by: Ashleigh Armstrong
When I arrived, living in Geneva was beyond difficult. I was limited by my lack of language skills and forced into a dependency on my husband, which was not in line with my independent personality or values. I had nothing familiar to ground me – no family and worse, no friends. When I finally opened up to the possibility of making friends, I did what people do when they’re in a new place: I went online and joined every group I could find so that I could meet new and interesting people. I was able to make some friends within these groups, which was great at first. These friends were going through similar experiences as my own, spoke the same language as me, and often were just as lonely as I was. It was nice to finally find people to share with and I blogged my way through it all on my labor of love, Natural Girl, Unnatural World.
There came a point in my immigration experience when another friend of mine mentioned that she had never met anyone from Geneva. My ex-husband is from Geneva and because I was surrounded by people that he’d known forever when I arrived, it hadn’t occurred to me that the two groups- expats and locals- don’t regularly interact with each other. Once I started asking questions though, I could see that there were some unhappy feelings between the two groups about each other.
Many people that I spoke with attributed my dissatisfaction to the culture within the city of Geneva. I was told (by locals and expats alike) that people here are naturally cold, which can be hard for someone who has only ever known U.S. culture. I was told that the Genevois are distant and that because it is a city filled with expats, few locals would be willing to make the effort to befriend an English speaker – the assumption being that I’d be leaving in just a few short years. I’ve also heard concerns from locals that foreigners, particularly expats, rarely make an effort to integrate into the local community. The perception is often that expats have no interest in learning or participating in Swiss culture, make very few or no attempts to speak the local language (French), yet, complain about living here. In response, some of the Swiss have shared a very strong opinion: if you don’t like it (in Geneva), then leave.
The Genevois are understandably irritated by what is perceived as arrogance on the part of the expat community. However, if we evaluate this perception more closely, what we can see is that at the core, are feelings of rejection.
The expat community however, often complains of feeling unwelcome in Geneva because of the difficulty to find and make friends. In my case, this unwelcome feeling made it even more difficult to learn and speak French, which only further segregated me from the French-speaking community as my self-esteem plummeted. I also became anxious about going out and began staying in my apartment for days (sometimes a week or longer) at a time.
As an English speaker married to a Genevois, I was living between 2 worlds that were coexisting, but rarely interacting. I used my blog as a way to meet new people and as I met more and more people I began connecting them to each other. This behavior is natural to me and that was when I began to feel my best. Through my blog, I met someone who introduced me to my friend Olga Baranova. Once a foreigner and now a local, Olga had the same questions as I did: how cool would it be if locals could introduce newcomers to their new homes? Could we help to foster greater understanding between the two? Could we actually help people to find new friendships? Could we ultimately help to ease the integration process for everyone? How can we have a positive impact on the community? How could we help people to discover, then, appreciate their differences?
From these questions, adoptanexpat.ch was born. We launched the first version of our platform in September 2016 and are working to connect people in real and direct ways.
The concept is simple: create a free profile which includes your status as a local or someone who wants to become a local, a picture of yourself, the languages you speak, your hobbies and interests, anything else you would like to share about yourself and that’s it- start messaging potential friends!
I have experienced first-hand the benefits of adoptanexpat.ch. When we kicked off this project, I was another lonely wife without a job (I didn’t speak enough French to work in communications) searching for anything that would make me feel like I was a part of Geneva. Using the platform, I was able to meet some wonderful locals who were enthusiastic about spending time with me and teaching me about this beautiful city. I went on tours of new neighborhoods, shared meals where I was able to try new foods and exchange stories and some people even showed me museums, libraries and other cultural hubs.
Throughout, I was able to practice more and more French and gave others the opportunity to practice speaking English with a native speaker who is also an English teacher. I was truly exchanging with people, as they were just as curious about me: where I come from, cultural differences between my first home in the U.S. and my adopted home in Geneva and my life experiences.
Olga and I are striving to build a bridge, which connects two communities that exist in the same space without intermingling. We read every single email, consider every suggestion and make improvements as best and quickly as we can. Now that the platform has been live for more than 6 months, we are working behind the scenes to implement the suggestions we received and we’ve seen membership growth as a result.
We are also currently working to build a team to continue enhancing the experience for participants. We are exploring ways to improve the website, create engaging content and host events both online and in neighborhoods around Geneva. While we have started this journey, we don’t want to go on it alone. We sincerely enjoy and encourage participation from the adoptanexpat.ch community. We are taking every opportunity to learn as we grow in Geneva and we hope that we will eventually be able to expand our network to other cities. We believe that this platform can be beneficial to far more cities than just Geneva and we’ve been told so. It is a goal that we are working towards and hope that you’ll join us on the journey.
If you would like to join our growing community of several hundred locals and foreigners seeking to ease the integration process, we invite you to register on the website at www.adoptanexpat.ch and like our Facebook group for event and community updates.