I walk along the expansive Kirchenfeldstrasse in the beautiful city of Bern in Switzerland. The street is lined with classic century-old buildings which now serve as offices for many diplomatic missions from around the world. I arrive at an impressive Italian Neo-Renaissance building where the Philippine flag is hoisted proudly at the facade. I am at the Embassy of the Philippines, excited for my morning chat with Ambassador Leslie J. Baja.
When it all began
Baja welcomes me with the familiar warmth that one only gets from Filipinos. Before the morning ends, he tells me about his life as a diplomat, making me appreciate more his work serving Filipinos in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Baja graduated from the University of the Philippines with a degree in Political Science. He spent some years working at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in Manila before being deployed abroad.
“I served as a Third Secretary and Vice Consul at the Embassy of the Philippines in Athens in the 90s. I was a junior officer and did a lot of spade work – researching, paper work, etc. I enjoyed Athens in the sense that it has similarities with the Philippines such as lively and warm people and beautiful islands. I stayed there for six and a half years,” recalls Baja.
After his service in Greece, Baja worked as a director at the passport division of the DFA before flying again to Europe for his assignment in Berlin, Germany as a Charge d’Affaires and later on, as a Minister and Consul General. “My time in Berlin offered me the opportunity to hone my diplomatic skills with the local officials and the Pinoy community.”
He travels frequently with his wife, Noralyn, who is also a diplomat, and their two children.
“My family likes to try local delicacies. There is a saying ‘When you’re in Rome, do as the Romans do’. So we try to do what locals do. We also watch performances by Filipinos. Last May, we watched the music and dance ensemble group Kontra-GaPi from UP Diliman perform in Bern,” he shares.
Unifying Filipinos in Switzerland
Switzerland is Baja’s first ambassadorial post. He is also the Philippine government’s representative to Liechtenstein. He was appointed in July 2011.
“I like the quality of life in Switzerland. Residents get a certain kind of security. Workers are not in danger of being abused. I like the cleanliness of the country. The river Aare here in Bern, for example, is very clear. There is an orderly lifestyle. I also like that it is centrall ylocated in Europe making it easy to visit neighbouring countries,” enthuses Baja.
Among Baja’s unforgettable moments here includes the visit of President Benigno Aquino III in Switzerland to attend the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. Meeting with the Filipino community in Zürich was another happy occassion. Baja aims to bring the embassy closer to the people through consular outreach programmes.
“Twice a year we conduct consular outreach activities. Last year we had three outreach programmes – one in Basel and two in Zürich.”
He also uses social media to reach more Filipinos.
“I am promoting a unified Independence Day celebration in Switzerland. We had the Independence Day celebration in Zürich and it was good to see Filipinos united in one celebration. We develop good networks with Filipinos and different organizations. Noi-P is an organization of second-generation Filipinos we work closely with. I have a personal mantra: ‘Kung sama-sama, kayang-kaya,” says Baja.
Baja says foreign officials always speak positively about Filipinos in Switzerland. They see Filipinos as hardworking, fexible and well-integrated.
Promoting friendly relations
Presently, the embassy is promoting the au pair programme as well as the Exchange of Professional and Technical Trainees programme. The latter aims for young Filipinos to have the chance to be with host families in Switzerland and learn the Swiss way of life, language, etc. The former is for Filipinos to have an opportunity to be trained in companies of their chosen fields in Switzerland for 18 months.
“I hope to improve the political and economic relationship of the Philippines and Switzerland, to promote greater interaction among Filipinos here, and to meet the needs of Filipinos. I am happy that I work with a team that is constructive. The Swiss government is also open and responsive to our programmes,” he says.
According to the ambassador, the Swiss government has donated more than 32 million Swiss francs to Yolanda victims through Glückskette. “I believe it is a reflection of the Swiss people’s high regard for Filipinos.” The Philippine embassy recently held a Day of Gratitude to appreciate Switzerland’s generosity.”
The Philippine embassy is located at Kirchenfeldstrasse 73, CH-3005 Bern, Switzerland. Visit www.philembassyberne.ch