Behind every successful man or woman, there is always a dedicated partner who works behind the scenes. In the case of the diplomatic corps, spouses and partners stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their Ambassadors who are reaching the pinnacle of their diplomatic careers. On a very busy long weekend afternoon, I was welcomed to the classy penthouse residence of the Ambassador of the European Union to the Kingdom of Thailand.
I was there to meet with Madame Olga Shumylo-Tapiola, the spouse of H.E. EU Ambassador Pirkka Tapiola. Prior to the meeting, I felt a bit overwhelmed, as I have often encountered this powerful couple at social functions. The Ambassador always looking impressive whilst Madame elegantly dressed, the couple
SHOM: Spouses of the Heads of Missions
SHOM stands for “Spouses of Heads of Missions”. In Bangkok, it was founded 15 years ago to serve as a club for the spouses to meet up and assist newcomers to settle down into their new environment. Throughout the years, the group has evolved to be more structured and formal, with regular monthly meetings and interest groups in various fields. Frequently, well-known Thai and international speakers are invited to help SHOM members learn more about Thai society and culture.
Historically, Embassies participated in the YWCA and the Red Cross Diplomatic Bazaars held annually to raise funds for local charities with SHOM members taking a leading role in helping with the organisation of these events. SHOM members are invited to model for the “Celebration of Silk” fashion show to champion Thai silk in honour of the Queen Mother Sirikit’s project.
Over the years, SHOM has established itself as an influential and high profile group in Thailand. Its charity events attract many prominent Thai and foreign guests. Its fundraising efforts cover areas from sustainability to education, to raising awareness about various social causes and inclusivity.
The new phase of SHOM
This year, SHOM is looking further afield and Mrs Tapiola’s job, as the new president from January 2019, is to help the group reach new objectives. Her first remark was, “The credit for SHOM’s name, visibility and influence goes to my predecessors – Mrs Lucia Costantini and Mrs Gracita Tolentino Sieber – and other prominent active members of the group, many of whom have already left Thailand. My task is to take SHOM to a new level – listening to the members and making sure we act according to our values, capabilities and capacities. At the beginning of 2019, we conducted a survey among the members and identified three areas of activities – sustainability issues, children’s wellbeing and women’s rights.”
There is a new Sustainability Group within SHOM being set up with the members meeting regularly to discuss important environmental projects such as on waste management, eradication of plastic waste, green cooking etc. August Kleven of Finland and Susie Ruff of Denmark are leading the pack. The first group’s initiative is to support sustainability – and environment related projects of the BMA school. Also, SHOM is looking into joining efforts with the Precious Plastic Thailand initiative to help recycle certain type of plastic. Recently, SHOM members met with the team of Operation Smile Thailand to learn more about the initiative that aims at providing medical guidance and safe surgeries to underprivileged children with facial deformities in remote rural areas across Thailand. Ideas for further cooperation between the groups were discussed.
“There is a strong desire within the group to be as practical as possible when it comes to our support. We are eager to humbly share our own skills, knowledge and ideas coming from our different countries with the local benefactors. In addition to our charitable efforts, we are willing to invest time and energy on a daily basis,” – said Mrs Tapiola.
Mrs Tapiola claims that this work would not be successful without support of her colleagues who serve on 2019 SHOM committee – vice president Mrs Marie Cotter of Ireland, Mrs Ewa Dubaniowska of Poland, Mrs Christina Macpherson of New Zealand, Mrs Gracita Tolentino Sieber of Switzerland, Dr Kevin Colleary of Portugal, and Mrs Ximena Rios of Peru. SHOM’s experience in Thailand would not be as rich and enlightening without Karin Herrstrom of Sweden’s Book Club and Katharina Cornaro of the Netherland’s Movement Group.
Life as a Diplomat’s spouse
Thailand is not her first posting as an Ambassadorial spouse. Ambassador Tapiola served previously as EU Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova, prior to their move to Thailand. Born in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Madame Olga served as a political analyst and later on as director of one of the leading think-tanks in her home country until her marriage almost a decade ago. The couple met in Crimea, Ukraine. Mrs Tapiola moved to Brussels to follow her husband. A professional with two Master’s Degrees – MA in International Relations from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, and MSc in Political Economy of Transition from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, Mrs Tapiola does not stop learning. A few years ago, she retrained as a group psychotherapist in Psychodrama method at the Moscow Institute of Gestalt and Psychodrama.
Mrs Tapiola is enjoying her life in Thailand. “Supporting my husband in representing the European Union is an honour and privilege that I do not take that for granted. The significant issue about the European Union is that by sharing sovereignty and values, 28 European member states have made conflict and war virtually impossible within their borders,” she admits. Despite the challenges of diplomatic life, Madame Olga has no intention to lock up her knowledge
during her term in Bangkok. She works as a volunteer with local NGOs providing psychological support to groups of adults facing various life challenges. She says: “I am an advocate of mental health. I love group therapy, its power and potential. I am privileged to be able to walk next to my group members and provide support on the way. I am learning more about Thai people and trying to tune in my support with the local culture.”
She is also running a support group within SHOM that meets on regular basis to discuss challenges of diplomatic life. While not being a therapy group, it serves as a platform for the members. “We are grateful for the experience that our spouses’ roles grant us. Yet, with the beauty of moving to a new country and learning new cultures, comes the challenge of relocation, of adjustment to the new environment, of not having a job, reinventing ourselves with every posting. We all know how to pack up an old life, move, unpack and build a new one from scratch. It helps to know that there are other people who are there for us – understanding, not judging, supporting.”
Mrs Tapiola’s experience of running an office, her research and organisational skills, her interest in people and their lives – all come handy whether she is supporting her husband in representing the European Union, coordinating SHOM life, or trying to understand the host country. “My philosophy is to enable people, to offer space for them to grow to their best potential wherever I go.”
Impressions of Thailand
Like many expatriates, Madame Olga has enjoyed visits to Phuket, Krabi, Chiang Mai and Hua Hin. Prior to this posting in Thailand, the couple had visited the country a number of times as tourists. When the news about the posting came about, they were delighted for the move. With the celebrations of the Royal Coronation of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Phra Vajiraklaochaoyuhua, Ambassador Tapiola and Madame Olga were invited on the third day to attend the Royal Audience Grant by His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen to Heads of Diplomatic Missions and their spouses. Like many others, they were glued to the television on the first two days, watching this historical outstanding event.
My last question to the graceful Madame, “What was your impression of the Coronation celebrations?” Her straightforward reply was, “It was impressive, beautiful, something truly unique. It was an honour for us to have been part of one of the ceremonies of this this grandevent. It will certainly stay with us for the rest of our lives.”