Dersim Avdar came to Switzerland as a refugee 22 years ago. After completing a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at the University of St. Gallen, including studies in Madrid and Beijing, he now works in the investment industry in Zurich. Evangeline de Macedo interviewed him to get his story.
When did you come to Switzerland?
I was a bit under three years old when I came with my mother and brother from Turkey.
Why did you leave Turkey?
My parents are Kurds who worked as human rights activists. My mother was president of the Human Rights Association in Turkey for the region of Siirt and worked closely with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch in Turkey. After several attempts were made on her life, she decided that it was time to protect her two sons and flee to another country.
How did you get here?
We were among the lucky ones. My mother had a press passport and my father was a member of the regional parliament, so we were able to fly to Switzerland.
Why did your mother choose Switzerland?
It was mainly because of Switzerland’s reputation as a stable place, one where we would get a good education and learn many languages. This was the main motivation.
What happened when you arrived?
It was very difficult. We were quickly sent to a camp in Ticino, which was set up for migrants. We had to put everything else on hold. Due to all the pressure and stress that this life-transforming move entailed, and the fact that none of the people my mother knew were helping us, my mother fell ill with fibromyalgia, a disease which she still suffers from.
We spent about a year in the camp. Then after receiving authorisation, we set up home for two years in Ticino before my mother decided that we should move to Fribourg.
Because of the language and study opportunities the canton offers. It is a place where both French and German are spoken.
Can you still speak Italian?
How long did your father remain in Turkey?
I don’t know how much longer he stayed in Turkey after we moved to Switzerland. He eventually moved to Brussels. By then my parents had divorced and we have not had much contact with him since.
How did you feel leaving your home? Did you understand what was happening?
No. I was too young to realise what was happening. I almost feel as if I was born in Switzerland. My brother, who is about five years older than me, has many more memories. He was already in school in Turkey and had friends there. He had to learn a new language and assimilate into a new school system. However, we knew we were not Swiss because the other children quickly made us aware of it.
For your mother it must have been more difficult
Yes. She had to uproot herself from her home, family, friends, and country. Her marriage was destroyed and she had no help or support from anyone.
She is doing much better now that my brother and I have grown up and can support ourselves.
So how did she support both of you when she was ill and alone?
The main source of income was from the state. She also received a small income from the books that she had published. She still writes books.
Is there anyone helping her now?
Her children. I still live at home and so did my brother before he was sent to Kosovo a couple of weeks ago by the Swiss army as part of a peacekeeping force. He will be there for six months.
Is your mother the driving force in your life?
The motivating force in my life is not just my mother, my family, or my own aspirations, but my place of origin. I want to learn all I can about how business is conducted in Switzerland and replicate that in fifteen or twenty years in the Kurdish region. I want to help companies and the region to prosper. That is the reason why I am working so hard and probably enjoying less free time than many of my friends. I want to develop myself to help my people.
Would you go back now if you could?
To Turkey or a free state? Going back to Kurdistan as a free state would be amazing. Despite the fact that I grew up in Switzerland and am as Swiss as can be, I still define myself as a Kurd. However, I would not cut all my roots here. I love a lot of things about Switzerland.
What do you love about Switzerland?
Having had a chance to travel and live in Madrid and Beijing, I treasure the honesty and work culture of Switzerland. If someone tells you something, it is frank and you do not suspect that they are lying in order to avoid an awkward situation or confrontation. I am very grateful to Switzerland for all that it did for me and my family. I am maybe even more respectful and appreciative than some people who were born here.
Can you still relate to Kurdish culture even though you never really lived there?
Yes. I believe that besides family and clan, the defining element of Kurdish culture is hospitality. I have a friend who cycled from Fribourg to Beijing. He was overwhelmed by the welcoming attitude and hospitality of the Kurds. I am also deeply interested in the history and development of my country. I wrote my thesis about the Kurdistan region during the First World War and why we do not have a state.
Do you still speak the language?
We learned both Turkish and Kurdish. My brother went to school in Turkey and is very well versed in the language. When I was younger, I stubbornly refused to continue speaking Turkish. I regret this decision now. My mother has always spoken to us in Kurdish so I am fluent in that.
Did this make it more difficult for you to integrate?
I did have some problems initially but I quickly overcame them thanks to the fact that I only started school in Fribourg. My brother, of course, had more problems as he had spoken Turkish in school while he was there, and then had to change to Italian in Ticino. Three years later, he had to switch to learning French and German in Fribourg. It was a very difficult time for him. My mother pushed him and he worked extremely hard. He managed it in the end and she was very proud.
I was lucky to top my class every year and be considered a very good student. In addition, I never got into any trouble, so when I had problems with other children the system was on my side. When I was in secondary school I was badgered by some kids from a rural area, where the thinking is more conservative. However, when they learned that I had the leading part in the school play, they changed their attitude.
What advice would you give refugees embarking on a new life in new country?
Well, there is a saying: you can bring the horse to water but you cannot force it to drink. In order to integrate it is important to start learning the local language, if possible several languages. Join local clubs and associations and get out and meet locals. Get an education, find a job, get involved in the community and become a part of it!
By Evangeline de Macedo
Free-lance writer and blogger