No man is an island – and nor is Switzerland

Asylum seekers waiting to have their cases heard Keystone

Civil war, foreign occupation, political persecution, hair-raising escapes – all things that thousands of Swiss have experienced.

This content was published on January 23, 2009 minutes

"Once they were refugees" is the title of a new book of interviews with nine Swiss residents from nine different countries, representative of many thousands who arrived between the 1950s and 1990s and for whom Switzerland is now home.

What they have in common is that they were all accepted as part of the quota system promoted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, under which wealthier countries agree to resettle specific numbers of refugees from countries in upheaval.

They also have in common a feeling of belonging in Switzerland and that this is where their future lies.

But in other ways their experiences differ, as some of them told a symposium organised in Bern by the Swiss Refugee Council and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Ganden Tethong was born in Switzerland of Tibetan parents who came to work in the Tibetan house in the Pestalozzi village in the east of the country.

Most of the Tibetans who ended up in Switzerland had left their homeland in 1959 after a failed uprising against the Chinese authorities. In Switzerland they found a strong Tibetan network: not only in the Pestalozzi village, but also in the Tibetan monastery in Rikon near Zurich.

Tethong, now a lawyer, is married to a Swiss and has a Swiss passport, but her Tibetan identity is extremely important to her, and she tries to pass it on to her children. For her, the chance to grow up surrounded by other Tibetans and in the midst of Tibetan culture was a positive thing that helped preserve her feelings for her homeland.

Language barrier

By contrast, when Janina Polomski arrived from Poland with her husband in 1975, they had no cultural network in Switzerland.

They had left Poland legally on a holiday visa but did not plan to go home since they felt hemmed in by the restrictions of the state. They drove to a refugee camp in Italy, which put them on the list for resettlement and were allocated to Switzerland. Being young and well educated, they were quickly able to find work.

But as Polomski told the symposium, it was very hard to build a new life from scratch. Had they already had contacts in Switzerland, it would have been less painful – "but it forced us to integrate as soon as possible".

The Polomskis, like most of the refugees in the book, were confronted with the language problem. "Without the language you are not a person," she said.

Two cultures

Integration doesn't mean giving up one's original culture, as Michael Walther, who compiled the book, told swissinfo.

"People are able to absorb and live in both cultures," he said.

Farhad Manbary, a Kurd from Iran, who arrived in 1995, would agree. "I call myself a Swiss Kurd. This is my home, I live here, my children are here – but in my heart I am a Kurd," he said.

Walther points out that integrating in a foreign country has implications for a person's identity.

"When you come here and it's a different culture, the two don't always go together," he said. "You may experience a change in values. In one area perhaps you adapt to the Swiss approach and in other things you keep things from where you came from. There's room for both."

Karina Castillo, who came from Chile with her husband in 1976, certainly found at least one major difference. She had grown up with a macho culture and found that in Switzerland she had the chance to develop as a person in her own right.

"It was very positive for me as a woman," she said. But her insistence on studying and her refusal to confine herself to the role of housewife and mother meant her marriage did not last.


The identity issue often looks different through children's eyes. It is easier for them to learn the language and they make friends at school.

Manbary's children are still quite young and were born in Switzerland. Although they speak Kurdish at home, otherwise their language is Swiss German.

"My children feel themselves only Swiss," he told swissinfo.

Castillo's children are now grown up. Once the dictatorship in Chile ended, she was able to get back her Chilean passport and the family went home on a visit in 1989.

But both children wanted to remain in Switzerland, where their friends were. For her son the choice was clear, but her daughter had mixed feelings: she is darker skinned and had suffered racist slurs.


However well integrated refugees are, they may run into prejudice. Castillo tackled the attacks on her daughter by explaining to her children that in every country there are some people who understand things and others who don't.

Walther is convinced that in general the Swiss are very willing to accept and help people who need protection, although he admits that things have changed.

"It's hardly possible to imagine today the euphoria with which these immigrants were accepted – of course the political situation was different and with Hungary and Czechoslovakia it wasn't entirely selfless politically," he said.

Castillo is not so sure that refugees from today's danger zones are getting the same treatment that she enjoyed. She finds that hard to understand. Human rights are not at the centre of our concerns now, she says.

"When you have been through an experience like mine, you understand the value of a human life. I feel great sadness, indignation, bewilderment but also helplessness about what to do."

For her it is important to convey to others what being a refugee means, and that is why she agreed to be interviewed for the book.

"It opened a number of wounds, of course. The experience of loss lasts for the whole of your life, but you learn to live with your wounds, to cope with them," she said.

"It was the first time I had spoken about it, and it enabled me to put a lot of things in place and to tell myself it was a good experience and that human beings have huge resources."

swissinfo, Julia Slater

Once they were refugees

The book Sie waren einst Flüchtlinge (Once they were refugees) was commissioned by the UNHCR and is published in German by Chronos Verlag of Zurich.

A French translation is underway.

In the first part of the book nine refugees from nine different countries tell their stories to journalist and author Michael Walther.

The second part explains the background to the policy of accepting refugees by quota, as practised by Switzerland from the 1950s to the 1990s.

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Switzerland and the refugee quota system

Under the refugee quota system promoted by the UNHCR, wealthier countries agree to accept and resettle specific numbers of refugees.

Between the 1950s and 1990s Switzerland took part in the system.

Refugees benefitting from it came from such places as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Tibet, Chile and Vietnam.

Candidates for resettlment under the system go first to camps in third countries, from where the UNHCR tries to find them a new home.

Switzerland opted out when huge influxes of refugees from the war in Yugoslavia started arriving individually.

The Swiss Refugee Council and the UNHCR are pressing the Swiss authorities to return to the quota system.

In the world today there are currently about 560,000 refugees waiting in camps, often close to conflict zones, in the hope of being resettled.

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