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Geneva celebrates contributions of refugees

Théodore de Bèze, a French theologian, was one of Geneva's more famous refugees (picture: University of Geneva)

For some 450 years, Geneva has welcomed those forced from their native lands by war or persecution, but these refugees have given much back in return. As a travelling exhibition shows, their contribution was so great, they had streets named after them.

The Streets of Geneva exhibition is being organised by the city authorities as part of the events marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). It will be on display in a number of public places until the end of July.

Consisting of 16 large information panels, the exhibition is currently at the Balaxert shopping centre, Switzerland's second-largest. It is a deliberate attempt to bring the issue of refugees closer to the people.

In an ideal world, the UNHCR would not exist, so its 50th anniversary is not strictly something to celebrate. As a result the UN agency was keen to show that refugees can make a positive contribution.

The exhibition shows that many of the great figures who have lived in Geneva over the centuries arrived there as refugees, or were the descendants of refugees.

"We want to remind the people that so many of their forefathers were refugees," says Hans Thoolen, senior coordinator of the UNHCR's 50th anniversary events.

"We would like to repeat this exercise in other cities around the world," he told swissinfo.

More than 40 streets in Geneva bear the names of refugees. The exhibition focuses on 16 of them who left an indelible mark on the history of Geneva or Europe.

They include such figures as Thomas Mazaryk, the first president of an independent Czechoslovakia; Théodore de Bèze, one the leading figures of the Reformation and founder of the Geneva Academy; the painter, Jean-Etienne Liotard; the naturalist and first rector of the new Geneva University, Carl Vogt; and the scientist, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure.

Another, the engineer, Théodore Turrettini, was responsible for some of Geneva's finest landmarks, including the Jet d'Eau fountain, and the Forces Motrices building. Like many other Italian Calvinists, his family came to Geneva in the 16th century, seeking a safe haven to practice their faith.

"These Italian families have contributed a lot to the development of Geneva," says Albert Turrettini, a descendant of Théodore.

It is the task of the exhibition to remind the inhabitants of Geneva that refugees have had a big impact on the political, economic cultural, scientific life of their city. In recognising this, they may then look on today's refugees in a different light.

"After the Second World War the word refugee had much more positive connotations. Here was a person who had been through hell and who automatically deserved our support and respect," said Thoolen.

"Today in Europe, the issue of refugees is too often surrounded by misinformation. Asylum-seekers are constantly called 'bogus', constantly linked to illegal migration," he adds. We need to counter this wilful misrepresentation by showing the other side of the story."

By bringing that message to one of the busiest shopping centres in the country, thousands of people will learn about the positive contribution refugees can make to the society that takes them in.

"It may be easier for the people of Geneva to identify with a well-known banker who has a street named after him than a jobless Somali refugee. But it is one step on the road towards the rehabilitation of the notion of the refugee," said Thoolen.

by Roy Probert


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