‘Stark, authentisch, klug’ is how Susan von Sury is known in the canton of Solothurn. Manasa Mukka and Shinta Simon met the CVP politician, a municipal-and cantonal counsellor at her family home in Schloss Waldegg, Feldbrunnen, Solothurn.
Hailing from a large family in Calicut, Kerala, Susan Thomas met her Swiss husband in India when he was working with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Shortly after, they married and moved to Switzerland. Her story is one of determination and perseverance, and she lives up to her reputation of being ‘strong, authentic, smart’.
A Journey from Calicut to Solothurn
Born and raised in Kerala, Susan was the youngest of 12 children, three of whom passed away at an early age. Her close-knit, middle-class family managed several plantations. Although her sisters did very well at school and were very good at athletics, they were not encouraged to study beyond grade 10. Taking pride in her rebellious nature, Susan recalls how she became the only woman in her family to receive scholarships and complete her Bachelor’s degree in Science. Although she was interested in pursuing medicine, her parents were not able to support her financially. Instead, with the financial support of her brother, she took up Biology, specialised in Botanical studies. She then did a course in computer studies, moved to Chennai (formerly Madras) and worked with computer languages.
Fate led her to work part-time at a tourism agency, where she met Felix von Sury, who belongs to an influential noble family in Solothurn. Theirs was a love story befitting a movie. She fondly recalls meeting Felix, who, at the time, was the chief advisor of an Indo-Swiss project, at a dinner party hosted by a group of Swedes. The couple fell in love and got married despite initial opposition from her family. “My family knew that if I commit to something, I do it,” she says with a laugh. Susan’s determination to defend her convictions and choose her path – be it her life partner or her career, was clear from her younger days.
After their marriage in Kerala in 1987, the couple moved to Switzerland and settled down in Bern for three years and later shifted to Felix’s ancestral home in Solothurn. From 1994 to 1999 they lived in Nepal, where Felix was working as Coordinator for Swiss Development Cooperation. Now the mother of three, Susan continues to be close to her siblings and her extended family in India. “We have a huge age difference – my oldest brother is 24 years older than me, but we are all very close and share a very good relationship,” she says.
Embarking on a political career
Politics runs in Susan’s veins. She was naturally inclined towards social affairs from a young age. In college, she was a joint secretary. Susan’s mother’s family also has a political background. Once her kids were older, Susan felt the need to devote her life to a greater cause; especially as her children were now less dependent on her.
During her early years in Switzerland, she enrolled in intensive German classes, which had strict rules about discipline and decorum in the classroom. Back then, students were fined 20 Rappen for speaking in another language in class. “We were 24 students of 17 nationalities. At the end of the course, we took out all the money earned in fines and went out for lunch with the instructor,” she recalls. Susan benefited immensely from the strict intensive schedule and advises expats: learning and speaking the local language goes a long way to help in integration into the community.
Active in community affairs, Susan was a volunteer with Pro Juventute when her children were still in primary school. And when they were even younger, she made time to connect with the local people. She is an active concert choir singer. Her personality being open and uninhibited, she has always been at ease talking to people and getting conversations to flow. This has served her well through her personal life as well as her political career. She built an extensive network of contacts and had been involved in several ‘vereins’.
In a show of their support for her, representatives from the CVP party approached Susan, asking her to stand for the Gemeinderat (Municipal Council) elections in the town of Solothurn and Kantonsrat (Cantonal council) in the State of Solothurn in 2005. She was initially cautious about standing for elections, in part due to her husband’s aristocratic lineage. Eventually, she did a contest and was elected as a city counsellor. This came as a pleasant surprise because it is uncommon for someone to be elected on their first nomination in Solothurn. She believes that the support of the CVP was to her advantage.
In 2005, Susan was also elected to be the first reserve for Pirmin Bishop, as a cantonal counsellor. A well-known politician, Pirmin Bishop was elected to the National Council (comparable to a member of Parliament) in 2007. As part of the Cantonal Council, since mid-2017, Susan has been in charge of the Social and Health Commission, which prepares all health, social affairs and community affairs.
In the 14 years that she has been active in politics, Susan has submitted 18 petitions, 16 of which have been successfully sent to parliament.
On being asked about her mantra for overcoming obstacles and how she faces challenges in her political career, she says spontaneously, “One should have a thick skin!” Susan has been through more than a few instances in her political career when she was viewed as a foreigner and has felt unaccepted. She says that these challenges have only helped her grow her resilience. “One must have a fighting spirit; I have always had to fight for my way. This is the only way you can do well in politics,” she says earnestly.
As the Social and Health Commission President, Susan is actively involved in youth activities and presides over youth organisations. As part of her advocacy for the youth, she was instrumental in organising a job drive that was attended by around 700 young adults. Susan continues to maintain a strong bond with her home country. She raised a significant sum of money to aid those impacted by floods in Kerala in 2018. In December 2018, she was honoured for her work by the social reform movement SNDP, alongside nine more people from around the world.
“stark, authentisch, klug”
When asked about this unique description of herself on her official website, Susan explains the phrase and how it applies to her personality.
‘Stark’ or strong is how she has always been known to be. Strong-minded and clear in her vision and goals, she says “I’ve always been courageous, and if I want to achieve something, I don’t let anything or anyone divert me from my goals.”
‘Authentisch’ or authentic is a trait that relates to her Indian heritage. While she is known to be a role model for integration in her community, she is also proud of her origins and makes every effort to be a bridge between both cultures. “I believe in taking the best of Switzerland and my own Indian heritage,” she says.
‘Klug’ or clever speaks of her disposition and her work ethic. Susan tells us about how the lack of a ruling party means that it is important to find common ground in the arena of Swiss politics.
On integration and empowerment
Integration into the culture of the country is something Susan strongly advocates. She advises expats to embrace the lifestyle that Switzerland offers and to take proactive steps to be social and communicate with their Swiss neighbours and the local community at large. The Swiss are famously reserved, but this should not be mistaken for unfriendliness and shouldn’t be a detriment to getting to know the locals better.
Susan is a firm believer in self-empowerment. Having worked extensively with youth and women in her career, she is familiar with the concerns of the people and feels that more migrants, especially women, need to have courage and self-confidence. This comes with freedom – when women are liberated and have the support of their families, they become empowered. “If you have freedom, you gain courage. With courage comes self-confidence. And these three factors are important for us to achieve anything,” she says confidently.
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