Anna Schnitzer

When Our Lives Were Still in One Piece

What is life like for families living in exile in Switzerland? What experiences do they bring with them to their new country? And what significance do memories from their native countries hold for them now? Sociologist Anna Schnitzer takes a closer look at the life stories of immigrants.

By Ruth Jahn
English translation by Gena Olson

“In the first place, we don’t like to be called ‘refugees’.” Thus begins Hannah Arendt’s 1943 essay “We Refugees”, in which the Jewish philosopher discusses the beginnings of her own time in exile and how Jewish people who had fled Nazism were often reduced to their refugee status. “I use this approach as my foundation, which adds a new perspective to my research,” says sociologist Anna Schnitzer of the Institute of Education.

Schnitzer does not ask blunt questions about the success of integration or the requirements placed on newcomers to Switzerland. She is primarily interested in immigrants’ stories and ideas, their abilities and possibilities. She would like to find out what experiences they bring with them to their new country, what they have been through, how their lives used to be, and what significance these memories hold for them today. This is why she sought out families who were willing to share their migration stories with her and invited her to take part in their daily lives. 

Flipping through the family photo album

Schnitzer, also a translator for French who has conducted research on inequality, multilingualism and participation, did not limit her search to refugees. Rather, she wanted to leave open who would be interested in her project and willing to share their family story. “I don’t want to view participants' situations as problematic right from the start,” explains Schnitzer. She says that societies are now so thoroughly shaped by migration that “you have to ask the question of why it’s even treated as a special phenomenon.” Her own father, she says, immigrated to Germany from South Tyrol as a young man, and she herself is now a German working in Switzerland. 

Four families have already received multiple visits from Anna Schnitzer and her team. “We were happy that someone just finally asked about us and was interested in us foreigners, as that doesn’t happen to us a lot in Switzerland,” says the 46-year-old Chilean Cina Chávez*. Schnitzer got in touch with the families through flyers and non-profits putting the word out. Each researcher holds group discussions and one-on-one interviews, and is able to observe the families while joining in on their activities. “We’ve been invited to parties, to tea, to meals.

We sat on the couch with one family and flipped through their photo albums. Another family gave us the opportunity to listen to their traditional music and to be present for their day-to-day work and conversations. We had kids crawling on our laps, and most of the family members were very open when talking about themselves and their lives.” Schnitzer is interested in people and their stories not only as a scientist but also as a fellow human. She empathizes with them, which becomes apparent when she details the small gestures of her interview partners or retells their stories with passion and emotion, as if they were her own family’s stories. 

Two of the families are from Egypt and Iraq, respectively, and are asylum seekers. In both of the other families, one of the parents had roots in Switzerland. These families came from Central and South America to Switzerland of their own free will – no threats or hardship involved – to give their children a good education and show them their second homeland. Schnitzer aims to involve a total of eight families in the project. She refers to migrants’ new lives in exile as their arrival – a process that has proven difficult and demanding for all four families involved in the project so far. In the words of Nil Yalter, an artist with Turkish roots: “Exile is a hard job.” 

Find a job, learn the language

“Many immigrants to Switzerland face the same hurdles,” says Schnitzer. The family has to reorient itself: They need to find a place to live and secure a financial livelihood – and most importantly, they have to learn the language. As Hannah Arendt writes: “We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.”  

“During their arrival, something happens to these families,” explains Schnitzer. “The very structure of a family gets shaken.” This happens when, for instance, the mother no longer has any opportunities to continue working as a teacher. Or when adult children leave the nest much earlier than in the family’s home country. Or when the father, an experienced doctor, is now forced to take an internship. Or when a 60-year-old former breadwinner and established handyman has to pick up trash at the public pool until 9:30 in the evening as part of a program for migrants. 

Aware of these challenges, Schnitzer also speaks her mind at times: “When I follow the budget cuts for refugees and hear that families are only left with three francs per person per day for food, I have at times asked myself why I’m in academia and not in politics!” She continues, “Although as a researcher, I of course try to contribute to creating a better understanding of social conditions and influence things in this way.” 

The families give the most detailed accounts of their lives before emigrating, when there was no war and their lives were still in one piece. For example, what it was like to all live together under one roof with their aunts and grandmother. Or when they still owned a big house with a garden populated by dogs, chickens and iguanas. When children in the streets had lots of friends. Or when the family called a family council and went through the pros and cons of emigrating, writing them out on index cards and spreading them out across the table – and then made the joint decision to leave the country and move to Switzerland. 

Women as the guardians of family memory

According to Schnitzer, it is remarkable how women take on a very special role when it comes to remembrance. Women are usually the ones who tell the family story, often with help from specific objects such as photos, musical instruments or old baking molds. These objects present opportunities to talk about – and preserve – the customs and traditions from the old country. “Family memories act as a kind of refuge,” believes Schnitzer. “They can help to overcome the challenges of arriving in a foreign country. They are the foundation on which families can reshape themselves and come together again in a new environment under different circumstances.” 

When asked about the usefulness of her research, Schnitzer replied that she “would not be publishing guidance on dealing with families with immigrant backgrounds” following the completion of her project. However, she hopes that she can help people see refugees as individuals. After all, the families that immigrate to Switzerland have a multitude of backgrounds and stories. “We should take a nuanced view of migration,” she says, echoing the calls of Hannah Arendt from the 1940s. 

* Names have been changed.


Qualitative Social Research

Capturing the Authentic Tone

What role does memory play for families who have refugee or immigrant backgrounds? Sociologist Anna Schnitzer uses qualitative social research to answer this question. She talks to families and individual family members, captures the authentic tone of their experiences, takes part in their day-to-day lives and writes down what she observes. Collecting this data is time-consuming, and she has to gain the trust of the people she works with. “That’s why this kind of research is often not done,” she says. However, the advantage of this method is the detailed insight it can provide into the lives of immigrant families. Schnitzer explains: “I can make statements about how family dynamics play out, what it means to make a joint decision to emigrate to another country. And to what extent individual family members succeed in their new lives in exile. With quantitative research, I wouldn’t be able to make these kinds of statements at all.”