Swiss pensioner receives prize for international relief work

Neuenschwander spent years inside refugee camps helping Afghan women swissinfo.ch

A Swiss pensioner was recently awarded the Trudy-Schlatter Prize for her work with Afghan refugees. She told swissinfo about her experiences.

This content was published on November 19, 2001 - 22:25

The SFr5,000 prize, awarded annually by a Swiss women's interest group to individuals or organisations who help other women around the world, was given to 72-year-old Elisabeth Neuenschwander in recognition for her work with Afghan refugees living in camps in Pakistan.

Neuenschwander first travelled to Pakistan in 1978, when she was asked to travel to the region by the International Labour Organization.

While in Pakistan, she became involved in a number of relief and charitable projects, which included a stint teaching at a school in Bahawalpur.

But Neuenschwander's most notable achievement came years later, when she took charge of setting up projects to help women living in Afghan refugee camps.

Difficult start

"In the beginning I had some difficulties," Neuenschwander admits.

"Many people said you can't do anything with women, but I said we have to try at least."

Those in charge of the camps did not always welcome or appreciate Neuenschwander's offers of assistance, but the aid worker refused to be deterred, journeying from place to place until she found a camp which was willing to invite her inside.

"I went to one camp where the leader was not so strict and he said 'come the day after tomorrow', and so we started," the Swiss septuagenarian recalls.

Armed with a number of old sewing machines and yards of material, Neuenschwander embarked on a programme of teaching women inside the camps how to sew.

"After that, some other leaders stopped me as I passed through the camp and said 'I also have women, so please come to us'".

Thousands benefit

Neuenschwander calculates that as many as 7,000 women benefited from her assistance over the years she spent touring the refugee camps.

Disabled men, many of whom were victims of war who had lost limbs in battle, also attended her sewing classes.

More than two decades after Neuenschwander arrived in Pakistan, she hopes the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan will mean many Afghan refugees might soon be able to return to their homeland.

"I would be happy for them if they could go home to their country and build up their houses again - that would be really nice," she told swissinfo.

"I think there should be a broad government which would include all the tribes - and which would perhaps include a woman too," she laughs.

"That would be very nice, because before there were some educated women there."

Neuenschwander points out that her assistant during the period of time she spent touring the refugee camps was an Afghan woman who had trained as an engineer.

"Of course under the Taliban she couldn't be an engineer. But this could well change."

This year's recipient of the Trudy-Schlatter Prize says she is grateful for the recognition of her work, but insists she never sought any financial return on her efforts to help women in need.

"Of course, I didn't do this work for a prize," she says.

"It was just my work."

by Ramsey Zarifeh and Adam Beaumont

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