Switzerland and Immigration: Celebrating Immigrants’ Contributions in Switzerland

Topics covered

  • Reasons for people to migrate to Switzerland
  • The positive impact of migrants in Switzerland
  • The importance of discussing and celebrating Swiss immigrants

Who We're Speaking With

In this episode, we speak to the authors Anita Lehmann and Katie Hayoz about immigration in Switzerland. They have recently published a book called 50 Amazing Swiss Immigrants along with their co-author Laurie Theurer. It features people from all walks of life, both historical and contemporary, who have made Switzerland their home.

Anita is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. Born and raised in Bern, Switzerland, Anita has lived, studied and worked in many different places before making Cambridge home for herself and her family.

Katie immigrated from the USA to Switzerland in 1997 and has been happily calling it her home since. She writes children's non-fiction as well as weird and wacky fiction for kids, teens and adults.

About the Episode

Switzerland has experienced high levels of migration in the past few decades. As a stable and wealthy country, it is a popular destination for people from neighbouring areas but also refugees and economic migrants.

Around 25% of Swiss residents are immigrants. Although this has created some challenges, it is also hugely beneficial, especially since birth rates are declining in Switzerland, and there persistent are labour shortages. Switzerland is built on traditional values, but immigrants have shaped almost every aspect of the country.

  • Conditions: People come to Switzerland from all over the world. Some, especially those from EU and EFTA countries, can enter the country freely and without challenges. Those fleeing conflict, environmental degradation, or poverty often have a tougher time as the immigration process can be complicated and time-consuming.
  • Switzerland as a safe haven: Despite the challenges many refugees and economic migrants face, the system has saved thousands of lives. Some of the people Anita and Katie interviewed for their book might not have survived if they hadn’t been able to flee to Switzerland.
  • Diverse positive contributions: Migrants have contributed in many ways. Some have created safe spaces for other refugees or religious minorities, while others have opened restaurants and museums, invented or developed something, created art, or set up successful businesses.
  • Ongoing conversation about migration: Migration is still a controversial topic in many parts of Switzerland. Not everyone agrees that immigrants are having a positive impact. That’s why continuing the conversation and highlighting the many, varied contributions of migrants, both historic and contemporary, is so important.


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- Hello everybody and welcome to another episode of Living in Switzerland. The series is brought to you by Rigby.

We are a staffing and IT services company based in Zurich. If you or anyone you know of is looking for a new role in Switzerland or if you're looking to hire, let us know. We'd be happy to help. The best way to do that is by sending an email to contact@rigby.ch.

Today we are joined by Anita Lehmann and Katie Hayoz, two of the authors of 50 Amazing Swiss Immigrants. You might remember them from our previous podcast about their other book, 50 Amazing Swiss Women.

Anita is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. Born and raised in Bern, Switzerland, Anita has lived, studied and worked in many different places before making Cambridge home for herself and her family. She usually writes in a shed at the back of her garden, drinking English tea and missing Swiss chocolate with her black spaniel snoring at her feet.

Katie immigrated from the USA to Switzerland in 1997 and has been happily calling it her home since. She writes children's non-fiction as well as weird and wacky fiction for kids, teens and adults. She hates to cook but she does make a killer cheese fondue.

Anita and Katie, welcome.

- Hello.Thank you.

- Nice to meet you.

- All right. Let's start by you telling us just briefly about your own connection to Switzerland and to immigration.

- I can start. I've actually now been in Switzerland longer than I was in the US. In essence, I would say I'm actually more Swiss than American at this point. I definitely feel Switzerland's my home. It's where my kids were born, where I see a future for myself.

I immigrated here 26 years ago because I fell in love with a Swiss man. Being American and being married to a Swiss, it really made immigrating relatively easy in terms of documentation, citizenship. So that was, for me, that was a real advantage.

- Right. Yeah.

- But of course, there are lots of other difficulties to immigrating. And sometimes I still have issues. Like there's everything from the language, difficulty finding work, cultural differences, being away from my American family. All of those get easier, but they never truly go away.

And I would say one thing that I am never, ever going to get rid of is my accent when I speak French. I speak it well. But even after 26 years, the accent is not much better than when I arrived. Therefore, I really stick out as a foreigner the second I open my mouth.

So just to give you an example of something, I only see my OBGYN once a year, sometimes less if I forget to make an appointment. But all it takes for me is to call up and say ‘Bonjour’ when I'm trying to make an appointment.

And after that, ‘Bonjour’, the secretary immediately says, ‘Bonjour, Madame Hayoz.’

So right away, just from one word, I am pegged as the foreigner, and I guess I must be the foreign American in that office. So yeah, just that's just a little anecdote to kind of tell you a little bit about my connection and my immigrant experience.

Anita, did you want to follow up on that?

- Sure. Well, I am not a Swiss immigrant. I'm a Swiss emigrant. I grew up in Bern and lived and studied and worked in many different countries before making England my home for love as well. And with, again, same as Katie, similar to Katie, with the privilege of a Swiss passport, that was really very easy, especially before Brexit.

- That's right, yes.

- What I would say is that although you'd think that England and Switzerland are really quite similar countries, my mother tongue is German, English is a Germanic language, you'd sort of think it's a relatively similar culture. But even so, there are just so many small, little cultural differences that some of which have taken me years to understand, some of which I still don't understand, and little nuances in language in the way that people communicate with each other.

One example I could give is… that it took me years to understand. And I feel slightly ashamed of this now because when, you know, when you, for example, you try on a new dress or something and you go out to your friend and ask them what they think and they look at you and go like, ‘Hmm, that's a bit different.’

- That's not good in England, yes.

- I always thought that was just saying it's a bit different. That's what I took it to mean. It's not a compliment. It's definitely not a compliment. And so it's that sort of stuff. I find it fascinating and funny and interesting and sometimes very difficult because communication is really important. And so even if you speak the language really well, and even if you, you know, have been living in a place for many, many years every now and then, something like this jumps up at you and you go like, ‘Oh, how did I not get this for so long?’

- It's difficult, but it's also interesting. You learn a lot about cultures, obviously.

- And you learn a lot about yourself and your own ways of communicating and your own, yeah, your own interpretation of the world from your cultural background. So yeah.

- You for sure become a different person if you move to a different country as well.

- Yes.

- Just broaden your horizons.

- Yes.

- So what have you found are the most common reasons for people to migrate to Switzerland when speaking to the immigrants?

- So I would say after speaking to the people in this book, I would say that the reasons for immigrating are as varied as the people in the book. Basically, some, like myself, like Anita, came for love. Others came for work or for school. Still others were brought here as children.

And then you have on top of that, there are those who fled their countries because of war or corruption or lack of opportunity in their country. Sometimes they chose to come and sometimes it was chosen for them. So there's a huge, huge difference between the reasons people have arrived and come into Switzerland.

And that's what we wanted to represent in the book, basically, is that immigration is not one singular experience. I mean, immigration means that you came from another country to this one. But the details about it vary and our experiences of it can be vastly different.

So yeah, every immigrant faces challenges. But which challenges or which challenges, I would say, give them the most difficulty, often depend upon their particular circumstances.

So for me, what I found difficult might not be the same as what an immigrant coming from Eritrea would find difficult, for example.

So yeah, very, in general, there are so many, so many reasons.

- Yeah. So obviously, every immigrant is different. It's very diverse.

- Extremely diverse.

- So how are immigrants having an impact or a positive impact on Switzerland? Do you have some examples of what you found in your book about how these various immigrants are impacting the country?

- Yes, that's a really interesting question. And it's a difficult question because, as Katie says, migration is so diverse, the impact of migration is very diverse as well.

And migration is also, I'd like to say that… is a challenge for sure, you know, for the individual and for the society.

And migration is a bit of a two-way process depending on, always depending on the society and on the individual. And again, there is no one way of looking at it.

It depends a bit on how an individual arriving in one country can deal with the challenges thrown at them and also what opportunities they are being given to thrive.

So the people we have in the book are all people who have taken matters very much into their own hands. And I think that's what we as authors really admired about them as well, because they made something out of what originally might have been a very challenging, difficult situation, sometimes because of and sometimes despite the environment they were thrown into.

Yeah, and that's what I found so deeply inspiring about the people that I talked to and researched.

So one example would be Naima Serroukh. Naima came from Morocco to follow her husband, who was a political refugee from Tunisia. And what I found extraordinary about her story is that she basically launched herself from the get-go.

The moment she arrived in Switzerland in a centre, into an immigration centre, she launched herself into community engagement at all levels. I mean, she helped translate, she ran the children's creche. She just always had this aim of bridging gaps between cultures and religions and promoting understanding.

And then when there were attacks in Paris, the Charlie Hebdo attacks on the journalists by Muslim extremists in Paris. And Naima was completely shocked and devastated that… how could her religion be interpreted in these horrific ways and used for such atrocious attacks.

And then she also noticed that especially young Muslim men in Switzerland were being mobbed and attacked in the wake of these attacks and being marginalised further. And she realised that if society at that point, Swiss society couldn't talk and discuss this and talk about it and get together and meet and found some sort of peace, there would be fighting later.

And so she founded an organisation called Tasamouh, which is an organisation that promotes peace and tolerance in Biel. And she does this really through very simple means. It's very, very simple, the concept. She does this through talking and engaging young people who are at risk of exclusion. And from all cultures, all backgrounds, all levels of society. She talks to the parents, she talks to the children. She takes children to mosques and to the synagogue and to the local churches and has created a huge community around her with also the church leaders, with the synagogue leader.

And it seems very logical and simple thing to do, but she has been a real trailblazer in Switzerland for this sort of work and she even has a documentary film being made about her.

So yeah, that is, that will be one example.

I think you have another example, Katie.

- Yeah, I mean, there are, the thing is in the book, there are so many, so many immigrants making an impact on Switzerland, right? And so we have people who are making an impact, you know, in science or in the arts, just, you know, in the immigrant community itself, all different ways, you know, it's almost as diverse as I said before, the reasons for coming and how they're making an impact is just as diverse as well.

But one person from the book who's making an impact, but maybe not in the ways you'd expect, would be Mehari Afewerki.

He came from Eritrea and just coming from Eritrea to seek asylum would be a challenge in itself already. But Mehari faced multiple obstacles because he's deaf. And when he arrived, communicating with immigration officials wasn't possible because, you know, they have tons of translators available for many languages. But when Mehari arrived and needed a sign language interpreter, there wasn't one available right on.

- Presumably, he had language difficulties like he didn't speak German or French as well as his deafness. So I suppose that would be the main challenge.

- Yeah, he didn't speak, he didn't speak German or French and he needed a sign language interpreter as well.

- Yeah.

- And also because, you know, sign language, there's differences depending on spoken language in the country.

- Yes.

- So he also had to learn, you know, French sign language and written French as well when he came here because he was in Geneva. But yeah.

So he had, that was already, there was, that was an extra layer to the challenge when he arrived.

And then, you know, trying to find work as a deaf man, it wasn't always very easy. He did find work as a server in a restaurant. And at first he thought he'd hate it, but he ended up really liking it and found that suddenly there were a lot of deaf or hard of hearing people coming to eat at that restaurant because they had heard he was there.

And he, you know, he was like, ‘Wait a minute, there's a need in this community.’

And so what he did, you know, he opened up the very first restaurant, it's called Vroom, in Geneva. It's the very first restaurant in Switzerland run by the deaf and hard of hearing.

And, you know, a lot of people thought they couldn't do it like, ‘Oh, they can't do it without the help of hearing people.’

Well, you know, Mehari and his team completely proved everyone wrong. And there was actually now even a second restaurant just that just opened last week, I believe, in Freiburg.

Yeah, in Freiburg, Vroom in Freiburg.

So what he wants to do, he wants to not only, you know, open these restaurants that are run by the deaf and hard of hearing, but he also wants to kind of bridge the gap between the two different communities, the hearing and deaf communities, and integrate the deaf and hard of hearing better into society.

So he's really making headway because, you know, already with the two restaurants in the last couple of years, and he's also started a foundation. So yeah, he's making an impact, maybe not on the communities we would expect right away, but he's making a huge impact.

- Right, yeah, it sounds really amazing. And those are just, obviously, two of the 50 stories that you tell.

So how did this book come about? I mean, what motivated you to write it?

- Okay, yeah, let me, let me take that question. So I think I've I'm somebody who is quite sensitive to social exclusion. And I've always been that way, just very observing about what's happening around me.

And I… as a child, growing up in 1980s, Switzerland, I observed a lot of racism. It's more, things like, the little village I lived in, we had a Sri Lankan family moving, refugees from Sri Lanka at the time. And then as shortly after, there was a series of break-ins in the community. And immediately everybody was like, convinced, it must have been the Sri Lankans doing this.

And just even… I was maybe seven or eight, but I was like, ‘What? What makes you jump from A to B? That makes no sense.’

It's sort of, I just couldn't understand why people were just so sure of themselves and of their, you know, convinced of skin colour determining levels of criminality.

That was the moment when I… my very best friend at school was half Nigerian. So she had slightly darker skin. And I went to a CD shop with her, and I remember that very strongly because it took me it took me a moment to understand what was going on.

We were both browsing through those CDs as you did at the time in the 80s and 90s. I know, in the olden days, and we're looking through the CDs and suddenly I noticed the shop assistant just staring at my friend and just watching her like a hawk.

And I watched that scene and I thought, ‘That is really weird. Why is she watching so hard?’

You know, why is she being so focused on my friend? And suddenly I realised this is… this is… For my friend it seemed completely normal. She seemed to think nothing of it. I suddenly realised this is a privilege of my white skin that I can just stand there and browse through CDs and nobody suspects me of anything.

And I could probably have packed the entire collection of CDs into my backpack in that time because she was so busy watching my friend that she neglected all other customers.

And it sort of it really took me a few minutes to sort of understand what was the dynamics that was going on. And this is just this basic, very basic, you know, probably very unconscious racism on the part of the shop assistant.

And so for me, I've been wanting to do something about this for a long time. But I've never really known or was never quite sure how to, and this project provided an opportunity to do something really positive in, you know, to provide a positive contribution to a sometimes really toxic debate.

- Yeah. So if something's happening that you don't like, you can do something about it and contribute to the positive message, I think.

- Yes.

- Yeah.

- And the second point I would like to say is why, you know, maybe why Swiss immigrants, why immigrants to Switzerland. And this is partly because I think it's really interesting to actually take this country by country because it brings everything closer to home.

If you have somebody at Neuchatel, in Bern, in Geneva, in Zurich doing cool stuff, if you can highlight those people in your local area, then it's closer. You know, it's inevitably, you feel more connected to it than if you talk about a refugee who is somewhere in Canada doing amazing things in Canada.

It's much more real. It becomes more real and you can actually go and visit Mehari’s restaurant, you know. Or you can go and seek out Tasamouh’s help if you need to talk about religious issues or sort of, you know, whatever, if you need to sort something out.

It’s immediately connectable to your life right here, right there.

- Yeah. Maybe if a child or someone is coming to Switzerland, they may be new immigrants and they have these stories, they have access to all this information, maybe it helps them, you know, they can think, ‘Oh, I've had a challenging situation, but these are normal people who have made a difference.’

Many of the people in your book, I think, are just they're not like super, super famous. They're just regular people who are making a positive difference in their communities.

And I think that's very encouraging for people.

- Yeah, absolutely. And it's very much what we aimed for with the 50 Amazing Swiss Women book as well is to… seeing is believing, you know. We want to give kids role models and to say, ‘Hey, look, here are all these amazing people who have done amazing things and they all happen to be immigrants, but that's kind of by the by, but it sort of can help.

And it might just encourage and inspire a child, you know, whether an immigrant or not to go after their dreams as well.

- Yeah, or maybe non-immigrant children who read the book, they maybe can connect it, because at this point, every child knows someone who's an immigrant. So maybe they can connect it to the people they know who are also immigrants.

- And one thing, you know, Anita talked about how seeing is believing and, you know, that this was a theme that we talked about with 50 Amazing Swiss Women as well. And it really does…

I mean, it works for any kind of book where you are highlighting people that maybe are normally marginalized or normally not seen, let's say in in the best of lights or even in any light, you know. So basically, we're normalizing seeing, you know, seeing women in leadership positions or seeing them doing amazing things, doing things that maybe we don't… aren’t traditional stereotypical of women.

And that translates as well to this book in terms of immigrants, you know, I think seeing is believing. So if the more that we see, hey, all we hear about on the news, maybe is, you know, the difficulties that come with my with immigration and how hard it might be for each country to deal with the influx of people or whatever.

But there are also real positives to having immigrants in your country.

And I think this is… this book hopes to highlight that and say, ‘Hey, you know, this is cool.’

We've got these immigrants who are doing these things. And the more we see that otherwise, yeah, yeah, the more you see that the more you're like, yeah, actually, you know what, that is definitely a positive that is definitely, out of this, this huge challenge that is immigration, this is one real positive thing.

- All right. So one thing that I wanted to just touch on before we continue is the target audience. So we talked previously about the fact that it could be inspiring for children. But I mean, when reading the book, I was really inspired and I'm not a child anymore.

And then I shared it with my partner as well. And he said, ‘Oh, this would be great as a coffee table book, you know, maybe in businesses or clinics and people could just browse and read one or two of the stories.’

So I think for me, it doesn't feel like a typical children's book. What was the process when you were creating it? Did you create it for children or more for everyone?

- We create, well we, it was created on the idea that it was for children.

But you know, with the experience that we had with 50 Amazing Swiss Women, we did know that it does appeal to all audiences.

- It does. Yeah.

- Because I mean, because of the short one-page stories, you can easily get into it. Like you said, you can read like one quickly while you're waiting anywhere or whatever.

But it's also fun. The illustrations are fantastic.

- Yes.

- Thank you, Mireille.

And so yeah, it's for anybody. I mean, yeah, it's supposed to be, it's on the shelves where… for kids between like eight and twelve, but anyone could read it.

- Absolutely.

- Yeah. Presumably you had some… I think you must have had some trouble choosing only 50 immigrants because there are so many people doing amazing things in Switzerland, right? So how what did you look for when you chose the amazing immigrants to feature?

- I think I could answer that because choosing was beyond tough. I mean, it was really, really tough.

- Yes.

- But it was a massive team effort. So along with Anita and myself, there's a third author on this book who is Laurie Theurer and then the illustrator, Mireille Lachausse, who all of us, we had regular meetings.

And most of those meetings were to discuss who was going to end up in the book. You know, we had meetings for other things, but I would say, huh Anita, a huge amount of our time was basically trying to decide who was going to end up in the book.

Because we were trying to get as diverse group as possible in terms of personalities, in terms of the countries that people came from, the cities that they live in now in Switzerland, their reasons for migration, their challenges, their professions, their interests, their ages. We also wanted half historical, half present day. We wanted half male, half female.

So I mean, like when you put all of those together, that is a lot of criteria to go through.

- Oh, yeah.

- But we also had this huge list because, you know, Laurie and Anita started with something and then I would come and add and then, you know, then, you know, Laurie  would come with some more and then Anita would come with some more and then, you know, and it just kept growing and growing and then Mireille would come with a bunch of them.

We ended up having this huge list that we had to whittle down based on all of the criteria that I just mentioned.

And sometimes we had to make compromises because there were just way too many cool people to have them all in the book.

- And I’d just like to say it was a bit like with the Swiss women, the more you seek, the more you find.

It is unbelievable how many amazing people who are doing amazing, amazing things there are in Switzerland.

And yeah, it's been so wonderful to see that as well, not just getting this book together, but also to see like the wealth of amazingness, of potential in Switzerland is really, really big.

So yeah.

-So it's just a little taste of everything that's going on and there's lots more.

- Right. That's right.

- Yeah.

- So obviously it sounds like quite an involved process. So is there anything else you'd like to highlight or anything else that you learned from the immigrant stories and interacting with them that you'd like to share?

- I mean, I don't know about you, Katie, but I learned so much. And I've been so, it sounds very cliche, but really humbled and inspired by the people I got to meet, I got to know, and I got to read about and research about.

And it sort of made me want to make more of a difference in the world, given everything that I have and everything I've been given. I think I could probably do more, more than I'm currently doing.

Then also for me, it was really interesting, was this realization that the Swiss immigration system, while having many, many challenges and that we often highlight and complain about and discuss, but it isn't all bad.

You know, some of the people I wrote about would be dead, would literally be dead if they hadn't been, if the Swiss government hadn't fished them out of really dangerous, tricky situations and given them a place to live in Switzerland, you know, there's just no two ways about that.

And I think it's something I didn't acknowledge before starting on this book.

- Yeah, that's interesting.

- And I like to complain about shortcomings of systems and systemic racism and all that stuff. But I think it's very also very, very important to see and recognize that sometimes the system actually works and saves lives as well.

- Amazing.

- Yeah, that's a really good point. In terms for me, what would I like to highlight for readers?

I think you had touched on it before, Kathrin, and is that, not all of these immigrants are these huge stars or geniuses or whatever. They are ordinary people who are rising up to challenges and living their lives and making somewhat of a difference somehow, you know, whether it be on a smaller scale or on a larger scale.

And I think I find that extremely inspiring because, you know, we often look to celebrities or something to, you know, like there are the ones who are doing the big things, but actually, you know, we have a lot of people in the community right next to us who are making changes or impacting lives.

And the other thing I'd like to say is I think, you know, all of these inspiring people that are here in Switzerland, and I learned a lot about the different kinds of things that they are doing.

But also about I learned how resilient and frankly how amazing people can be, which I tend to forget quite often. And kind of like what Anita said, she said, you know, it sounds cliche and I would say, you know, me too, I feel extremely privileged to have met or learned about these people that I would not have done were it not for writing the book.

It sounds cheesy, but it's true. And we're in Switzerland, so we're all about the cheese.

- That’s right. Yes. Amazing. Thank you.

So yes, it's an amazing project. Definitely worth buying the book.

So if people want to do that, where can they do it? And where can they find out more about you?

- Okay, so yeah, I mean, the book is available in all bookshops across Switzerland. If it's not there, please ask for it. You can also find it on the Bergli website.

Then what we also have is on the Bergli website, you can find free downloadable teaching materials. So basically, more or less ready-made lesson plans.

If you're a teacher of any kind or a parent, you know, these are segways into discussing some of the topics that come up in the book and to create some poetry around it, whatever. They're basically ready-made lesson plans that you can expand or shrink, you know, ready-made lesson plans that can be very short or very… as long as you like, you can expand them into bigger projects with your class.

- All right, that's it for today.

So thanks once again to Anita and Katie for joining us and to you for listening. We'll include links in the show notes to our two guests and to further materials about some of the topics that we've spoken about today.

Once again, this podcast was brought to you by Rigby. We are a staffing and IT services company here in Zurich. If you would like our help either to hire or to be hired, let us know. The best way to do that is by sending an email to contact@rigby.ch.

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So thanks and until the next time.