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“I’ve learned to look behind façades”

Elsbeth Kunz has three adult children, is a happy grandmother, and runs her Airbnb business with enthusiasm. And, the trained kindergarten teacher has been a core team member of NOIVA Foundation right from the start. We wanted to learn more about what she actually does and why.

Elsbeth, how did you become involved in helping refugees?
As a board member, I was part of NOIVA right from the start. Our work with refugees started spontaneously during a visit to Jordan because we were so shocked by what we saw. We then quickly formed a small team and have been helping people there as well as we can ever since. Also, here in Switzerland, I often work with refugees. A close friend and I feel strongly about helping young mothers, and we have therefore started a women’s group in our area that meets regularly so that Syrian women can exchange ideas, get support and form friendships.

What is your job at NOIVA today, and what does it mean to you?
I work as a volunteer in the Personnel department. Besides supporting our team in Jordan, I spend a lot of time doing interviews. By now we get 40 to 60 applications for our larger projects, so this involves a considerable amount of work. But it pays to manage the application process well because helpers from Switzerland don’t only need to fit into the team, they also must know what to expect once they’re there. For me, NOIVA has been a stroke of fate. All the contacts I’ve made have enriched my life a lot, and I always enjoy encouraging volunteers and helping them prepare their projects.

What do you like the most about your work?
A highlight for me is always the moment when I greet a group at Zurich Airport on their return from a project. I make it a point to be there whenever I can. There’s no way to describe what I seen in volunteers’ faces when they return. Those who set out to help others always return with a sense of fulfilment and gratitude.

Why should a helper travel so far and spend so much money? Wouldn’t it make more sense to help refugees here in Switzerland?
These are two different situations, and we shouldn’t mix up their causes and effects. We believe in the importance of helping Syrian refugees in Jordan because they know the language, culture and religion there. Even though they may lack a lot of materials, they often have it easier than their compatriots Europe.
When we consider our short-term assignment abroad, thinking of the situation purely in material terms is not enough. Many of our volunteers have found their stay in Jordan to be transformational. Once back in Switzerland, they have started to become active here, too. This type of change cannot be quantified in monetary terms. I am convinced that we as Swiss people and as a country will be better off if we look beyond our own patch and spend more time helping people in need. You will always get something back, also if it’s not what you had expected.

How has your attitude towards refugees changed in recent years?
I’ve learned to look behind façades. In Switzerland, we’re generally uncomfortable with the unknown. Previously, when I saw a woman in a Niqab* I would only see the veil. Today, I’m more aware of the expression that shines through in the eyes. When I meet someone, I no longer perceive him or her as a refugee or a native, as a foreigner or a Swiss person, or as a Muslim or a Christian, but as a person. Even though we may look different, we all have the same needs.

Is there a story that moved you especially?
Yes. I was once sitting next to an elderly woman during one of our cultural events in Jordan. She suddenly started rummaging for photos and showed me in tears the various members of her family. Then she told me her story: She had left her house in her village to go grocery shopping, and when she returned not one of her family, which was large, was still alive… The only thing I could do at the moment was to hold her in my arms and cry with her.

What do you wish for NOIVA for the new year?
That we don’t always have to chase after money. A lot of things work very well, and we appreciate all the success we’ve had. But we need more supporters who will help us to shoulder the financial burden. That’s why we are currently looking intensively for sponsors who will contribute a fixed monthly amount.

 

* A Niqab covers a woman’s mouth and nose and can also be worn in addition to a headscarf.