INTERVIEW: Meet Melinda Simmons, Dame of Ukraine

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INTERVIEW: Meet Melinda Simmons, Dame of Ukraine

The title may be new, but the dogged determination is the same. The British ambassador in Kyiv talks exclusively to Jewish News

Dame Melinda with Zelensky
Dame Melinda with Zelensky

The only time Melinda Simmons sounded isolated was when His Majesty’s ambassador to Ukraine talked about being in synagogue in Kyiv, the nation’s capital.

For despite the year-long conflict with Russia, it turns out that, even in Ukraine, “no matter what denomination”, shul services are conducted in Russian and Hebrew.

She said: “I have a pretty good passive understanding of Hebrew, but my Russian is poor – I am a Ukrainian speaker – and it can feel really alienating to sit in a room with a language you can’t speak being used to communicate the service”.

But that’s almost the only time Dame Melinda – she was given the title in this year’s New Year Honours list – sounded faintly negative. In her first exclusive interview with a Jewish publication, she told Life about what it was like living in Kyiv and what made her stay when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Speaking in mid-March, she said: “Kyiv looks and feels normal. But if you look a bit closer, you see that there are very few children here. Most have been taken with their mothers to elsewhere in Ukraine or outside the country. A city with few children in it feels strange.

“And then there are frequent air raid sirens, which remind you every time that, though free, Kyiv is in a war-affected country, and is itself under attack”.

The ambassador said she was “proud” to be living in Kyiv, and specifically proud of what she and her colleagues in the British embassy were doing. It felt “secure – but not safe”. Nevertheless, Dame Melinda was clear: “I never once questioned my decision to stay in Kyiv. I was one of the first ambassadors to return and it seemed completely right that I should be doing the job I was hired to do, inside Ukraine – not outside it”.

And she spoke of being “inspired every day by my Ukrainian colleagues and friends and their ongoing bravery. They inspire me to continue this important work and ensure they succeed. It’s a tough decision to make, but I know it’s the right one”.

Every day I am at the embassy and see my colleagues is a triumph. The country is under attack – and yet here we are, getting on with our work.

Just the same, she admitted, staying in Kyiv comes at a price. “It’s seven-days-a-week work. War doesn’t stop at the weekend. And it saddens me that my decision means my family [her husband and sons in London] has to worry about me,” she said.

“Every single one” of her staff, she said, “supported the decision to stay open as long as possible. And they all understood when we were instructed to fall back to Lviv. We were all traumatised when we pulled back to Poland”.

Many British and Ukrainian embassy staff followed Dame Melinda when she returned to the capital. “Honestly, every day I am at the embassy and see my colleagues is a triumph. The country is under attack – and yet here we are, getting on with our work”.

Dame Melinda

As a former Jewish student activist, Dame Melinda has always been upfront about her identity. She said: “It’s been important for me to stay connected to the community I’m a member of. That’s partly to do with how lonely it can be in Kyiv. Family cannot join me here, nor can friends from outside Ukraine. I fill my evenings with work meetings but, in the end, you need people around you who love and care about you, who you love and care about.”

Being Jewish, the ambassador said, “has always been a defining part of who I am”. She continued: “But it does make me more acutely aware of the crimes Russian troops have been committing against Ukrainians. Ukraine is in the epicentre of where the Holocaust took place.”

In the middle of last year, the Masorti community in Kyiv re-established itself and Dame Melinda helped affix a mezuzah to the synagogue’s building. She joined the community for Rosh Hashanah services, which she said were “lovely”. If she’s in Ukraine during a Jewish holiday, she will seek out a community in Kyiv. But more usually, rather than struggle with Russian, she prefers to go online with her home community, Finchley Reform Synagogue. She was full of praise for her erstwhile synagogue, which she said has been “brilliant” at supporting Ukrainian refugees.

Melinda fixing a mezuzah to the doorpost of the Kyiv Masorti synagogues new premises last September 2022

“I joined a weekly drop-in they hold, where there were English lessons and a coffee morning, and chatted with some of the guests in Ukrainian. The community spirit of the whole UK has been amazing, with so many households taking part in the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Over 200,000 visas have now been issued to Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in the UK, and the UK public dug deep into their pockets and raised £400 million for the DEC [Disasters Emergency Committee] appeal.”

Despite changing British prime ministers, the ambassador was clear that “UK policy of support for Ukraine has been consistent throughout and has cross-party support. The recent UK-Ukraine Declaration of Unity clearly shows we will continue to be in partnership with the Ukrainians. I have no doubt about this”.

President Zelensky

“It’s not just about who the prime minister is, it’s about the UK’s values ,” Dame Melinda continued.

“I’m very proud of the UK, our decisions to give all of our support, nearly £4 billion of military, humanitarian and economic support. It might be tanks, generators or trade access.

“The prime minister has tasked the government to accelerate our support for Ukraine and to take a wholesale approach. The UK has provided £2.3bn in military support in 2022 – more than any country other than the United States – and has already committed to sustain that level of military support into 2023.

“We will support Ukraine for as long as it takes. That’s why when President Zelensky was in London, the prime minister announced that we would extend
our military training to pilots and marines, why we were the first country to send main battle tanks to Ukraine”.

She added: “[Being here] is a daily defiance. And we know we have the full support of colleagues in London and partners across the world to continue our work here and ensure Ukraine wins this war and secures peace on Ukrainian terms.”

Discovering she was going to be made a dame, the diplomat says, had left her “astonished”. But she described the honour as “a huge sign of the UK’s pride for what Ukraine has done for itself”.

Living up to her reputation of ‘taking no prisoners’, Dame Melinda was bullish about an end to the conflict.

Ukraine “can and will win” the war, she said. “We’ll continue to support Ukraine to do this – through our work in-country and with partners around the world. We are all united behind Ukraine.

“We have an opportunity, with Russia on the back foot, to ensure Ukraine wins this war and galvanise a surge of international backing for Ukraine.

“That’s why we’re accelerating the delivery of military equipment to Ukraine to help counter Russia’s spring offensive, reinforced by long-term support, and working to galvanise international efforts.”

The ambassador has been in post since 2019.

I wondered if she had any thoughts on her next job. In true diplomatic style, she replied: “Yes. Plenty!”

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