Not One of Us

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Ohannes Örnek, a Turkish-born 45-year-old assistant manager at a local department store, is not happy. With his wife Seta and two young daughters, he has lived in Emmen, a sprawling industrial town on the outskirts of Luzern, for 14 of his 21 years in Switzerland. He speaks fluent Swiss-German, is gainfully employed and feels "very Swiss." But last week he learned that living in Switzerland is not all chocolate and edelweiss. His fellow residents in Emmen decided that the Örnek family was not worthy of Swiss citizenship. The reason: the Örneks were born in the wrong country.

In what some view as an exercise in direct democracy gone too far, voters in Emmen used the ballot box to decide on naturalization requests from 56 foreigners living in their midst. Their decisions were based in large part on a booklet featuring the candidates' photos, as well as personal information such as income, tax status, family history and hobbies. When the ballots were counted, only four Italian families were accepted. All others--including people from the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Hungary and Poland, some of whom were born in Switzerland--were rejected. Örnek, who was born in Istanbul, says the political process that denied his family Swiss citizenship is flawed. "Most of those who voted against me never met me," he says. "I just don't understand how a judgment can be made based solely on where we came from."

But Emmen wholesaler Urs Ischi believes that the applicant's nationality is a crucial point. "Many of us feel that people from outside Western Europe have a different culture and mentality," Ischi explains, "and that they do not make an effort to fit in. It's one thing for them to live here. It's something else to give them a Swiss passport and the right to vote." Ischi says that making the candidate's personal history available to every registered voter in Emmen makes perfect sense in a city where 26% of the 27,000 inhabitants are foreign-born. "If you invite somebody to your house, you should be able to choose who the guests will be," he says. "How else can we know their background, whether they have criminal records, are financially solvent and not at risk of becoming a burden to taxpayers?"

Ischi is a member of the right-wing Swiss People's Party, which used anti-foreigner rhetoric to score major gains in the October 1999 parliamentary elections. The fact that the party's views have been likened to those of the Austrian Freedom Party's former leader Jörg Haider doesn't bother Ischi. "Call me a racist if you want," he says. "All I'm trying to do is what's best for Switzerland."

Some 20% of Switzerland's population is, in fact, foreign, one of the highest percentages in Europe. Many immigrants were recruited by the Swiss themselves back in the 1960s and '70s to boost the country's labor force. But those invitations were not open-ended. "We don't want to become a ghetto and we don't want to become a melting pot," Ischi says. "Above all, we want to preserve our culture and our identity for future generations." Though the country has four official languages, Switzerland's multicultural and multilinguistic identity is not readily evident in Emmen. This predominantly Swiss-German-speaking area of central Switzerland, where the nation's statehood and independence were proclaimed in 1291, is considered the cornerstone of the nation's democratic tradition.

But some now feel that decisions made by popular ballot may not always be the way to get things done. "What happened in Emmen proves that direct democracy can infringe on an individual's human rights, and be a very humiliating experience," says Walter Stocker, a language teacher at the town's secondary school. "It also shows that by refusing to accept foreigners we are indeed racist, with a holier-than-thou attitude that borders on arrogance." Even those who claim to remain neutral on the issue regard the high proportion of foreigners as a problem. "My views are not as extreme as other people's," says Cornelia Biefer, a waitress at the Gersag restaurant in downtown Emmen. "But I believe that by limiting the number of immigrants we can get a better grip on the situation."

The town's mayor, Peter Schnellmann, says Emmen is caught in the crossfire of controversy because outsiders do not understand the indigenous grass-roots approach. "We are getting a lot of criticism from outside," he says. "But direct democracy has always worked for us and I don't think [it] can ever be taken too far."

The soft-spoken Örnek reacts with the weariness of someone resigned to the status quo. Standing in an aisle of the Manor department store where he works, he shows signs of the stress he's been under since the results. "This is where my life is. This is my home," he says. "I felt like I belonged here. Now I feel hurt and rejected knowing that people don't want me." He says he and his family will stay in Emmen, but they will not reapply for naturalization. "I don't want to go through this again," he says. "Emotionally, it's just too much to take." The people of Emmen have ordained that Switzerland may be Örnek's home, but it's not his country.