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Ethnologist and teacher


‘Thinking and acting joyfully is all part of the same thing’


By Marcela Águila Rubín, Zurich



Like many of the children she now teaches, Karin de Fries grew up split between her own reality of Switzerland and that of her parents, one a survivor of the Second World War in Germany, and the other of the Spanish Civil War.

But for this feminist, with a degree in ethnology and a trainer in psychodrama, what counts is resilience and joie de vivre.

“I felt I was privileged, and ‘special’. My parents came from different countries. Every year we would go to Valencia or Barcelona. We would eat paella and tortillas,” de Fries recalls. Born in Switzerland in 1963, the fabric of her personal history is woven from her experiences in the USA, Spain, Mexico and, above all, El Salvador.

“I have many worlds,” she says, as she brings out a cardboard shoe painted bright orange, and a wooden box decorated with a brightly coloured landscape and the name “El Salvador”.

The first represents “the foot, a symbol of walking, which means a lot to me”. It is hand-made, with thoughtfulness and in bright colours “because thinking and acting joyfully is all part of the same thing.” This shoe, she says, is searching for its pair, “because we can’t go forward alone: we must walk with others if we want to change the world”.

As for the little box, “it’s like the rucksack we all carry that contains everything: our joys and sorrows. Here too the colours are bright because in El Salvador - and this is one of the most important things I have ever learned – people have been through so many difficult situations and have lost so many of their nearest and dearest… but have never lost their joy in uniting with others and continuing to build.”

That summer evening de Fries arrived for our meeting beaming all over: her son Gabriel had just passed his exams to qualify as a hairdresser. We sat down in the garden of the restaurant where her partner Miguel works. The two of them work irregularly as journalists for a local radio station, Radio Lora. It was near Auzelg, a low-income area in the suburbs of Zurich, where she teaches at the primary school: “The adults here don’t have so many opportunities which means that the children don’t either.”

Children with adult responsibilities

For these children, diversity isn’t always an easy experience. There are families who have come from conflict-hit regions, who have suffered terrible traumas, who have a different religion or different values… So it is harder for them to build bridges, and at the age of eight or nine they sometimes find themselves having to take on adult responsibilities.

The answer to all that is neither self-pity nor resignation, Katrin says. You have to find a way to face up to the difficulties and to give the children the tools they need to manage their lives as well as possible. “I have the good fortune to work in a school which fights to give everyone in the community equal opportunities.”

In addition to maths, German and science, she teaches the children how to express themselves so as to change their reality, defend themselves and work together creatively. “These aims are part of the official curriculum, aimed at training young people for democracy.”

To this end she uses strategies she learned in El Salvador from Swiss psychoanalyst and psychodrama specialist Ursula Hauser, who worked with former guerrillas from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Experiencing life in El Salvador

De Fries moved to El Salvador in 1992. She had previously worked as a nanny in Saint-Louis, Missouri. She had started studying linguistics at the universities of Zurich and Madrid, but given up, switching to ethnology at the University of Zurich. She went to El Salvador to carry out field work for her thesis.

As an activist in solidarity movements, she had already been there three times before, on volunteer stints with non-governmental organisations. In 1991, she had also spent a year working with Salvadoran refugees in Mexico.

After the 1992 peace accords between the government and the rebels, she was finally able to move more permanently to El Salvador. “My project was supposed to last a year, but it lasted nine times as long… Nine years of work, love, and giving birth, and more too.”

Women’s struggle

In her first years there she worked in an educational project with the FMLN. “The country had only just emerged from 12 years of civil war, and many children had never had the chance to go school.”

Later she joined Las Mélidas, a feminist organisation which brought together mainly women who had been involved in the social or armed struggle, who were demanding that women’s views should be included in the peace process.

She recalls with passion those moments of hope and uncertainty. “We did not know if the war would return and the government was promoting a climate of fear. In the 1990s it was still proclaiming: “El Salvador will be the tomb of the reds”.

It was at this time, and in this context, that she managed to discover the keys to her own story. “Thousands of kilometres from home, I learned about my parents’ lives.”

Breaking the silence

Orphaned at the age of five, her mother Josefa overcame poverty and typhus in post-war Spain. Hans, her father, was the only survivor of a group of 12 young men who had tried to swim across the river Elbe to avoid being forcibly recruited by the Nazis. He was 17 at the time, but the shock of it stayed with him till the day he died.

Josefa and Hans met at Glattbrugg, not far from Zurich, where their three children grew up: Maria de las Mercedes, Jacqueline and Karin. “They were devoted to their family. But my father needed space to keep himself sane: his garden and classical music. And he never told us anything about what had happened to him.”

It was only thanks to her experience in El Salvador and her training as a psychologist that de Fries was able to break through this wall of silence. “One day, my father sent me a ten-page letter, and afterwards we had a long talk. It was truly cathartic. He had the courage to revisit his terrible pain and to share it with me. It was the best present he ever gave me.”

Between science and poetry

After two years’ of reflection, de Fries returned to Switzerland in 1999. She was especially concerned about her son starting school in El Salvador as “the educational system there was still very rigid and not very creative. And I wanted to finish my ethnology degree.”

Not surprisingly, writing her thesis turned out to be a real challenge. “You don’t write in a scientific way. You mix everything up,” her supervisor told her. Indeed, alongside her academic work, she published a collection of poems in German and Spanish, under the title Encuentro [Meeting]. “The texts are not translated because I don’t think you always need to understand everything.”

Back in Switzerland, de Fries continued to work for El Salvador with an NGO (Solidar Switzerland – Swiss Labour Assistance) for another 11 years. She then trained as a teacher, and today, with her children at the school, the friends with whom she established the group Switzerland-Alba (The Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), and colleagues from the improvisational theatre group Furore, she continues to build bridges and to embroider the fabric of her own story, still using the same threads.

By Marcela Águila Rubín, Zurich, swissinfo.ch
(Translated by Julia Slater)



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