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Ambassador Salman Bal: from Anatolia to the Alps
Today at the head of the International Geneva Welcome Center, an association whose goal is to facilitate the settlement and integration of newcomers on Swiss territory, Salman Bal is a man of heart who has been guided all his life by a thirst for knowledge and a deep love for humanity.
This career diplomat has something to smile about. Married with two daughters, he has been in the service of the Confederation for more than twenty years. He is entering his last year in Geneva, before being relocated for his next mission. Indeed, even though life at the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) may seem confusing or unstable, Mr. Bal chose it very early in his life and has never regretted it. Yet nothing seemed to predestine him to become a Swiss diplomat.
Born in a modest Kurdish village in eastern Turkey, Mr. Bal remembers his childhood with nostalgia: “We had no running water, no electricity, but we were happy and my family aspired to a more comfortable life for their children. In the early 70’s, first his grandfather, then his father decided to leave his village to join Europe. Even though Germany was their main destination at the time, it was in Basel that the first pages of the Bal family’s history in Switzerland were written. Then, the classic fate of immigrants from Anatolia: his mother, followed by his brother and sister, joined his father in Basel. As for Salman, he joins his family at the age of 9, after having lived first with his grandmother, then with his uncle’s family after his mother’s departure. He arrived in a country without any reference points and with a major language barrier. This arrival, taking an incredible turn, will become the keystone of a great career in international relations..
“As a child, I was good at math, but I couldn’t pronounce the result,” he recalls with a smile. “Math is a universal language that immigrants tend to turn to. Anything to do with language is a major obstacle, but it was different for me. At school, my classmates were obliged by the class teacher to take care of me in order to speed up my learning of German and my integration. So I spent a lot of time with the most caring of them, especially with three boys with whom I spent a lot of time. In the end, these same three boys and I were the only ones in the class who went on to university. I certainly owe them a lot, and I will be eternally grateful to them for being such a good influence on my life,” says Mr. Bal, who was the first in his family to sit on a university bench.
His interest in human interaction was the result of encounters and the realization that life offers an infinite number of opportunities to have a positive impact on others. As for his love of international relations, besides his obvious intellectual curiosity, it was his status as an immigrant and the cultural mix he experienced that set him on the path. “Especially the first generation of immigrants want to keep in touch with their country of origin. It was no different with the immigrants in my region. The situation in Turkey has always been highly politicized, so we are inevitably immersed in big discussions that mix geopolitics, economics and ideology. And then, as a Kurd, we are so affected by politics that we have no choice but to be interested in it,” he concedes. I was fascinated from an early age by the things that shape the world and impact people’s lives,” he adds. At the age of 16, while visiting the Turkish consulate to renew his passport, he took a moment to contemplate the place and the expatriates who occupied it, and then concluded that this is what he would do with his life. As this epiphany coincided with his naturalization, it was Switzerland that was lucky enough to have him as a delegate. “History and politics being my hobby, it is not surprising that diplomacy became my profession,” he says.
Mr. Bal is accustomed to meeting with the highest political and diplomatic authorities in the world, especially during his time in the Office of the Director General of the United Nations in Geneva. He seems to derive particular pleasure from his position at the head of CAGI. Nestled in a property dominated by greenery and a few miles from the United Nations (where Mr. Bal had previously served as Political Advisor to the Director General), the CAGI was born in 1996 from a collaboration between the Canton of Geneva and the Confederation. One of the contributions of the FDFA was the provision of a director, a function that Mr. Bal is fulfilling for the last of his four years of service.
“CAGI is a key element for the attractiveness of international Geneva. We must redouble our efforts to make our services visible. This is why we have strengthened our communication, redesigned our website and introduced social networks”Salman Bal
Today, under the leadership of Mr. Bal, CAGI is committed to finding the right formulas to support the flow of expatriates and international civil servants arriving on Swiss territory. The reception center has a holistic approach and is in tune with the times. From the organization of seminars to support in the search for housing, CAGI also supports the job search of spouses of diplomats or international civil servants who are highly qualified and in demand by local economic actors. “CAGI is a key element for the attractiveness of international Geneva. We must redouble our efforts to make our services visible. This is why we have strengthened our communication, redesigned our website and introduced social networks,” continues Mr. Bal, who is also aware of the importance of creating external synergies through partnerships, without forgetting internal communication, which is essential even for small structures such as CAGI, which today has fourteen staff members.
The brief for this small organization is complex, and the consensus at all levels of government is that Switzerland must have the means to honor its invitation to the world. “We have a fairly unique mission, which promotes shared responsibility to ensure that the people we receive from around the world can have a positive experience,” says Bal, who doesn’t shy away from challenges. “In an ideal world, someone who is transferred to Geneva would have heard about CAGI before they even arrived in the City of Calvin and leave as an ambassador who demonstrates local hospitality and carries Geneva’s good name to the capitals of the world. We are not afraid to be a victim of our success. If need be, we will be able to show the results to donors who, I am sure, will help us to further develop our capacity.
What he will remember from his four years at the head of CAGI
Whether at the FDFA or the UN, Mr. Bal is a veteran of international politics. When he arrived at the CAGI and had to manage aspects of the international community’s daily life that might seem more trivial, such as family administration, housing or schooling, Mr. Bal found a meaning and a usefulness of great importance. “You think, ‘Well, international politics was good, but the little things count too. It’s an important part of a state-of-the-art reception system that allows Switzerland to stand out from its competitors. Helping a newcomer to feel at home will make them the best ambassador of Switzerland and of international Geneva”.