A New Home?

How do refugee families settle in their adopted country?

Recently the BBC published a moving report about nine-year-old Rouaa from a Syrian refugee family. They had fled their home after a chemical attack and lived for several years in a camp in Lebanon. Now the UK has granted them asylum.

For several years, I have cared for asylum seekers assigned to my little village in Switzerland. We have hosted families from Lebanon, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Somalia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

What are some of the issues they face?

Trauma and Security

Just landed on some Greek island

Life was unbearable where they came from. They sold everything and risked all to get here, seeing many bodies on the way of those who didn’t make it.

This family from Iraq found a boat to take them to Greece. But they weren’t yet safe.

Others’ stories are too traumatic to describe.

What did they find when they reached Switzerland?

The Swiss love to play war games. Camouflaged soldiers with submachine guns emerging from the trees are a common sight. And armoured vehicles sometimes career down the main road. But what if you hear the roar of a low flying fighter plane approaching your new home?

Low-flying Swiss military fighter
Low-flying Swiss military fighter

After having recently arrived from Aleppo, where for years they lived in daily fear of exploding gas flasks dropping from the sky …

When some of their school friends had been blown to pieces… When their mother was flung across the room by a nearby bomb and broke her ribs… When food was unavailable and the only water supply was in the hands of their merciless enemies…

Syrian children – safe at last!
Syrian children – safe at last!

Then I should not have been surprised at the reaction of a Syrian girl when a military plane zoomed over our village: she screamed, ‘Baba!’, and fled in search of a safe place to hide.

It takes a long time to overcome such traumatic experiences and behave like ‘normal’ Swiss children.


Although their script is totally different from ours, Afghan or Syrian children who had some schooling before they fled usually have at least a rudimentary familiarity with our Latin script. But one’s hand doesn’t learn to write from left to right overnight.

And then there’s the vocabulary with it’s arbitrary genders. And the grammar, with its complex tenses and obscure cases. And the infuriating difference between written German and the Swiss dialect all their friends speak.

Vor dem Tor by Johann Wolfgang Goethe
Vor dem Tor by Johann Wolfgang Goethe

Imagine studying the writings of Goethe and Schiller in the original language, as one of my ‘protégées’ had to!

Although the parents benefit from free German classes, they often find it much more difficult to come to grips with this strange language. Very few ever become fluent enough that they can cope with a job interview or understand official documents without help.

Culture, Customs and Conventions

It never ceases to amaze me how habits, lifestyle, etiquette and traditions differ from one nation to another.

Does one celebrate real birthdays or official birthdays as recorded in one’s documents? Or rather names days? Whom does one invite? Is it rude to refuse? Who gives whom presents? What about decorations, cards, songs?

Should we remember their national holiday or they join in with ours? And what about New Year’s Eve, Advent, Christmas, Easter? Do they observe other religious festivals? Should we join Muslims in their Ramadan feasts?

Räbeliechtli, Räbeliechtli!

How do I explain the Alpabzug (bringing the cows down from the Alps for the winter); Fasnacht (carnival) with its deliberately dissonant Guggemusig in all its regional variations; or the Räbeliechtli-Umzug that takes place on a dark November evening in most villages?

An Arabic buffet meal
An Arabic buffet meal

What about meals? Should we invite them? How much in advance? Do they expect us to drop in unannounced? Will they be offended if we don’t come? Are we supposed to sample everything?

Why do I need trash tags? [We pay for our refuse collection using sticky labels.]

Why do I have to turn down the music? [Surely the neighbours should be glad they can profit from my ghetto-blaster!]

Why shouldn’t I hang out my washing on a Sunday? [Sunday is a holy day: no work, no noise!]

Why is it schoolchildren who collect the bundles of newspapers and cardboard boxes people put out on the pavement? [They sell it to finance a school camp.]

What’s wrong with collecting the leftover potatoes from the field? [??]

When do I use first names / last names, Du / Sie? [“Sie, Herr Hans, Du helf mich verstehen was ich muss sagen?”]

I try – patiently – to explain everything three or four times, but it doesn’t sink in. Sometimes I have to appeal to an interpreter who not only knows their language but also these cultural differences…


Even though they have the right to take a job, adult asylum seekers are often turned down by their prospective employers as soon as they admit they have an F Permit, meaning they are ‘provisionally admitted foreigners’. It’s not uncommon for an advert for an unskilled dishwasher or cleaner to demand ‘fluent written and spoken German’ – a subtle way of saying, ‘We don’t want foreigners’.

Open hostility is rare – unless your skin is brown!

Children – at least in a village environment – are generally accepted and, as soon as they have mastered the language, they integrate well. In some ways they miss out, because their families can’t usually afford to let them have music lessons, go to the swimming pool, or join their friends on ski holidays or summer camps. Sometimes the local council or a Church organisation takes pity on them and subsidizes such activities.

Play and School

Afghan children  discover Lego
Afghan children discover Lego

I was amazed to discover many migrants from African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries had no idea about playing European games. Dominoes and draughts – Yes. But jigsaw puzzles, UNO, board games, construction sets like Lego, etc. were often totally unknown. Probably their previous life was mainly about survival or study, not play.

And, of course, school here is very different from in their home country.

A Swiss school lesson
A Swiss school lesson

Refugee children tend to be accustomed to stern – even corporal – discipline, lecture-style teaching, learning by rote, and strict marking, in contrast to contemporary Swiss methods such as self-assessment, hands-on learning, group projects, etc.


Everyone in Switzerland is obliged to have health insurance from a private insurance company. This cost is covered by the cantonal authorities, so asylum seekers benefit from the same basic medical coverage as Swiss people, whether it’s for acne, a broken leg or a heart operation.

However, certain things like spectacles and dental treatment aren’t included in this basic coverage. Only the cheapest solutions are financed, which may mean having an extraction rather than a root treatment.

Daily Life

The first reaction when seeing their assigned flat is often to think it’s bigger than they need. Only two children per room? And why the table, chairs, sofa? We’ll need a carpet; we sit on the floor.

Often they are from hot countries, so the idea of putting on a coat when you go out and taking it off when you come indoors is unfamiliar. In fact, Swiss people find it offensive, if they ever invite such a migrant into their home, that they don’t immediately take off their coat. On the other hand, many remove their shoes when indoors.

Family Life

Muslim women are often reluctant to speak to a man or shake hands, which the Swiss love to do.

Family life is very important to most refugees. Physical demonstrations of love – hugs and kisses – are very common. But such intimacy is not limited to the nuclear family; they were used to living together – or at least in close proximity – with grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, etc. and have trouble accepting separation.

I can't be happy as long as you're not with me

When Rouaa, in the BBC film above, had to say goodbye to her big sister and nephews in the camp in Lebanon, not knowing if she would ever see them again, that was tough.

Religion and Morality

Religion is another delicate matter. Some may be nominal Muslims; others are very conscientious about practising their rites. Some belong to the Sunni branch of their faith, while others are Shia or Alawite; they don’t attend the same mosques. And observing Ramadan – for instance – isn’t easy in a western school or work environment.

Some asylum seekers, especially from Syria or African countries, or even Iran, are Christian. But there again, their Syrian Catholic or Orthodox practices are very different from any Swiss Church mass. And Protestant traditions also vary from one nation to another.

Somali children in their new home

One thing that has impressed me is that, on the whole, such migrant families have strong moral principles and lead upright lives. Children respect and obey their parents. Teenagers and young people dress modestly and don’t indulge in wild parties.

A big question for Muslim girls is whether they can go swimming in a mixed group and, if so, what sort of costume they should wear. I was most impressed by a well-educated Afghan mother, who took her Muslim faith very seriously. She explained her attitude to her school-age daughter but said, “You must decide for yourself.” The girl would have to settle in this new culture and adjust as she felt best, not simply adhering blindly to the norms of her homeland.

Romance and marriage are huge challenges for immigrants. On the one hand they experience unheard-of freedom, on the other hand in their home culture it’s often the parents who decide who they will marry. Not all such young people can cope with these tensions without either falling out with their parents or ending up in a disastrous relationship.


The Swiss are renowned bureaucrats. They simply love filling out forms. And nearly nothing can be done without duplicate signed copies of the necessary paperwork. Most other nationals find this difficult.

Asylum application – just fill out this form
Asylum application – just fill out this form

On top of that, the regulations concerning asylum seekers are complex, they vary between Cantons and tend to be revised fairly frequently. So it’s difficult even for Swiss support people like myself to really know what the rules are concerning status changes, work permits, schooling, medical care, insurance, etc.


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