copyright SVP-UDC

Switzerland the neutral, landlocked country at the heart of Europe is associated with chocolate, cheese, and cozy chalets but underneath this image of paradise, lurks an evil, ugly undertone.

A year after voting to ban the minaret, the symbol of Muslim worship, Switzerland voted for automatic expulsion of foreign criminals. After spending millions on racist posters promoting fear, the right wing SVP party won the campaign. 52.9% of vote and 20 cantons endorsed the proposal. Only six cantons voted against it and they were the French speaking ones, which many Swiss consider a separate country. Instead of hope, foreigners live in fear. Ironically, about 20% of Switzerland is composed of foreigners making up a work force predominately fueled by immigrants.

With illegal alien status in the past, I remember living in fear in someone else’s country. I have always been a black sheep. Pioneers live on the fringes of society struggling for acceptance in new roles. In 1980, as a 23-year-old, I emigrated to Europe for an opportunity then denied in my homeland, to play professional basketball. Since then, I have been at the mercy of foreign – French, German, Swiss – governments as an auslander.

Before marrying a Frenchman, I waited in long lines at city hall to renew my residency permit. I spent sleepless night worrying about obtaining a work permit, and then anguished over renewing it every three, six, twelve months depending on the laws of the country. Not allowed to sit on the bench, I instructed my French team from the stands when denied a coaching permit before legal matrimony. For years without work papers, I was paid “au noir” under the table for odd jobs.

Even today working and living in an international environment, not a day goes by where I forget that I am a guest in someone else’s country. As a white skinned foreigner, I no longer worry about keeping a low profile, afraid of being apprehended in Paris without the proper paperwork proving my legitimacy. In airports and train stations, I still feel anxious that I may be stopped and detained for some infraction.

But my fear is far greater for my darker skinned brother whose differences are more visible. Without steady employment, without family network, and without a Francophone spouse who can interpret the legalities and help fight for one’s rights and dignity, assimilation as a foreigner is difficult even in the best of circumstances. I chose to leave my homeland during a time when a career as a profession female athlete seemed like a frivolous pursuit, but even then, I never doubted, should my venture fail, I would always be welcomed back home. What about those who flee to survive, like political refugees and asylum seekers escaping from totalitarian governments and war torn societies? Or others like my grandfather who came to America in pursuit of a better life?

copyright Gérald Lechault (non SVP-UDC)

In the picture-perfect, postcard image of Switzerland, cows graze in green valleys where tidy villages spill out of a backdrop of spectacular white-peaked mountains. But underneath this placid scene, a storm is brewing. Is Switzerland as tranquil and tolerant as it appears?