Roland Schutz of New Zealand is one among the far-flung 10 percent of Switzerland's Auslandschweizer or Suisse de l'etranger. More than 40 years ago, when he was in his early 20s, he set off from the Emmental with a friend to "see something of the world," as he puts it. The two young men ended up working in a New Zealand-based car factory. "I thought I'd stay a couple of years," he says, "But life just took over."
Schutz, who now inns a mechanics shop, married a Maori and had two daughters, who now have children themselves. Both his children and his grandchildren are Swiss, and Schlitz is the president of the Wellington Swiss Club, whose hundred members get together regularly for fondue evenings, Jass competitions, and good Berner Plattes. They even own a clubhouse that can hold up to 200 people.
Swiss Organizations for the Swiss Abroad
Members of the Wellington Swiss Club are among the 600,000 men, women and children who retain their Swiss citizenship despite living all over the world. They are represented not only by the Swiss government, but also by their own special parliament called the Council of the Swiss Abroad. This Council meets twice a year in Switzerland.
On a daily basis, the interests of these Swiss are protected by the 20-person staff at the Organization of the Swiss Abroad. The Organization came into being in 1916. Located in a wisteria-covered villa in Bern, the organization (ASO in German) coordinates services for Swiss expatriates in cooperation with the Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA) and the Federal Miens Office (BFA).
EDA recently published an updated version of a booklet called Advice for the Swiss Abroad, which offers over a hundred pages of answers to expatriates' most frequently asked questions. Still, the questions keep coming.
Sarah Mastantuoni, ASO's head of legal services, uses her knowledge of French, Italian, German and English to answer an average of 1,200 inquiries a year from Swiss who either live abroad or are considering emigrating. "People are especially concerned about whether they may continue paying their social security and health-insurance premiums from abroad,' says Mastantuoni. "They also want to know about their children's citizenship status or their military-service requirements. And I get questions from Swiss who want to move to Switzerland but have never been here before--they don't know anything about how to look for a job or find an apartment or organize schooling for their kids."
Terms of Swiss Citizenship
You don't have to have lived in Switzerland in order to be a citizen; you simply need to have had a Swiss mother or father (although if only your father is Swiss, he has to have been married to your mother). Swiss citizenship can be passed down for generations, once your Swiss parent has confirmed your citizenship before you are 22.
In theory, you could be a Swiss citizen with only the remotest of Swiss-born ancestors. To make sure that young foreignborn Swiss get a glimpse of their homeland, there are several organizations working under the auspices of ASO that bring young people 10 Switzerland for camping or skiing vacations, language classes, or the chance to stay with a host family.
This summer, activities for young people focused on the national fair, Expo 2002.
Thomas Voute, who grew up in the Valais and lives in New Hampshire, didn't need to send his son and daughter to a Swiss camp to give them a taste of Switzerland. Around ten years ago, after three decades of living in the US, he took his family to Geneva for four years while he worked there as director of the World Scout Foundation. "My kids loved it," says Voute. "My son, who has just graduated from college in the States, has a summer job in the Romandie, and my daughter, who is about to get married, will spend her honeymoon in Switzerland." According to Voute, both his children have every intention of passing their Swiss citizenship on to their children.
Voute makes a point of keeping up with the Swiss news, by reading a Zurich or Geneva-based newspaper online. "I think I have a good sense of what is going on in Switzerland today," he says, "But I don't think that the Swiss people do a very good job of communicating to the world--either officially or informally--what modern Switzerland is really like. I'd really enjoy being given the task of presenting my country in a realistic way; certainly someone needs to start doing a better job of it."
Getting the Swiss flavor Abroad
To give the Swiss abroad, at least, a realistic picture of Switzerland in the 21st century, ASO puts out a quarterly magazine for expats called Swiss Review, which is published in five languages.
ASO's staff also works closely with Swiss Radio International, which provides multi-lingual information about Switzerland over short-wave radio and the Internet. Another source of information for the Swiss abroad is an ASO newsletter that is distributed to over 750 organizations founded by Swiss around the world--among them are Roland Schutz's Swiss Club in Wellington, Thomas Voute's New Hampshire Swiss Society, and Wal Baur's Swiss Singing Society.
Wal Baur, originally from a town in St. Gallen, lives in the Los Angeles area and not only sings Swiss folk songs but also edits the USA regional news section of ASO's Swiss Review. "The most recent US census figures show that at least one million Americans are of Swiss descent," she points Out, continuing, "Our US edition of the Review goes to over 44,000 households. That means at least one person there is a registered Swiss citizen."
Baur herself plans to take out American citizenship as soon as she has completed the required period of residency. "I will never think of myself as anything but Swiss, yet I want to be able to participate fully in US politics, as I do in Swiss politics."
Political Matters Matter
Unfortunately, not all Swiss abroad are as politically active as Baur. Around 450,000 expatriate Swiss are entitled to vote in the Swiss federal elections, but unfortunately only 18 per cent of them actually do so. ASO's information officer, Isabelle Schmidt-Duvoisin, would like this to change. "We have an on-going campaign to increase the number of voters abroad," she explains. "For ten years now, Swiss expats have been able to vote by mail, but what will really make the difference is e-voting. All of us at ASO are strong advocates of an Internet voting system, but it's still in the prelimi nary stages." To help educate Swiss around the world about pressing political issues in their home country, Swiss Radio International produces French, German and Italian cassettes explaining both sides of important votes, which can be ordered for free.
In order to vote, expatriate Swiss have to register in a municipality in Switzerland. They may choose their "Heimatort," or the official hometown of their family as their voting place, or any Swiss community they've ever lived in. Thomas Voute, who grew up in the Valais and has lived in Geneva, is registered to vote through his Heimatort, Winterthur, a city he has never seen. Wal Baur, although born in St. Gallen, sends her ballot in to Visp, in the Valais. "The Wallis is so conservative-they need progressive voters like me, so I decided to register there," she explains.
In addition to pushing for easier voting procedures for the Swiss abroad, ASO also lobbies for the 17 Swiss Schools Abroad, which are Located in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. "Most of them are excellent schools that serve local families as well as Swiss living in the area," says Isabelle Schmidt. "Tuition covers two-thirds of their costs, and the rest is paid by the federal government. But every year, it requires a huge fight in parliament to get the funding for these schools approved."
Swiss Aid available--Anyplace, Anytime
The Organization of Swiss Abroad and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also work together to aid Swiss who are hit by catastrophes, whether they are caused by natural disasters or political upheavals. But the best protection from financial ruin is provided by Soliswiss, a fund that insures Swiss living abroad against loss of livelihood resulting from war or civil disturbance. Through Soliswiss, expatriates can also join an international health insurance scheme and open a Swiss savings account with good interest rates.
Wal Baur spent most of her adult life living abroad within the Swiss consular service. She retired as Consul General in Buenos Aires and has seen a lot of Swiss in trouble around the world. "There's a law that says that all Swiss abroad have the right to a decent life," she explains. "Years ago, if a Swiss person became a pauper, he was shipped home to be taken care of by the officials in his Heimatort. Today, Swiss who can't make ends meet are taken care of by government representatives abroad. In Buenos Aires, for example, we were very active in caring for 50 families: not only providing them with money, but visiting them regularly and helping them make up budgets."
Some of the disasters that hit Swiss abroad simply can't be solved. Egila Lex, a Swiss with a PhD in German, married an American in 1984. They lived on the outskirts of Manhattan for 10 years. Then, when their children were four and six, Lex's husband was diagnosed with an inoperable form of cancer. Before he died in 1996, the family managed to comfortably resettle in a small town in Cape Cod. "Everyone assumed that I would take my children and go back to Switzerland, after my husband died," Lex remembers. "People would say to me, 'When are you going home?' They meant well, but it made me angry. Why shouldn't I be able to make it in the US by myself? Going back to Switzerland was like turning my back on the life I had had with my husband. Besides, how could I disrupt my children's lives even more?"
Now, six years later, Lex has a full-time job teaching in the German department at nearby Wheaton College. "I don't feel like an American, but I'm very comfortable here," she says.
The largest group of Auslandschweizer-155,000 in all-live not in North America, but in France, The USA houses 68,800, followed by Germany (68,500). There are also 5 Swiss in Sierra Leone, 19 in Belize, 31 in Bhutan, 7 in Tajikistan, and even one on the island of Tuvalu. Spread around the world though they are, ASO, nevertheless, gives this diverse group of Swiss citizens a common identity as a potentially powerful political voice. And they are often referred to by politicians as "the Fifth Switzerland." The other four Switzerlands have a language in common-German, French, Italian, or Romantsch. What members of the Fifth Switzerland seem to share is a spirit of adventure, coupled with a long-lasting attachment to their homeland.