Expats enjoy helping others

More and more highly qualified foreigners are moving to Switzerland, thanks to the agreement on the free movement of people within the European Union. And many of them are keen to do voluntary work in their new home.

This content was published on January 15, 2013 minutes
Ariane Gigon, Zürich,

“We couldn’t keep saying no!” says Hubert Kausch, head of volunteering in the Zurich cantonal section of the Swiss Red Cross (SRC). The great demand on the part of people newly arrived in Zurich led to the idea of arranging voluntary work specifically for expats.

The number of people coming to Zurich who would like to be socially useful but don’t speak German is growing. At first the SRC didn’t really see a way to get them involved, and had to regretfully turn them down.

But then the idea of involving these highly qualified immigrants in fundraising was born. A group was created at the end of 2011. In May 2012 a lottery held in Zurich raised SFr5,000 ($5,420).

Meanwhile, a group of about 15 – sometimes more, sometimes fewer – has begun working together on fundraising projects, for example, raising funds in collaboration with the Winterthur international school.

Wrapping gifts

One Saturday in December, just before Christmas, Hazel from Ireland and Arjen from the Netherlands are wrapping presents in a shop in Winterthur. The money raised is for a health and social programme run by the SRC in Zurich. Hazel is one of those expats who doesn’t speak German, while Arjen can get by very well.

Do people comment on the fact that Hazel speaks English?

“No, not really,” she says with a smile. “And anyway, with Arjen we’re well covered.” The effort raised several hundred francs, said Andrea Ramseier, who coordinated it on behalf of the SRC.

“It was a success. The shop was very happy with our service, and most of the customers took the time to read our posters,” she told

The Geneva branch has been organising a similar activity in the Payot bookshops for years.

Volunteerism in Switzerland

According to a report issued by the Federal Statistics Office in 2011, around one third of the resident population aged 15 and older was involved in at least one formal or informal voluntary activity.

1.5 million people – a quarter of the population – are engaged in at least one unpaid activity in an organisation or institution.

More men than women are involved in such organised volunteering (28% vs 20%).

More people volunteer in the German-speaking regions than in the French- and Italian-speaking regions, with considerable variation between regions.

The percentage of volunteers is greater in rural areas and communes with less than 1000 inhabitants than in urban areas and larger communes.

Many people are also involved in informal voluntary work, such as helping neighbours and looking after children. In this case women outnumber men (26% vs 15%).

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The Red Cross, a well-known brand

For Hazel and Arjen, as for a lot of expats, the Red Cross was an obvious place to go.

“We really are an international brand, and a lot of expats have already worked with the Red Cross in their home countries,” Ramseier points out. For example, Arjen had already been involved in visiting the elderly in Amsterdam, a project organised there by the Red Cross.

And Hazel, a painter, was already a volunteer in a children’s hospital back home in Ireland, before following her husband to Zurich.

“Volunteering is a great way to meet people,” she says.

How you speak

The fact that volunteer work can be a good way to integrate has become clear in a project in Basel involving highly educated expats. BaselConnect, an association whose aim is to bring newcomers and locals together, is preparing an exchange platform for volunteers.

Lieneke, a Dutch woman who came to Basel because of her husband, is one of the lynchpins of the projects. She lost no time in getting down to work – volunteer work.

“We arrived 11 months ago,” she explained in excellent German. “I started looking around straight away, because I think volunteering is an excellent way to integrate. But in the beginning they turned me down, because I don’t know the dialect. In Basel you really have to know Swiss German…”

That could also be the reason why voluntary organisations in Basel initially weren’t very happy with the new volunteers, although they are now well accepted, suggested a staff member at the integration services.

“Accept that you don’t understand everything”

In the end, Lieneke was able to offer her services to the Ronald McDonald Foundation, which provides accommodations that allow parents to be near their hospitalised children, and then to the Melchior Foundation, which supports people with mental illness. In the end she found a job with the foundation.

“If you show that you are interested, if you don’t make a fuss and if you accept that you don’t understand everything, you get a lot out of it,” says Lieneke. “People are very interested in our work as volunteers, and they’re very pleased that foreigners are socially involved.”

“Social days”

The city of Zurich, which has a page devoted to volunteering on its website, is also deluged with questions from would-be volunteers.

Companies contact the city’s social services to ask about opportunities for large groups of English speakers to participate in what are known as “social days”, spending a day working in the kitchen of a retirement home, for example. An interdepartmental working group in the city administration is in the process of preparing a programme for expats.

In the shop in Winterthur, where the Red Cross volunteers wrap one present after another, a young Romanian woman, Elena, introduces herself to Hubert Kausch.

“All my friends ski. I don’t, and I’d like to do something useful!” she explains.

“Foreign volunteers are very keen to get involved,” says Kausch. “They have an ethic that makes them want to give something back to society. An advantage for us is that they are independent and good at organising themselves. They are young, very active in their jobs, and they have excellent contacts. I’m sure volunteering helps them integrate in Switzerland.”

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