Updated: Jan 9, 2020
When I walk down the streets in Switzerland, I do not physically stand out. It’s not as if I’m an American of Norwegian descent trying to fit into a village in Japan or Ghana. My pale eyes and fair skin can melt into the background in Switzerland. It only becomes obvious that I do not belong when I open my mouth to speak. It is in that moment that I can see the twitch of a raised eyebrow or the tilt of a head trying to listen through my thick accent.
It was clear that learning German was one of my top priorities. I was up to the challenge and went on the hunt for classes.
I was lucky to learn that there was a beginning language class given for foreigners which also provided childcare. The first day of class I walked in to see a very young, multicultural group of individuals. The class was all women except for one lone man.
The class progressed very slowly taking into account the background of those in the class. In the very first class meeting, we arranged our chairs into a circle and began to painstakingly tell a little about ourselves to the group, including how long we attended school in our home country. The people in the room came from all over the world, including those that had to flee countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. Education levels ranged from a master’s degree (me) to a few years formal education (most of the class).
Having taught in classrooms with many grade levels between students’ ability levels, I was empathizing with our German instructor and the daunting task before her. Some of the students had just finished a course that taught them the alphabet used in the German language.
Most of the people in the class had to dash off right at the completion to pick up their child(ren) in the childcare facilities. The one man in the class and I were able to hang around a little longer as his wife went to fetch their small son. R’s German was well beyond my ability level, but he was patient with me and we started to strike up a friendship. I learned that he and his wife were from Afghanistan and had been in Switzerland since their son was born three years prior. His stay in Europe spanned a further 11 years before when he landed in southern Italy on a blow up raft. He was fluent in Italian and therefore was working at the local pizza shop that my family had come to love.
After a year of being in classes and a few dinners together, R and S asked our family to attend their son’s 4th birthday party. He explained that four years old is a big celebration in their culture and they had rented a venue a few villages south of ours. He didn’t tell me many more details other than they would be cooking traditional Afghani food for about 75 of their closest friends and they would love to have us attend.
We found the building in a nondescript industrial area filled with grey, in-need-of-a-paint-job buildings. Thankfully we saw R as we walked up the steps. He was carrying a large tray of lamb into the kitchen facilities. After dropping off the tray, he walked us into the party room and we did our best to keep the looks of shock off our faces. The men and the women were seated separately, the women were dressed in luxurious dresses, headscarves and elaborate makeup and all eyes were on us. Feeling rather underdressed and uncovered, I was grateful that I happened to choose to wear a skirt that day!
R had advised us to sit with his cousin and his teenage daughter. Both R’s cousin and his daughter spoke impeccable English. These two were our interpreters and cultural coaches as the birthday party commenced. After large plates of beautifully scented lamb, rice and vegetables, we enjoyed conversations about living in Switzerland as an American vs. an Afghani, discussed the teenager’s plans for her Swiss education and everything in between.
Throughout our conversations, I could feel everyone’s eyes as we were the only non-Afghanis at the party. However the gazes did not feel judgmental. They felt curious just as I was feeling curious. How did it come to be that 25 Afghani families and 1 American family were sitting in an industrial building in Switzerland celebrating a child’s birthday? The probability seemed impossible, but there we sat and enjoyed each other’s company.
I was more than grateful to R and S for extending the invitation to us even though we physically did not belong nor fit into the crowd. At that moment we were all immigrants, foreigners in this country and were able to discuss our shared experiences.
I enjoy being in the minority every once in a while. It puts me in another’s shoes if only for the length of a birthday party. It re-orientates my understanding of the world just a little bit and provides perspective I wouldn’t otherwise have had.
April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com