BEIRUT: Annahar interviewed Swiss Ambassador to Lebanon, Monika Schmutz Kirgöz, at the Swiss embassy, for an insight on her life, her post in Lebanon and the Swiss-Lebanese relationships.
What did you study at university? How did you come to choose the diplomacy field that led to you serving as an Ambassador?
At university, I studied Political Science, Sociology and International Law. I then pursued my PhD at the Ecole Polytech Federale du Zurich in more economic related issues in developing countries. After that, I worked at the developmental aid sector before pursuing the diplomatic corps.
I have always wanted to become a diplomat even back in high school. To me, moving from my country to another country to represent our nation was a worthy goal. Being a diplomat is basically having to sell and represent your country.
Although we aren’t nationalistic, we are very patriotic, which in turns makes it easy for us to represent our home nation. Switzerland is famous for its long democratic tradition, and it gives its citizens many possibilities and equal opportunities.
What was your first impression of Lebanon?
It was love at first sight.
I must admit that I’ve been here as a tourist before reaching my post. When I moved to my post in Turkey in 2012, my first trip was a week in Beirut. I was amazed. I fell in love with the country and I’ve always wanted to serve here. My husband and I have never been more welcomed by authentic, warm and generous people.
There is something about the Lebanese, they invite you and take care of you, and most importantly, they empower you.
Istanbul is a city of 20 million people and my events would have a few hundred attendees. Here, the house is always full, even on a Friday night. Furthermore, Lebanese are also very culturally active and very educated. They know about my country and my people.
My friend who is a Palestinian intellectual based in Lebanon once said: “This is the only country in this part of the world where you can use your brain fully, and you are allowed.” The freedom of the press, the culture of debate, and intellectuality, is quite unique here.
What are some similarities between the Swiss and Lebanese culture? Do you believe that Lebanon can return to the era of being the Switzerland of the East?
Lebanon and Switzerland have a lot in common. Both countries are multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multicultural. Both the Lebanese and the Swiss are very educated. Even in regards to languages, we have four linguistic regions; German, French, Italian and Romansh; and the Lebanese also are very multilingual.
Lebanon was once named the Switzerland of the East, especially because of the beauty of its mountains and nature. To be honest, now it is a bit harder to return to that era for political and environmental reasons. There are several crises the Lebanese have to manage, and there is also a lot of construction taking place which is degrading nature. But this is all very understandable, with what Lebanon is going through.
If someone were to visit Lebanon from Switzerland, where would you take them?
Beirut, of course.
After Beirut, I would take them to Baalbek. I also like Tyre, Sidon, and Tripoli. But in order to wow someone who hasn’t been here before, taking them to Beirut and Baalbek would astonish them. I’m also very fond of the mountainside which I haven’t had the time to visit quite enough. I already went to Ehden, but during my stay here, one of my goals is to finish the Lebanese Mountain Trail. I want to leave having walked through all of Lebanon’s mountains.
What are the major priorities of the Swiss embassy in Lebanon? And what has been the biggest challenge for the Swiss embassy?
The Swiss-Lebanese relationship is very solid and good. There is enormous mutual respect between the two countries. We have a number of cultural activities here, which shows how close we are.
Switzerland stands with Lebanon; and was one of the first countries to help the Lebanese host communities. We give money, construct schools, and take care of water establishments to provide basic needs to these communities that have to face the big refugee population.
Our help was mainly centered on the Lebanese host communities, with more than 20 million dollars being provided each year as funding. In parallel, we also do help with the refugee crisis.
Our embassy is divided into several structures, we have a huge humanitarian office with two field offices that aid with basic needs for the host communities. We also have an expert for migration, which helps with resettling refugees from Lebanon to Switzerland.
So far we have taken around 10,000 refugees from all over the world and resettled in Switzerland, and we hope to continue to take more. We also have peace and security departments that aid in maintaining these goals in Lebanon.
In December Prime Minister Saad Hariri presented a strategy on preventing violent extremism, which was funded by the Swiss. Economically I would like to do more; but for the time being, we have two obstacles in the economic field and if they aren’t solved, Swiss investors would be reluctant to invest here.
Could you give us an insight into your talk with Tourism Minister Oadis Guidanian? What were the steps discussed in order to enhance means of bolstering touristic exchange between the two countries?
We really don’t need to take steps. We went through the statistics, and we think that per capita the Swiss are at the top of international travelers to Lebanon. Swiss people like individual tourism, they like to discover and they are not afraid. We have many visitors from Switzerland every week. We have members of parliament, members of government and members of cantons visiting regularly.
We also have a big Lebanese community in Geneva, there are many people working in the banking sector, finance sector and in diplomacy. The Lebanese in Geneva, and all over the world, are very successful. They are business-minded and brilliant, successful, people.
What advice would you give to thriving young diplomats?
You should maintain your intellectual curiosity and love human beings.
Curiosity guides you to the most incredible treasures, especially curiosity about countries, people, and differences. To add, this profession is a door opener. Apart from that, you would need a lot of knowledge on international relations, politics, and languages.
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