“They can be citizens of Switzerland, but they’ll never be Swiss.”

The small swastika drawn on the ceiling of the train heading to Bern bothered me. I didn’t have a sharpie to cover it and nobody else noticed, so it stayed. “See them?” my Swiss host Sophia asked me as the train passed two black men.

“Yeah. What about ‘em?”

“They’re immigrants.”

“Okay,” I told her.

“They’re Eritreans. They come here so they do not have to be in their military and then they do not join the military here. They do not have an education so they become criminals. My taxes pay for them.”

“Okay. How do you know they’re immigrants? You only saw them through a window.”

“You saw them. You saw how they were dressed. They are immigrants.”

They were black men, dressed in jeans and jackets which didn’t stand out from the crowd, and may have been immigrants. Or may not have been. Over one-third of the Swiss population are first or second-generation immigrants so she could have easily been right, though their families could just as easily have been in Switzerland for several generations. Without speaking with them we had no way of knowing.

I reminded Sofia I had just worked at a refugee camp. I told her many of my friends were Mexican immigrants. My childhood friends with last names like Lugo and Ortiz reminded her of the “itch people.”

“Itch people?” I asked.

“Yes, itch people. Stanković, Petrović, these types of names. They come here from Yugoslavia. They will never be Swiss.”

“If they are citizens what difference does it make?”

“They can be citizens of Switzerland,” Sofia told me, “but they’ll never be Swiss. They’ll never be part of our culture.”

Twenty minutes later we exited the train and had a similar conversation.

“Did you hear them?” Sofia asked me.


“Them, across the street,” Sofia said as she pointed to a small group who had passed us.

“No. I didn’t listen to the strangers across the street.”

“They were speaking Arabic.”

“Yeah. Lots of Arabs do,” I said as she shot me a dirty stare.

I learned to tune Sophia out. I wished to be thousands of miles away from Sophia. Seven-thousand miles away to be exact, in Brazil surrounded by Brazilians and warm beaches. My mind wandered and I saw myself wandering through the colorful streets of Salvador, a world away from here.

Sophia interrupted my daydream with a question: “Are you listening?”

After another thirty minutes we were back in Sofia’s apartment. She showed me a music video by a popular European artist who I won’t dignify by naming. The artist, who is from a Turkish family, dressed in cartoonish clothing and talked satirically about how hard life is as an immigrant. Sofia gleefully translated the German lyrics for me.


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