- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Third of three parts

ZURICH - Jean-Marc Buhler, manager of the Hotel Zurcherhof, says that 55 percent of his hotel, kitchen and dining-room staff are foreigners — from the Philippines, Eastern Europe and Germany.

“Absolutely, they are good workers. I couldn’t stay open without foreign workers,” Mr. Buhler said.

A good waiter can make $45,000 a year, he said.

“But the Swiss won’t do this work. They want to work in a bank, sit behind a desk or work on a computer.”

His restaurant is a well-regarded traditional Swiss stube, catering to both locals and tourists, where world-class wines from Valais accompany the cheese fondue, raclette and other Swiss specialties.

Mr. Buhler said that in Zurich almost 30 percent of the population is foreign-born, compared with about 20 percent in the rest of Switzerland and about 12 percent in Europe as a whole and in the United States.

“The older Swiss are not feeling so well about this, but for business, it is a good feeling, not bad,” he said. “They speak German. They know the system. Most have been here for a long time.”

Suspicion of newcomers by old-timers is to be expected in Switzerland, Europe and anywhere else. But the threat of Islamic terrorism readily turns that suspicion to fear, especially in European nations such as Switzerland, that have large Muslim immigrant populations.

That fear notwithstanding, European nations also need to keep importing workers from elsewhere because the European birthrate has dropped.

Eduard Gnesa, director of Switzerland’s Office of Immigration, Integration and Emigration, said 9 percent of the Swiss economy is tourism, hotels and restaurants.

“The Swiss economy would collapse without foreign workers. In tourism, 50 percent are foreigners. Many are also in the construction business,” Mr. Gnesa said in an interview in his Bern office.

“And the Swiss are only having 1.4 children per couple. That is enough reason already that we need immigration. The question is who, who in the interests of the economy and humanitarian reasons?” he asked.

Fiercely independent, Switzerland is a confederation of cantons, or states. And each canton has an enormous say over its governing.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union and still uses the Swiss franc as its currency, even as the nations around it have converted to the euro.

The tiny mountainous nation has a population of 7.2 million, including 1.5 million foreigners. An estimated 50,000 to 300,000 are illegal.

A multicultural and diverse society by definition, Switzerland has four official languages — French, Italian, German and Romansch.

Like other European nations after World War II, Switzerland imported guest workers to build its roads, housing and an extensive tunnel system. Young men from Spain, Portugal and Italy, and later Turkey, came and worked. Many never went home.

The next wave began more than a decade ago, as tens of thousands of refugees began pouring into Switzerland from the Balkans, escaping the war and ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia.

Today, Switzerland is the destination of thousands of Eastern Europeans looking for jobs and a better life.

“The Swiss accepted 30,000 Bosnians officially, and 60,000 unofficially, 1 percent of their total population,” said Rustem Simitovic, a Bosnian academic who came to Switzerland in 1968 and is now a Swiss citizen.

“The Swiss treat those who are ready to integrate well. If you accept the Swiss way of life, you can be comfortable here,” Mr. Simitovic said.

Many of Switzerland’s immigrants have been there for 10, 20 or 30 years. Everything except their passport is Swiss.

For their children, Switzerland is the only place they know.

“You cannot see the difference between them and our children. They go to school and speak our [Swiss-German dialect], but it is difficult for them to become citizens,” Mr. Gnesa said, because approval is required at the city, canton and federal level.

This year, measures were put on the ballot to clarify and streamline the Swiss citizenship process.

Along with a large majority in the Swiss parliament, Mr. Gnesa’s office was one of the many government agencies that backed it.

But on Sept. 26, the measures were soundly rejected by the Swiss electorate, 58 percent to 42 percent, with voters lining up along what is known in Swiss politics as the “Rosti Grabben” or potato ditch, with the French cantons voting in favor of the measure and the potato, or rosti,-eating German cantons against.

There also was a stark divide between the cities, which voted for the measure, and the rural areas, which voted against. The mayor of Zurich, who supported the measure, said the results made him feel ashamed.

The anti-referendum campaign was led by Christopher Blocher’s anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party, which has come to prominence in Switzerland by campaigning against foreign entanglements, the European Union, the United Nations and immigration, specifically blaming immigrant Africans and Albanians for Switzerland’s crime rate.

Ironically, because Mr. Blocher is a member of the government, holding the position of Swiss justice minister (making him Mr. Gnesa’s boss), he was forced to show reluctant public support for the citizenship referendum, despite his personal and his party’s opposition.

During a walk in the Claraplatz neighborhood of Basel, an area that has become home to large number of Indian, Moroccan and Albanian immigrants, elderly Swiss-German women walking miniature dachshunds and gray-haired couples walking along the Rhein refused to give their names, but were nearly unanimous in the way they had voted — “nein.”

Their reasons varied: “There are too many of them.” “They make too much noise.” “I’ve lived here my whole life. Now, I’m afraid.” “Be careful if you go over there.”

Tapping this Swiss anxiety, Mr. Blocher’s “Vote ‘No’ 2 X [times]” featured political advertisements that the Swiss newspapers regularly compared with Nazi propaganda posters and charts of the 1930s and 1940s.

One featured black and brown hands, in the old socialist painting style, each grabbing a Swiss passport from a basket.

Another showed a graph projecting the growing foreign population in Switzerland at intervals 40 years out until there are no Swiss left in Switzerland — a near replica of Nazi anti-Slav posters on display at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“I feel very comfortable here and have never experienced anything remotely racist; but during the campaign, I’ve never seen more racist political advertising in my life. It was shocking,” said Brian McAdoo, a black geology professor on leave from Vassar College doing research and teaching at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

“The cities said ‘yes,’ and the farm areas said ‘no,’ ” said Mr. Gnesa, the immigration minister. “Where people live together and see [foreign] people every day, there is less fear.”

Urs Gruber, 32, is chief engineer, bottle washer and winemaker at the Schinznach wine cooperative in Aargau, a farming region known for its thermal baths. People here voted about 65 percent against the citizenship initiative.

Mr. Gruber, who makes about 350,000 liters of wine each year for his cooperative’s 91-member vineyards, said that although local farmers occasionally hire seasonal workers for the harvest, most of the work on each of the small holdings is done by family members.

Over a glass of his pinot noir — to go with a local veal dish and the ever-present Swiss-German hash browns, or rosti — he said that although most residents in the area could be categorized as anti-immigrant, there are very few immigrants living in the area.

“When the Swiss people see an immigrant works hard and is quiet, we are fine with that,” said Mr. Gruber, who is engaged to marry a Thai immigrant.

“The only time it is acceptable to be loud is when Swiss men sit together at a round table, drinking wine and beer and are discussing politics. … We can be a little closed, we say ‘farmer’ headed. It is always about the land. There is a fear that there are too many people here.”

Elizabet Ghilardi, a smartly dressed teacher in high heels, designer jeans and dangling earrings who has been teaching preteens in Zurich’s public-housing neighborhood of Grunau for 30 years, was given a small gift recently.

A young Albanian girl in her French class gave her a small book of poetry, in French and Albanian.

As she was showing it to a visitor, tears welled up.

“As far as the class being multicultural, there is no problem. It is an enrichment to be educated in this environment. But as a teacher, I need a great variety of professional skills, great tolerance and more engagement [than if they were all Swiss]. These are great kids; they come to school early, eager to learn,” she said.

She said, for example, the stress of the war in Yugoslavia was very difficult on the children from that region, requiring professional care and skills not needed when educating Swiss children of Swiss parents.

Barbara Strauli, who is one of a nine-member team that oversees Grunau and designs and implements Zurich’s school-integration program, said 100,000 students — 27 percent of the canton’s students — are from immigrant families, most born in Switzerland, but unlike children of immigrant parents born in the United States, they are not citizens.

“Society asked these workers to come. We have 30 years’ experience in integrating them. I think we’ve managed very well,” said Mrs. Strauli, who specializes in working with Kurdish and Turkish students.

“When the parents are educated, the children get it. The immigrant children from middle-class families don’t have any problem.

“The problem we face is not language or culture, but social structure, the poor, uneducated. The parents, although they want to very much, cannot help their children very much.”

Of the 17 children in Mrs. Ghilardi’s class, all have either the name of U.S. hip-hop star Usher or the U.S. television show “Charmed” written in marking pen, like a temporary tattoo, on their arms.

Only three of her students are native-born Swiss, with Swiss parents. The rest, although born in Switzerland, have parents who are from Spain, Italy, Albania, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Hungary, Romania and other countries, and are not citizens.

She said her best student was from Pakistan and next year probably would go to the elite academic high school for students going to college.

“I feel comfortable here,” said Thomas Lanier, a black from Huntsville, Ala., who played football for Auburn University and has lived in Switzerland for 11 years. “There is an underlying sense of fairness here. If you respect their culture, there are opportunities. The Swiss want to be Swiss. They want anyone who comes here to respect their culture.”

Asked about the anti-immigration campaign and racism, he said: “There are dumb people everywhere, and Switzerland is no exception.”

Part I:

Tolerance tested in Holland

Part II:

The Italian dilemma

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