Berne bids to bring Swiss and Albanians together

A new centre has opened in Berne aimed at promoting greater understanding between Swiss people and ethnic Albanians. The Albanian community is Switzerland's second largest ethnic group after the Italians.

This content was published on February 23, 2000 - 18:38

A new centre has opened in Berne aimed at promoting greater understanding
between Swiss people and ethnic Albanians. The Albanian community - mainly from Kosovo, but also from Macedonia and southern Serbia - is Switzerland's second largest ethnic group after the Italians.

One in every 40 people in Switzerland is an ethnic Albanian - one in ten ethnic
Albanians world wide lives here. There are in fact 200,000 ethnic Albanians
living in Switzerland, and these are not asylum seekers, but people with
permanent residency rights.

The figures are astounding, because this is a community which is scarcely integrated into Swiss life. The centre, which has just opened in Berne, aims to promote integration, and to create greater tolerance and understanding among Swiss people for their Albanian neighbours.

"We will be offering educational courses, such as classes in German, French and
computing", said Stefan Enggist, manager of the centre, "but above all we want
Swiss and Albanians to meet each other. We are planning cultural evenings
where people can sit and eat together, then even if people had bad impressions
beforehand, once they have shared a table, it will be easier to see one
another as friends."

It is an ambitious goal: most Swiss know nothing about the Albanian community
in their midst, apart from what they read in the papers, and this is often
negative. The Swiss media have focused recently on crimes committed by
citizens of former Yugoslavia, and although the criminal element is only a
minority, there is now a climate of fear and suspicion.

"You know we ethnic Albanians have been living in Switzerland since the mid
1960's", says Sami Kurteshi, co-president of the centre, "and we had a good
reputation right up until the 1990's. I don't know what happened, but I do
know that in a democracy like Switzerland, if someone commits a crime, he
should be judged individually; a whole community should not be judged for the
crime of one person."

Suzanne Auer, who has worked for many years with Switzerland's ethnic Albanian
community, also believes that there needs to be more recognition that the
albanians are here to stay.

"Many Swiss seem to think they are all just asylum seekers", she says. "In fact many ethnic Albanians are second generation; they were born here, and it should be easier for them to become Swiss citizens".

"They should be able to take part in the social, political and cultural life of Switzerland, and how can they do that? Only if they have a Swiss passport."

But the nationality question is a sensitive one. Rightly or wrongly, some Swiss
continue to have a bad impression of citizens of former Yugoslavia, and now
many communities in Switzerland are becoming increasingly reluctant to grant
nationality to these groups.

Meanwhile, the ethnic communities themselves say it is hard to integrate without being able to exercise their civil rights - and to do that, they have to be Swiss. It's a debate which will continue for many years to come.

By Imogen Foulkes

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