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Americans in Switzerland Juggling motherhood, German lessons and political activism

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Alexandra Dufresne making a phone call in Switzerland, surrounded by trees and flowers.

Alexandra Dufresne calling her senator, Chris Murphy, as part of the “Not too far away to call” campaign.

(Alexandra Dufresne)

American lawyer Alexandra Dufresne taught public policy and worked to protect the rights of refugees and children. A year after moving to Switzerland she’s part of a multinational group taking action to protect American and Swiss values. She tells her story to Jeannie Wurz, in the second of a series of profiles of US expats.

Our family moved to Switzerland in 2016 for my husband’s job. We came to Zurich from New Haven, Connecticut, where my husband and I both taught at Yale. We met there as undergrads. I actually grew up in Atlanta, and my husband and I have lived in many American cities. We’ve lived in Chicago, Washington, DC, Nashville, Boston.

The main reason we came was so that my husband could have an excellent career and yet still have time for the family. We have three children, 10, 8, and 6 years old. Back in the US he was always under a tremendous amount of pressure and stress. Here we have so much more time together as a family. The culture of work and family balance is entirely different here.

I love living in Switzerland, but there are some things I miss. Family and friends, of course. Unsweetened iced tea. And the openness in America. About six months after we moved I traveled back to the US, to Durham, North Carolina, and I was reminded of how incredibly friendly Americans are, particularly in the South. I remember walking to Starbucks, and every single person striking up a conversation with me.  

Trump conversations

I love talking with people in public transport here. I’ve made a lot of Swiss friends, American friends, and also friends from other countries. It hasn’t been hard for me, I think because of the children. And making an effort to speak German helps as well.

I’m studying German intensively now. When we first came, I could barely string four words together. Nonetheless, I knew for my children and for us to integrate, I had to put myself out there. So I went to parents’ night at the school and gave my little introduction speech in German. People were so kind. ‘Wow, you speak German!’ ‘It’s so great you’re here!’ They told me about the time they spent in America, as exchange students, on vacation, for work. People seem to have had really positive experiences in the US and to take those experiences and apply them to Americans. People have gone out of their way to help us, and I’m so grateful for that.

When they find out I’m American, people ask me about Trump a lot. Swiss people are famous for being extremely polite, and reluctant to offend people. But yeah, probably the sixth question I get is about Trump, even with strangers I meet on the tram.

Preserving American and Swiss values

In March 2017 I co-founded a group called Action Together: Zurich, CH. It was inspired by the women’s marches held all over the world after Donald Trump’s inaugurationexternal link. It’s a volunteer organization of Americans, Swiss, and other nationals here in Zurich. We’re working to preserve and protect American and Swiss values that are threatened by the current administration in the United States.

The idea came from a woman named Sara Petchey. Like so many Americans here in Switzerland, she felt a really strong desire to show her solidarity, to get involved, especially after the Women’s March. But Sara wanted to do something long-term. To build something. This isn’t a group about complaining. It’s about working together to directly influence politics in the United States. 

‘Human rights crisis’

America has always been an example to other countries. And the idea that we can now have an administration that spits in the face of everything that America stands for – including many, many common values with Switzerland – it’s terrifying for Europeans. What’s happening in the United States is a human rights crisis. It affects everyone, certainly not just Americans.

Action Together: Zurich, CH has 85 members now. Most have jobs and family responsibilities. This is something we do on the side, late at night, on the tram, over lunch, on the weekends. Of course the experience that I have, doing legislative advocacy for a nonprofit in the US, is directly relevant. The experience of people in the group who have been activists is very relevant. But we’re especially interested in reaching people who until now have not been politically active.

Calling Congress

A lot of people in our group have never called their member of Congress. They’ve never written an op-ed or a letter to the editor of a newspaper. They haven’t voted in mid-term elections. They haven’t fundraised for political candidates or worked for an advocacy organization. Maybe they’ve never opened up a political conversation with a stranger. But they joined this group because they recognize that this is an extraordinary time in US history, and they feel an overwhelming desire to get involved.

We’re reaching out to all kinds of people. Around nine million American citizens live abroad. That’s slightly more than the population of Switzerland. We would be roughly the 12th most populous state in the US. That’s a lot of votes. There are Swiss-American dual citizens – people who might identify as Swiss, and not even think of themselves as Americans, but have voting rights because they were born in the United States or they have an American parent. There are also Swiss-American communities in the United States, founded by Swiss who were fleeing religious persecution, not unlike many refugees today.

To reach those people we’re designing funny, warm, uplifting, and creative campaigns for social media. For example, “Not too far away to call” will encourage Americans abroad to contact their members of Congress. What we’re trying to do is normalize the behavior. To make it part of your everyday life.

The fact that you’re physically far away is no barrier. You still have voting rights. And because the people at greatest risk from the current administration are those without voting rights – children, refugees, immigrants, vulnerable populations overseas – it’s the duty of citizens abroad to step in and ‘cover’ for them. 

Kinship

I feel tremendous kinship now with American activists abroad in other countries: people you know you’ll never meet, who are doing the same work as you are for exactly the same reasons. Am I an ambassador for the US in Switzerland? I’m not sure. I feel kinship with people from all over the world, especially all the mothers who stay up late at night and get up early in the morning to make sure that the world their kids will grow up in will be safe for them.

Swiss people might have mixed feelings about some aspects of American culture, but I think at the end of the day, many of them value America, because when they visited, they saw a country that’s incredibly open, that celebrates people from all over the world, including refugees, making a new life.

When I tell them about our group, Swiss say, ‘I’m thankful that you’re doing this. Democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile.’ And so the idea that you have to fight for democracy – you can’t take it for granted – yes, I would love to be an ambassador for that.

“Not too far away to call”

Americans around the world will post pictures on social media of themselves calling their members of Congress from famous or interesting places abroad: the Great Wall of China. The Edge of the World in South Africa. In Switzerland from a ski lift or next to a cow with flowers in her horns. The goal is to make calling your member of Congress part of your life, no matter where you live

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