A - Z 2020 Switzerland - Xenophobic

Welcome back to my Swiss themed A- Z, sadly the letter X is dedicated to the fact that we're not free from being xenophobic in Switzerland. 

I wasn't around in the 1930s and 40s, so I won't touch on anti-semitism that I'm sure existed, even if there were people who actually helped and protected jewish people.

In my post about Equality I was talking about Italian Gastarbeiter (foreigners working on a work visa limited to nice months a year)  

Let me introduce you to one of my classmates, Concetto. His family represents what you might call a typical history, if there is such a thing. His Dad was a cabinet maker, his Mom a seamstress, both grew up in the same Sicilian town located on the northern side of Mount Etna. They didn't know each other when they both emigrated to Switzerland independently, hoping to find work. 

While they found jobs and an apartment, Switzerland didn't feel like home. Not by far. As they didn't feel welcome, they kept to themselves and only socialized within their neighborhood, where al the other tenants were Italians, too. I remember there were three identical apartment houses that were named Italian blocks

One of my other classmates, Giuseppina, lived there, too, and I always liked to play there. Unlike in my immediate conservative neighborhood of one-family houses, where my brother and I were the only kids, in the Italian quarter there were always a bunch of kids riding their bikes or kicking a ball, and we didn't have to worry about disturbing the neighbors. 

While I loved the liveliness and joyfulness of my Italian friends and their families, many Swiss people did not approve of them: Italians are loud, they hang out at the train station and whistle after our women, they steal our jobs... 

The Swiss who didn't like the Italians called them "Sau-Tschingge", I can't translate it, it's just a very rude and devaluing term.

Giuseppina, Concetto and I attended elementary and high school together. The picture was taken when we were in third grade. Giuseppina and Concetto were aware of the camera - I was busy writing; probably trying to make a blog post deadline ;-)

Concetto's parents shocked him and us in the mid 1980s when they decided to leave Switzerland and move back to their hometown in Sicily. His Dad had a job offer that required them to pick up and leave pretty much immediately. He didn't even get to finish the school year with us. 

Concetto was born and raised in Switzerland, and while he felt he was considered "the Italian" here, as soon as he arrived in Sicily, they called him "Svizzero" = Swiss guy. He was lonely and felt out of place for quite some time. We sent letters, and he started working for a local radio station where he taped his shows and sent them to us. Just imagine the possibilities today, we could have FaceTimed and sent pictures and sound files back and forth in real time!

Eventually he made new friends, attended university and became what he always wanted to be: a journalist. Today he's married and a Dad to two teenagers. Concetto writes for la Repubblica.in Rome, Italy. And he is an author. Even though he has written other books before, the one that was published last year is probably what is called the big breakthrough. 

Concetto presented this book in Switzerland last fall. Former teachers, classmates, neighbours and friends were flocking in, they had to add way more seats, and the location was super crowded.

The book is called «Cacciateli! Quando i migranti eravamo noi» 

(«Throw them out! When we were the immigrants») referring to Schwarzenbach, an early 1970s right wing populists' "Überfremdungsinitiative" to, well, throw out all these annoying foreigners - whom us Swiss actually sought after to build our tunnels and streets because in a country of full employment we didn't have enough of our own manpower. 

Italians represented the first substantial group of foreigners to settle in our country, and obviously my fellow Swiss felt threatened. Later it was the Turks, then the people from Sri Lanka, and finally the Ex-Yugoslavs that seem to disturb our Swiss bubble.  

We had two radical popular initiatives in the last ten years:

2009 Eidgenössische Volksinitiative «Gegen den Bau von Minaretten» Swiss people wanted to ban the construction of minarets, and I feel this was just the tip of the iceberg; if they could, the would also demand that Muslim women don't wear headscarves. The initiative fell through, I was so relieved. I would have been so ashamed for my county. 

2014 Eidgenössische Volksinitiative «Gegen Masseneinwanderung» For the umpteenth time, Swiss people wanted a way to stop immigration. There have been multiple initiatives, and frankly they tend to sound a lot like a certain president who would like to build a wall. 

Back to my friend Concetto:

Well, today, Italians in Switzerland are the ultimate poster children of assimilated, productive citizens, and the conservative Swiss have found a new group of foreigners to give a hard time to, but Italy itself has its own right wing populist now. His name is Salieri, and he kept refusing authorization for refugees from Eritrea and Somalia to disembark from their rescue vessel last summer.

While Cacciateli! is sort of a sociocritical, political book, it's also a very personal and touching walk down memory lane including how Concetto's parents met, his Sicilian Grandma who hosted the family during summer breaks and had to let them go back year after year, anecdotes involving elementary and high school - and soccer. 

Looks like when Italy won the world championship in Spain back in 1982, the Italian kids suddenly felt valued in Switzerland. Needless to say the Swiss national team didn't even make it to the tournament back then! (Plus today's Swiss national team probably includes two or three orginally Swiss players, all the others are secondos, respectively the next generations.)

Not sure if secondo is a know term outside of Switzerland. I talked about it in my post about equality. It's what the kids of immigrants are called. The second generation that attended school here. Most of these kids had to accompany their parents to parent teacher meetings to translate. Typically back then poor  Italien immigrants who found low paying jobs in Switzerland came from remote rural villages and some could barely read or write Italian, let alone (Swiss) German. 

The Italian community did a great job taking care of these families. They ran dopo scuola (after school) programs and offered other opportunities for the kids whose parents typically both worked, to cultivate their language and heritage. (I can only guess that Swiss authorities did little to nothing to help those kids to learn German. Even today these language support programs have to fight for funding. So short-sighted.)

Before this text gets too lengthy (and I have to write my own book, haha) I want to conclude my post by sharing some happy faces of my high-school mates whom I rounded up for happy hour and dinner following the book presentation. Bonus points for our teacher to join us! I feel truly blessed to be part of this gang. 

I'm glad my son grows up differently. He attended daycare at the airport where he was on of the very few Swiss kids, we went to English speaking playgroup where he made friends with very diverse backgrounds, at school he meets kids who were fugitives, who have different skin color, and he's like me:

How about you, what environment did you grow up in, how do your countrymen and women feel about foreigners?

Let me know in the comments below and be sure to come back tomorrow for a free yodeling class. 


  1. Living all together seams not so easy for some people, we can hear the same old "they steal our jobs"... yes, well, do it!
    X is for…

  2. The US is a country of immigrants but sadly we seem to forget that so easily. We have often treated immigrants poorly and the current administration's policies are especially awful when it comes to immigration.

    Growing up in Maine there were not a lot of people from different backgrounds everyone was French Canadian like me but when I went to graduate school I was the minority and it was a richer experience. I dated someone from Jordan and learned first hand how challenging legally immigrating to our country actually is which I don't think most people realize. I had a lot of friends from Venezuela who tried in vain to teach me to dance the salsa which I never did pick up although I had a lot of fun trying. I had a classmate from Iraq just as the Gulf War was starting up. I spent two years fully immersed in this wonderful multi-cultural life and it forever impacted my views on immigration.

    I think people would feel differently about immigration if they had more personal experiences with people from other cultures. It's not them versus us. We live in a global, interconnected world. We're long past the point of building walls. We should be embracing and building one another up instead.

    Weekends In Maine

  3. There are always going to be some people who just have prejudices. I have faced racism in some countries I have visited which is very sad because even though they are beautiful countries they just leave you with a bad taste.

    Suzy Someday Somewhere Letter X

  4. I enjoyed your post today. Some humans will deny it, but we are herd animals. Some have a stronger sheep-like clumping aspect to them than others. "Otherness" in its myriad forms exists everywhere. It is each person's choice whether they want to feed into it or not. The biggest aspects of it that I see in the US are paternalism and economic stratification. Men own and control everything here, and that's the way they like it. Law enforcement, courts, and legislation protects it. The elite 1% has designed the system to give the strata just below them a taste of the good life and the promise of more to keep them in line. The bottom (? %) who are scraping for food, clothing, and shelter are brainwashed into believing "the other" is to blame, which distracts them from what's really going on. The beleaguered middle class are brainwashed into going into debt up to their eyeballs to buy things and get educated in hopes one day they'll get to the just-under-the-1%ers and are willing to sacrifice ethics and compassion to do it. Sorry to go on and on, but it takes time to show how broken we are.


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