their background checked by police."I understand their concern, but after eight years, it's kind of crazy," Caba says.

A country with only 6 million people, Israel has nine consulates in the United States, its third-largest in Boston, after New York and Los Angeles. Why?

"This is the biggest university in the world, and a major financial capital," says Meir Shlomo, the consul general in Boston. He says he competed with 40 other Israeli diplomats for the posting. "You also have a lot of presidents from Boston. We see this as a good place to look ahead of the curve, and we want to be a part of the intellectual debate."

Serving outside a nation's capital is a different kind of experience for a career diplomat, says Shlomo, who has served in embassies from India to Denmark to El Salvador.

In Boston, outside the intelligentsia, many people don't understand what he does, he says. Out of all his speeches, essays, and meetings over the past four years, he says, his greatest impact may have been made by successfully completing an opening pitch at Fenway.

"When I say consul general, people have no clue what the title means," he says. "If I go to a store and show a tax-exempt card, the people just don't understand what it is."

Jorio Salgado Gama Filho, Brazil's consul general, has a similar problem.

"Americans understand what an ambassador is," he says. "You often have to explain yourself."Brazil's consulate, which serves 250,000 Brazilians in New England, is the city's largest. Nearly 500 people visit the spare offices every day, requiring consul officials to process about 120 passports daily, as well as scores of birth certificates, marriage licenses, visas, and powers of attorney. With lines snaking out the door, the staff of 25 employees had to move last month into a larger space of more than 3,600 square feet.

The chaos of crying babies and hordes of impatient immigrants requires the presence of security guard Joao Sequeira.

When he passes from the building's carpeted halls to Brazil's stuffy offices, Sequeira says, he feels like he's leaving the States and entering Brazil. Lines are long -- they start forming more than two hours before the consulate opens -- and signs are in Portuguese."In a month here, I've seen it all - people desperate for help and couples kissing as they move down the line," Sequeira says. "One guy who was seeking a power of attorney for his mother couldn't remember her name."

Nine floors down in the Mexican consulate, one of the country's 48 in the United States, Rafael Barron has had similar head-scratching moments.

Standing in a room with posters of tequila and a digital sign listing numbers for the 35 or so people who seek new passports every day, the consular official says he once spent about an hour explaining to a US citizen what she needed to do to retire in Mexico.

At which point, Barron says, the woman turned to him and said, "I need to do all this to move to Albuquerque?" He looked at her quizzically, he says, and explained New Mexico is actually a part of the United States.

Down the hall from Mexico's offices, which are decorated with Diego Rivera paintings and pictures of Mayan temples, are the Peruvian and Dutch consulates.

As distinct as those cultures may be, their consulates are staid places, with few adornments beyond their crests and flags. Both keep their staff behind locked doors and glass windows. And both provide a sense of home: The Peruvians offer cans of bubble-gum-tasting Inca Kola to visitors, and all who enter the Dutch domain are greeted by a framed portrait of Queen Beatrix and her late husband, Prince Claus.

The differences between the consulates and cultures often come alive in the photo studio on the building's fifth floor, where every day some 100 residents from each of the countries pay $10.50 for two passport pictures.

Joilton B. Azeredo, the shop's owner and photographer, knows the different photo sizes for each consulate -- the Israelis require the largest pictures, 4 by 4.5 centimeters, and the Dominicans and the Dutch the smallest, 2 by 2 centimeters, he says. The Brazilians, more than anyone else, fuss about their photos, he says, while the Americans, Dutch, and Israelis are all business -- in and out, rarely mindful of how they appear. The Dominicans and Peruvians, he says, often dress nicely for their photos."

The Brazilians are never satisfied," says Azeredo, who is Brazilian. "Their hair has to always be just right; they always want to be more beautiful."

On a recent morning, with Brazilians, Mexicans, and one woman from the Netherlands packed into his tiny office, with toddlers clutching their dolls and elderly men grimacing in front of his Olympus digital camera, Azeredo props up babies in special seats and pleads with a young man to take off his glasses and keep his eyes open.

One long-haired Brazilian woman, who marches in with high heels after having the wrong-sized pictures taken, mutters that she doesn't look pretty enough.

When the rush dies for a few minutes, Azeredo shows the melange of faces on his computer -- white, brown, black, old and young, maybe a half-dozen nationalities.

"This is nice place to work," he says.

E-mail David Abel at

Copyright, The Boston Globe
By David Abel
Globe Staff

It doesn't pay to be the local honorary consul general of Finland.
At least, not in cash.
Nor does the lofty title, which amounts to scores of hours a month promoting the Nordic country and helping local Finns with everything from lost passports to working permits, command perks such as exotic travel, diplomatic immunity, or business deals.
For Leonard Kopelman, whose card also identifies him as "dean" of the Consular Corps of Boston, the job doesn't even offer the nostalgia of helping out an ancestral homeland.
Before the Finnish government asked him to become its man in Boston 31 years ago, Kopelman, a native of Newton, had never visited the Montana-sized country of 5 million people, lacked any special education or family ties to the region, and had no idea Finland had been allied with Nazi Germany in World War II.
Why would the busy senior partner at Kopelman & Paige, a downtown law firm with about 60 lawyers, spend so many years in a job he describes as requiring "stamping a lot of stuff and doing a lot of perfunctory work"?
"It's a way to be a part of history," says Kopelman, 64, who is a walking encyclopedia of Finnish facts. "I'm interested in what goes on in the world, and I'm always invited into the room when a senior minister visits. It's very exciting to actually see things done and get to participate in history."
Kopelman is one of 32 honorary consuls in Greater Boston and 1,032 in the United States, according to the US State Department. Most of them are US citizens appointed by foreign governments to represent their interests in cities where they don't post career diplomats.
Theirs can be a lonely station among the grand pooh-bahs of the world's diplomatic circles. The posts don't involve high-stakes international negotiations or much foreign travel; the job comprises more ordinary tasks, such as picking up diplomats at the airport or bailing the county's nationals out of local jails.
But Kopelman takes his position seriously, even if he has to buy his own stationery and pay his travel expenses when more senior Finnish diplomats call him to New York or Washington.
Every year, Kopelman says, he throws dinner parties for Finns studying at local universities. He helps organize luncheons for local officials to meet other consuls in Boston, all of whom even the honorary ilk have diplomatic "inviolability" for their official, consulate-related documents. (US authorities can't subpoena or otherwise seize them.) And he travels throughout New England, talking up the technological prowess and other wonders of Finland.
"They do supply us with a flag and an official seal," he says at his law office, where Finland's regal coat of arms and a large, gold-lettered "Consulate General of Finland" sign greets everyone entering the firm. "Once every decade, we do get flown to Finland, but it's for meetings."
David Abel can be reached at
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