Irena Brežná

    is a writer and journalist. Born in Slovakia, she emigrated with her family to Switzerland in 1968 and now lives in Basle. She has worked as psychologist, translator, interpreter, Amnesty International coordinator and war reporter. She initiated and participated in a number of humanitarian and women’s rights projects in Guinea, Russia, Chechnya and Slovakia, and her reports and articles have appeared in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Berliner Freitag, as well as the Slovak daily SME. Since 1990 she has been a regular visitor to Slovakia and has cooperated with the feminist organisation Aspekt. She has published several works of fiction and non-fiction, including Die Wölfinnen von Sernowodsk. Reportagen aus Tschetschenien (The She-Wolves of Sernovodsk. Reports from Chechnya), and a novel, Die Beste aller Welten (The Best of All Worlds). She is the recipient of several awards for journalism and her latest novel, Die undankbare Fremde (The Ungrateful Foreigner) received the Swiss Literature Prize in 2012. “You ought to feel happy to be in safety, people say to a Syrian refugee who was granted political asylum in Switzerland three years ago, but the 31-year-old Blend insists that the sense of happiness one feels after escaping from danger rarely lasts as long as two months. After that you want to live a normal life, have something to look forward to. Blend and I were invited by the Zürich daily Der Tagesanzeiger to discuss emigration and compare the situation of the 1968 refugees from Czechoslovakia with that of present-day refugees from the Middle East. They ask how we escaped, what our first impressions of Switzerland were, and how we coped with difficulties. Blend worked as a dentist in Syria but in Switzerland he must retake his exams, something doctors from Czechoslovakia also had to go through. He can’t wait to be working again and is disappointed with Europe; he wasn’t expecting to be a second-class citizen. When he was held in a Swiss refugee camp, local people sometimes showed him the middle finger from passing cars. He couldn’t take it and fled to London but the British police, following the Dublin agreement, handcuffed him and put him on a plane back to the country where he had first sought asylum. Blend is a Syrian Kurd who had taken part in anti-Assad demonstrations, was a blogger, was imprisoned and tortured, then left for Turkey where he paid a human smuggler 14,000 EUR for a fake Italian passport on which he travelled to Zürich. Does he miss the friends he left behind in Syria, the journalist asks him. There’s nobody left, they’re either dead or scattered around refugee camps, says Blend. He is critical of the West’s wishy-washy attitude to Assad, and cites a proverb: If you just nudge a lion, you merely provoke him: you either have to get into the cage and kill it, or leave him alone. He has noticed a mental change in himself, he is no longer the person he used to be. In Syria he was regarded as reserved but among the Swiss, who are much more reserved, he suddenly finds himself communicative and misses his fellow countrymen whose openness he used to find so annoying. He is fluent in several languages so it didn’t take him long to pick up German, yet the second that passes between an idea being formed and its articulation in a foreign tongue bothers him. His native languages, Arabic and Kurdish, used to flow from him naturally, now he stammers and this alienates him from himself. ‘But that fraction of a second is important,’ I tell him, ‘that’s when our deep-rooted way of thinking is re-evaluated and a new way of thinking emerges. That is the benefit of living abroad.’”