Aita Flury was an exchange student from Switzerland who lived with us for the school year 1985-1986. She spoke German and came here to have the opportunity to learn English. We, in America, are fortunate because English has become the universal language for business people to use when doing transactions with people from other countries.
Her stay with us was a good learning experience for us as well as for her, and I’m thankful we’ve kept in contact. We’ve visited her in Switzerland and she’s been back here to visit us. Email has made communication easy and she told us in her recent one of her that she was currently housing a Ukrainian refugee.
Valentyna lived in Odessa, Ukraine, and left soon after recent the Russian invasion of her country began. She went first to Poland, then to Berlin, Germany, and on to Zurich, Switzerland. Over 40,000 refugees have been registered in Switzerland; children, women and elderly men — men between the ages of 18 and 60 can’t leave their country, they must stay and help with the war.
Aita read an article in the newspaper and saw an appeal on TV about a refugee organization named Campax that was looking for places to house the masses of refugees that were coming — and are still coming. Aita immediately decided to offer her a room in her small apartment. She made arrangements and picked up Valentyna, a 48-year-old unmarried woman, at the refugee center in Zurich on March 15.
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Taking in a refugee is not easy; not easy for the refugee or the host. Valentyna came with little clothing, so getting spring clothes was one of the first things that she had to be done. Valentyna cannot speak any German and her English de ella is very limited, so there’s little conversation between them. Therefore, Aita has not been able to learn her personal history from her or how she feels and thinks about the situation.
Until recently, there has been no one looking out or checking up on Valentyna. Caring for her was Aita’s responsibility for her. Now Switzerland has put an intake program into effect for Ukraine refugees (“S status” meaning shelter status). It gives the refugees a small stipend, health insurance and a free place to live. They are also allowed to work, but not knowing the language presents a problem for many to obtain jobs. Refugees have a difficult situation between trying to integrate and at the same time urgently waiting to go back home.
Meals were a problem the stipend relieved for both of them. Valentyna was accustomed to a different diet from Aita’s. Now Valentyna has money to go to the market to select her food from her, and she does her own cooking from her as well.
All of the European countries have joined together in giving free public transportation to refugees. The countries are doing the best they can to be welcoming and ease the people’s adjustment.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with someone and not be able to communicate, or know how long they may be staying. Aita is an architect and spends all day at work so she isn’t sure what Valentyna does during the day. She has a cellphone and communicates a lot with relatives and friends who are still in Ukraine, or with some who have left and are located in other places. So far, she hasn’t personally visited with anyone.
It’s been an adjustment for both women. The only really good connection they share is with Aita’s dog, Coco. They both love Coco, and Coco has accepted her new roommate from her and loves her back. There is no language barrier with a pet. Everyone needs to give and receive love. Some people have service dogs to aid with their hearing, some aid with blindness, some with anxiety. Coco is a service dog to aid with love.
Aita said, “There are a lot of people who are really in a disastrous situation because of this conflict and I feel very sorry for them. It hasn’t been easy to take in a refugee, but in this very extraordinary situation, I personally see it as an obligation.”
Our recently minister spoke about everybody feeling sorry for themselves some of the time, but when we think about what is happening in Europe, it wakes us up and makes us appreciate how fortunate we Americans are. Those folks really do have something to feel sorry for themselves about, we have blessings to count.
Carole Gariepy is a Phillipston resident and author of “Dragging Gerry around the World” and “Why Go There?”