There is a Turkish proverb that says: “No road is long in good company.” With the right companions, even the most daunting and insurmountable tasks can become more bearable and achievable.
Few organisations illustrate that better than Spouses of Heads of Mission (SHOM) Bangkok. Founded more than a decade ago by the spouses of the American and New Zealand ambassadors, the association comprises the life partners of foreign diplomats working in Thailand. SHOM is visible for philanthropic activities aimed at improving the lives of the country’s underprivileged.
Besides organizing a wide range of cultural evenings, lectures and excursions, their speciality is hosting popular fundraising events for good causes, such as an upcoming “Music for a Better World” concert to sponsor music scholarships for poor children, or a get-together for a book of folk tales to be distributed to schools across Thailand. Historically, SHOM represents the board of the YWCA and Red Cross Diplomatic Charity Bazaars, and contributes to numerous ceremonies and events organized by government and private bodies.
SHOM members also perform duties that are just as meaningful – being pillars of support and encouragement for their partners involved in important, often stressful and time-consuming government work.
Elite+ sat down at the Austrian Residence with SHOM members to discuss their roles both in the spotlight and behind the scenes. Attendants included former president Juri Sekiguchi-Drofenik from Austria, current president Lucia Costantini Prügel from Germany, Valerie Rugene from Kenya, Isabelle Garachon from France, Chung-wha Oh from South Korea, Renata Greplova from Czech and Kevin P. Colleary from Portugal.
Could you explain SHOM’s roles and responsibilities?
Mrs Drofenik: At the beginning, it was a very informal group of ambassadors’ spouses. And then there was an occasion to celebrate the Queen’s birthday and the Foreign Ministry asked for the newly formed SHOM to convene as many spouses of ambassadors as possible. And SHOM convened more than 20 ambassadors’ spouses and started to become recognized from the Thai side. Now we have more than 30 members who are spouses and partners of ambassadors accredited to the Kingdom of Thailand. Our major goal is to share our knowledge and experiences among the members who have the same concerns and interests living in Thailand. We have a monthly meeting hosted at each member’s residence. We are individuals who seek to contribute to society as well as the understanding of Thai culture and seek mutual recognition of the countries we represent. We have started to do a lot of charity events.
Dr Colleary: This life is very busy for us. We each have a number of responsibilities for our own country and our country’s relationship with Thailand. Many of us also have families and many other professional responsibilities. So our life is very busy. One of the great gifts Juri gave us was a purpose to our meetings and events.
You were president for two years, Madam Drofenik. What achievements are you most proud of?
Mrs Drofenik: I came here in the summer of 2013 and at the time it was politically very unstable. People were throwing grenades at Lumphini Park and I couldn’t walk to the subway station. I was stuck in the residence, and SHOM was the only place for me to exchange information. Even though we met regularly, it was informal with no solid agenda. When I became president, I thought that to use people’s time more effectively it would be better to have an agenda to discuss and activities to have fun. So I introduced a more systematic approach for members to use the time more effectively.
We organize a lot of group activities every month and it’s expanding from cultural aspects to learn more about Thailand and participate in many events. For instance, every year we participate in the Silk Fashion Show to celebrate Queen Sirikit’s birthday in August. Brainstorming with the organizer, we reached the level that participating countries’ madams could showcase dresses that represent their countries made in Thai silk by young Thai designers. For example, I’m Japanese but I represent Austria. I brainstormed with the organizer and a young Thai designer to showcase an Austrian costume from the Sound of Music in Thai silk. It was very successful.
Madam Valerie from Kenya made stunning bright orange Thai silk with the essence of Kenya. Through that fashion show, the audience not only saw the beauty of Thai silk but understood each country’s essence and culture.
How does SHOM help you promote your country and understand more about Thailand?
Mrs Rugene: I come from the African continent, which is less represented in Thailand. In my short time in Thailand, I realize that Thai people in general have little knowledge about the African continent and specifically of Kenya. We have so much to offer. By taking a leadership role or by joining this group and taking part in many activities associated with SHOM, we can help create awareness and interest, and Thai people can also develop an interest in Kenya and visit.
Mrs Oh: Firstly we get a lot of information about Thai culture, Thai people and connections. We come here without any knowledge or friends. Being part of this group will make it easy to quickly absorb this kind of information. I can meet local people and know who to contact for certain things. We are having the 60th anniversary of the Thai-Korea relationship and now we have a good chance to do something together in a big event coming next year.
Mrs Garachon: I just promoted myself to food, fashion and beverage adviser because I’m trying to organize a casual dinner and discover new restaurants and bars. I give tips on organic chicken, eggs and French meat. We have a lot of French people and chefs in Thailand. So I give tips about food – where to get good cheese and wine. I opened a Facebook page and Twitter account to promote the French events so people can know better what we do. And it’s in Thai, French and English so everybody can understand and see. We don’t just drink champagne, go to a nice restaurant and talk to each other. We have a lot to learn here. We are here as an observer and we need people to explain the rules, what we should do, and to support each other.
What inspired the group to become more involved in charity events and helping the underprivileged?
Mrs Drofenik: Usually an ambassador’s rotation is three to four years. When I came here the dynamic of the spouses was quite different. Madam Lucia from Germany brings in this dynamic spirit, saying why not as a group contribute to Thai society and organize our own charity events to give back to Thai society.
What made you, Madam Prügel, accept to be SHOM’s new president?
Mrs Prügel: In our last foreign posting, we had a very active diplomatic spouses club and I served as a vicepresident and then president. So I have some experience leading this kind of association. The best experience is to have team spirit. All the members have a different background, education and experiences. But they cannot use the experience as a spouse because sadly the spouses of ambassadors are considered a kind of decoration, dressed nicely and invited to events. I think we are more than that. We have a lot of competence, skills, ideas and passion. This kind of group can do something for society apart from being in official functions.
Could you tell us more about the charity projects?
Mrs Prügel: All of us had professional careers so we want to use our competence to contribute and give back to society.
We have two charity projects this year. The first is a gala dinner and concert [Music for a Better World] that a music school will give musical education to children of the Khlong Toei slum that will be hosted in the garden of the German Residence. Juri and I went to visit the slum and we were quite shocked that less than one kilometre from my residence there is a slum where people live in very bad conditions. The children living in this neighbourhood have more opportunities in life through the learning of classical music. They are playing violin, piano, flute. They are learning and showing that they can do something to contribute to society. This project is not just collecting money to give to the poor; they will play for us; they will show what they can do.
You focus more on underprivileged children than other groups?
Mrs Prügel: Children’s rights and women’s empowerment are two important topics for us. If we want to give back to society, we need to look at the groups in society who need help. The future of children is very important as they are the future of our society. We are doing this for society but for ourselves as well – to feel good in the society you are living in. We are guests in this country. We get a lot from this country in terms of status, privilege, invitations and recognition. That’s why we need to give back, to be more attentive to the needs of the people. We would like to really know this country in all facets, not just in the glamourous life of a hi-so group.
Dr Colleary: Most of us are committed to issues of women and youth empowerment and education. The youth is our future and we must invest in our future in order to make the world a better place.
SHOM also has a charity project producing books of folk tales for children?
Dr Colleary: The goal is to publish a book for children in Thai and in English that will incorporate folk and fairy tales from around the world. We invited our members to submit a folk or fairy tale from their nation and we got 25 wonderful stories. Those stories will be translated into Thai and there will be illustrations. Our goal is to share the book with needy schools and libraries throughout Thailand to give children who may not have the opportunity a little more exposure about all of our countries. We are hoping that the book will be published by the middle to end of this year. We have wonderful partners throughout Thailand to make this book a reality.
With the rise of digital media, is there as much demand for a book?
Dr Colleary: The digital reality is all around us. But at the end of the day, especially when you are talking about young children, you need a book to work with them. While there’re all sorts of wonders with screens and digital components, there is still something very intimate, beautiful and connected about reading a book to a child or about giving a book to a child to read.
An ambassador and spouse might spend a few years in one post before moving on. How can SHOM maintain its standards and values?
Mrs Prügel: We are making SHOM more attractive to new members. There is change throughout the year. More younger members with professional experience are joining. We are an active team of spouses now.
Dr Colleary: This is one of the elements of our life, and it’s constantly changing, constantly renewing. In making ourselves as a group inviting, attractive and interesting, every new ambassador’s spouse wants to take part. That’s how you ensure longevity and build capacity for leadership in the future.
Mrs Drofenik: We need commitment from members to engage with the SHOM team and with Thai society. We have been invited for many years to two major important diplomatic charity events, the Red Cross Bazaar and YWCA Bazaar. We participate and it’s a good opportunity to showcase our products and promote our country. SHOM can’t just sit down and relax; we have to engage with Thai society and Thai society also needs our contribution. The private sector also does a lot of CSR activities and we do a lot of activities together. Thai people are very generous and responsible for their own society. SHOM has to keep up with the beautiful mindset of the Thai people. We form a very strong team spirit as SHOM. And that’s something we are proud of.