Suela Kasmi, 42, came to Switzerland from Albania in 1992, at the age of 19. “I was very young. I couldn’t speak German, just English and Italian, and Albanian,” she says. As a mother with two young boys, it took her some time to learn the local language and to integrate in the community.
Now, more than 20 years later, Kasmi works in childcare, at a center on the outskirts of Bern that offers support for mothers of small children, with a focus on programmes for immigrants.
Taking part in a programme for the elderly wasn’t her idea, she says. “I was asked if I would participate. I was more interested in families and children, but I’m very well-known in my community. I have a lot of contacts, from children to adults. It’s easy for me to communicate, both with groups and individuals.”
Kasmi took part in the “Together into the Future” pilot programme in 2014. As part of the course, she organised three discussions for a group of Albanian women.
The first meeting in particular was very difficult, she says.
“The women were very shy. And it’s important to realise that Albanians come not just from Albania but also from Kosovo and from Macedonia, and the mentality is different. It took a while for the women to feel comfortable.”
Another hurdle was the language. “We speak the same language – Albanian – but it’s a bit like Bernese German and high German,” says Kasmi. “I had to repeat myself several times until everyone understood what exactly we were meeting about.”
Eleven women – most over the age of 60 – attended Kasmi’s first roundtable, on the topic ‘Nutrition and physical activity’. “By the time we sat down and introduced ourselves – ‘What do you do? How long have you been in Switzerland?’ – it took a lot of time,” she says.
Men weren’t invited to the discussions. For older Albanians, the mentality is “men belong with men and women with women”, says Kasmi. “And in a mixed group the women feel they can’t speak freely. Some of the women wear head scarves, and if men are there they can’t remove them.”
Kasmi says the project showed her that older people are interested in more than meeting a few times to discuss a topic. “They want to meet regularly, to cook together, or exercise – but with the support of a person they can trust.”
For Kasmi personally, it’s important to take time for the people in her community – regardless of how old they are. “When I meet people on the street I greet them and speak with them,” she says. “I’m an immigrant myself, and I would have appreciated it if someone had taken time for me when I came.”