NPR: “How A Half-Hour In a U.S. Embassy Changed a Life”

by Joseph McKeown

As a child growing up in Sri Lanka, Christopher Francis was fascinated with America.  After reading books about America at his local library, his dream was to make it to the United States. "I looked at the pictures or read about it and everything was just fascination about America," he tells NPR. "I knew that…in America, sky's the limit and you are welcomed and you are given every opportunity to succeed in this country." Francis grew up Tamil, a persecuted ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, during a time when there was great tension and deadly encounters between Tamils and the Sinhalese government. “It’s a very tough times we went through. Almost everyone got burnt and killed, they escaped and ran,” Francis says. He knew he had to leave the country.  

As a young adult, through a chance encounter he had a job prospect in Virginia, but there was a big first step to make moving there a reality: the visa interview. As NPR explains. “Already, the odds were stacked against him. Those who were able to get a visa were professionally qualified and politically connected with the Sri Lankan government. Others were wealthy enough to buy influence.” The visa interview was on July 20, 1973, at 2pm, and he had half an hour to convince the consular officer, a man named David C. Harr, that he deserved the visa. That half hour changed the course of his life, Francis says.   

Francis, who only had a high school education and came from a poor family, prayed earnestly before the visa interview. That day at the US Embassy in Colombo, he was the only visa applicant. Francis recalls that Harr—in glasses and a short-sleeved shirt and tie—began asking multiple questions. “I was getting a feeling that I was not going to be approved for a visa,” Francis tells NPR. “Then he asked me about my family. So I felt he became very sympathetic towards me, and I felt because I was a Tamil, I felt he was able to understand.” Approximately a half hour later, Francis received his visa stamp.

A month after the interview with Harr, Francis arrived in the US. He began training as a nurse, and eventually became the director of inpatient and outpatient services for his hospital department. He is now a US citizen with a wife and two daughters. After all of these years, Francis never forgot the consular officer that gave him the opportunity to come to the US, and he reached out to NPR’s Missed Connection Series to reunite with Harr and thank him for how his life turned out. “I reflect on my life here and all the blessings and what I have been given—the American dream—and also the fact that I see folks trying to come to this country and it’s difficult for them,” Francis says.

Harr began his career in the foreign service in 1967 after serving in the Air Force. His father taught missions at a protestant seminary and international visitors often stopped by his family’s home, and he developed an interest in international affairs. Retired now, Harr was stationed throughout Southeast Asia and Turkey, and was only in Sri Lanka for one year. 

After searching through public records and placing calls with the US State Department, the two were able to reunite during a phone call. "I'm speechless," Francis says to Harr on their call. "Here I am trying to reach you…for so many years, and I tell all my family members that I still have my passport right here with [your signature]." Although Harr does not recall that day as well as Francis, he says he was probably faced with someone who had a lot of talent, promise, and was going to make something of himself. “It’s one of our joys is to see people to whom we issue visas come and really make good,” Harr says. “Immigration is a really life-changing experience, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. This case it was very gratifying to hear the story.”