Britain’s newest ambassador to the Ukraine is a Jewish woman from London’s East End, Melinda Simmons. And her appointment means she is completing a unique triumvirate, after the latest presidential election means both Ukraine’s prime minister, and its president, are Jewish.
Ms Simmons has had a different kind of career trajectory from most other ambassadors — because she has only been in the Foreign Office since 2013. Taking a short break from studying Ukrainian — “a very hard road”, she admits — Britain’s newest ambassador shared some of her background with Jewish News.
Born in the East End but brought up in Essex, Melinda Simmons began her career in business before switching to work in government. She is originally one of three sisters, but her elder sister died.
Her family is from Poland on her father’s side, but her mother’s side is both Lithuanian and Ukrainian. “As a Jewish woman, returning to the region, I feel I can play a positive role”, she says. Her parents certainly think her appointment is meaningful.
“My great-grandparents were born and raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine. My great-grandfather moved first to Kiev and then to the US. My great-grandmother, for reasons we don’t know, went from Kharkiv to Cardiff”.
The diplomat began her government career working for the Department for International Development (DfID). She had a degree from the University of Exeter and had started working in marketing and advertising. In that role, she told a conference, “I travelled to countries newly emerged from conflict, or from closed regimes, which were looking to build a stronger economic future.
“But in walking around with local people and talking to them about what they could charge for their products, it became clear to me, that the introduction of the kinds of businesses I was representing – huge, multinational corporations, offering high end products – ran a higher risk of deepening inequality and risking social division and conflict. Particularly if the economic benefit of those companies was not handled by governments in an inclusive way.
“So, I studied for an MA degree at night school, and as soon as I graduated, I quit my job, took a 50 per cent pay cut and went to work for a peacebuilding NGO before joining government”.
Peacebuilding has been Ms Simmons’ trademark since entering the foreign service and one of her most recent roles was as deputy director of the Foreign Office’s Conflict Department.
She comes from a traditional United Synagogue background, she says. “I was brought up in the US, was a regular shul attender, had a kosher home, all of that. But from my mid-teens on I was looking for somewhere that was more inclusive for women, and I went from community to community. Eventually I found Finchley Reform and it is a community I really love.”
Both she and her partner are long-term members, and she says she will miss the synagogue when she leaves for Kiev in the summer.
She will also leave behind, for the first time in her varied career, her two sons, (now in their late teens and early 20s) and says one of her challenges will be keeping the family unit strong and united even when they are physically apart. “I’ve had a lot of good advice from Foreign Office colleagues on this”, she says.
She is very much looking forward to her new appointment. “I’m most impressed with how vibrant civil society has become in Ukraine, and how committed Ukrainians are to make things work in their newly independent country”. With a laugh, she returned to her language lesson.