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A Little More than “Sprechen Sie Englisch?”

In 2014, the people of Basel ordered change: they voted for the government to help newly-arrived expats feel welcome.  As an expat myself, I was pleased to hear this, but not everyone – locals or foreigners – supports these attempts.

By Ella Revitt

With Switzerland ranked sixth in the world for the largest proportion of the population born abroad, 35% of those living in Basel are non-nationals. The overarching group of foreigners include refugees and asylum seekers, blue-collar workers (once known as “Gastarbeiter”) as well as white-collar business professional “expats.”  Amalgamation for the latter has been difficult in recent years – increased prominence of the pharma industry has presented unease and occasional hostility among locals.

Opinions are mixed: certain locals embrace and welcome foreigners, but several proceed cautiously, and a few, unfortunately, are downright hostile. The process is, of course, a two-way street, and while some newcomers are enthusiastic and eager to immerse themselves into the Swiss culture, others appear rude, arrogant or ignorant.  Certain expats should be applauded for applying the old saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” as opposed to those who can be taken out of their country, but their country cannot be taken out of them.

The cantonal referendum in 2014 coerced the government to provide aid for expats. Andreas Räss, head of the Specialist Integration Unit at “Kantons- und Stadtentwicklung Basel-Stadt”, believes that while the canton provides facilities to overcome obstacles, successful assimilation is the joint responsibility of both locals and non-natives.  The most prominent issue for many is language: “For coexistence, German is of enormous importance” says Räss. To help with this, Basel now offers welcome tours as well as classes to learn German.

In the corporate world, communication is primarily English, so there is often no need to learn German as a businessperson moving to Basel. It can be easy for a family from Italy, France or the UK, upon moving to the Basel area, to become trapped in this “international bubble.” Many are not truly aware of its restrictions until they take action to “burst” these boundaries.

A few years prior, I was no different: it was only until I began to immerse myself in the local community that I really did begin to feel at home in this city. Although not perfect, my language skills and confidence have improved immensely; I have established life-long friendships with some wonderful people; and previously-unobtainable opportunities have become available. Although the task may seem daunting, all it requires is that one initial step. To try, really is all that is needed: as with everything, effort is valued above ability.

For individuals, Räss emphasises the importance of “openness, with no prejudices.” Segregation within communities must be avoided, with everyone accepting diversity of their neighbours. “Active participation in social and cultural life facilitates integration, as it allows you to meet new people,” Räss explains, highlighting the benefits of immersion into the local communities for foreigners.

In essence, the phrase “you get out what you put in” is the embodiment of this process. There are a multitude of experiences, people and skills to be gained by non-natives entering their local Swiss community – be it a sports club, a language class or a bar. In doing so, assimilation will come naturally, and Basel will no longer be this formidable, strange city, but rather your new home.

For more information about the importance of assimilation, the Fachstelle Diversität und Integration are hosting a presentation in English on 23 February in the Basel town hall at 7pm. If you would like to attend, email integration@bs.ch to find out more.

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