Elizabeth Neuenschwander – Switzerland

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “We should remember that we will not live forever, that at one point we will pass away. And therefore, it is useless to accumulate too much for ourselves. It is better to create something valuable”.

She says also: “At home, we were never rich. And still, I realized very early on that we are all quite wealthy in Switzerland. I am convinced that we do not need everything for ourselves. So let us share with other people, living in other places that are less privileged. We should not leave people there in poverty and misery. With our wealth and know-how, we can help them to help themselves.” Under this motto, Elizabeth Neuenschwander has been working for almost 50 years and still does so today.

And she says: “I always worked best when they let me do my job and nobody asked how I did it. I went with an order and strived towards my own goals. That is my talent: working on a grassroots level where you have direct contact with the people, where you can teach them the most efficient and practical way to achieve something. That is the way I was taught, that is what made my professional life successful”.

Elisabeth Neuenschwander - Swiss two.jpg

Elizabeth Neuenschwander – Switzerland

Elizabeth Neuenschwander has spent almost 50 years of her life working abroad. She became a dressmaker and left Emmental, a remote Swiss region, at age 19. Since the late 1950s, she has worked in developing countries for different organizations: with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India, as a nutrition advisor in Biafra and Nigeria. Those were only a few stations on her way from a dressmaker to a project manager. Since 1986, she has worked in Quetta, Pakistan, where she founded self-help projects for Afghan refugees. In 2001, the Canton of Berne gave her the renowned Trudi-Schlatter Award.

She was born with a harelip. At primary school, her teacher told her that because of her bad pronunciation she would never be able to learn a foreign language. Therefore, Elizabeth’s parents did not send her to the western part of Switzerland to learn French. This was one of the starting points of her life-long struggle for independence and self-determination. In the meantime she has proved better. Nowadays she communicates in several languages: besides English and French, in languages that are not at all common in the Western part of the world: in Arabic, Tibetan and Urdu.

She was grown up in a very modest household. She was trained as a dressmaker in the neighboring village of Schangnau and left the Emmental shortly after graduation. When explaining why she left Switzerland so early to work in developing countries, she refers to the place where she comes from: a rural area, marked by an agricultural and simple life-style:

Elizabeth Neuenschwander left Schangnau almost 60 years ago to discover the world. What is her link to the Emmental, where she grew up, today? “I have my roots there”, she explains while sitting in front of the Women’s Center in Quetta, Pakistan near the Afghan border. Here she has been running her private self-help survival projects since 1986. Here she offers school, training and work to Afghan refugees. Although the situation is now getting better in their homeland, there are still many who remain displaced in border regions.

With the active participation of the refugees, the organization has developed step-by-step into a system of training and work, helping the disadvantaged to achieve an independent existence. About 300 Afghan women in four refugee camps near Quetta practice traditional embroidery, which is their only means of support. Material is purchased by experts at the Women’s Training Center, where washing of the embroidered pieces, color dying and sewing the blouses and shawls is organized. This Women’s Training Center has been established in Quetta especially for Afghan girls leaving school.

Their status as refugees denies them the right to further education and training. The main subject is sewing, others include health education and adaptation to life situations. Here the embroidered pieces made by the refugee women out in the camps are stitched into blouses. Under the supervision of a teacher, the advanced students also sew for their own customers, to earn some money of their own.

Back in Switzerland, Elizabeth Neuenschwander sells the blouses and shawls when she does her presentations invited by different institutions. Being a passionate photographer, she also shows pictures of bridges, one of her favorite subjects, of Afghan refugee women sewing, of the beautiful landscape that offers wild deserts and some of the world’s highest mountains and of the people of Pakistan. She answers questions from the audience, which is usually deeply impressed by the 76 year old woman and her devotion to a humanitarian cause: “I convince them with my work, without dramatizing the poor situation of women. As soon as Swiss people see my pictures, how people live and work in these camps, they are convinced and help in one or another form. I do not argue, I just tell them about family structures, the living standards of Afghan refugees in Pakistan”. Elizabeth’s family members, sisters-in-law, nieceS and friends are a great help in selling the Afghan products in Switzerland. And still aside from funding, Elizabeth Neuenschwander wishes more people would help.

In 1993, Elizabeth Neuenschwander opened a school for Afghan refugee children in Quetta as well. Today around 800 children attend the lessons held by 27 teachers in shifts. Boys and girls study together. The school is recognized by the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan. These children would not have any other access to education, since Pakistan does not allow refugees to attend the official schools and only a small minority of the Afghan community can afford private schooling. “That is the reason why we still have so many school children,” Elizabeth Neuenschwander explains, “before they return to their homeland. Even the few children who went to private school come to us. In Pakistani schools they do not learn the Afghan languages Dari and Pashto”.

Looking back, the Swiss woman points out that for most of her life she concentrated on women: “One of my first jobs abroad was with the International Committee of the Red Cross ICRC in Nepal. There I taught girls and women to knot carpets”. Out of this project a whole industry grew, that was too big for the Red Cross. It exceeded the purpose of that organization. So the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation SDC took over.

Throughout her professional life, Elizabeth Neuenschwander worked for several international and national organizations such as SDC, ICRC, the Swiss Red Cross and the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF in Asian and African developing countries. Close to the people at a grassroots level, that is the place where Elizabeth feels at home, much more than at cocktail parties. ?I am not very good when it comes to small talk and socializing,” Elizabeth Neuenschwander admits, aware of the fact that this inability ? under certain circumstances ? might be a disadvante.

Talking about obstacles to her work, Elizabeth Neuenschwander mentions the fact that many projects are developed on the desktop of somebody who has no idea about the real problems that people are facing in daily life. “Bureaucracy,” she mentions “is another problem and sometimes corruption within organizations. But often, the problem is not the organization, the problem are local authorities who prevent you from doing your work.”

And then she speaks about political and cultural obstacles. Pakistan is a country where men decide women’s fates, where men are not at all in favor of women’s education. “Working with women first of all in Islamic countries with patriarchal structures confronts you with specific problems. For example, the women in Afghan refugee camps are not allowed to leave their home. There you have to convince the men in charge about your intentions. I was faced with the situation that some politicians would not allow work with the women in the refugee camps. I convinced a man in charge, that it was an advantage, not only for the women, when they earned some money. They let me start with a few widows and I proved that our work did not cause any harm, was nothing disreputable.”

During her career, Elizabeth Neuenschwander had to develop her own strategies in dealing with difficult men: “You go your way without arguing too much. You better look for those who are less severe, less strict. You only prevail if you keep your goal in mind and if you go ahead without looking back”.

Perseverance and obstinacy are two attributes (among others) that fit Elizabeth Neuenschwander in a perfect way.

Elizabeth Neuenschwander regards herself as a helper, as a link between two worlds, who wants to raise understanding in the West about the situation of the refugees in the camps near the Afghan border. And she is a fighter for a more balanced world. For this reason she works under difficult circumstances. And sometimes she also suffers. In the summer of 2003 her Afghan assistant died. She had been director of the Women?s Center in Quetta and Elizabeth Neuenschwander is convinced that her death was not an accident: “She was a brave young women who did not fear the public, who dared to go out to the camps to see the women. She was regarded by her family as a great help. From time to time her father still cries about her sudden death and asks again and again why he did not protect her better. I try to comfort him as well as her sisters and brothers. In the meantime, her twin sister has taken over. But she is much more careful. She does not go out to the bazaar and to the camps on her own. Her sister liked to be in public, to attend meetings. She paid for a woman’s unusual behavior”.

Elizabeth Neuenschwander has found her own way to cope with situations like this. “I find support in my Christian faith and I still believe in certain values transmitted by my parents”.

In yearly reports Elizabeth Neuenschwander informs her Swiss donors about her projects in Pakistan. Over the years, the number has grown to 600 addresses all over Switzerland. These are not only donors but also customers, who buy calendars, postcards, blouses or shawls. In her reports, Elizabeth Neuenschwander never asks for money, she just offers her products. In September 2006, she will turn 76. Who will take over when she cannot manage to travel between Switzerland and Pakistan any more? “I have not been looking for a successor so far. The school could be integrated into Afghanistan schools. We are recognized by the Afghan Ministry of Education. As soon as the refugees return to their home country, they can be integrated into the Afghan schools. We already have two schools in Afghanistan. I think the best would be for my Afghan director to take over the school projects.”

Some questions remain: Who will raise the money in the West when Elizabeth Neuenschwander cannot do it anymore, who will cross the bridge between Pakistan and Switzerland in her place? What would be the source of finances for her Women’s Center and school projects in Quetta? (Read all on 1000peacewomen 2005).

Lies: Afghanische Flüchtlinge – Hilfe zur Selbsthilfe.

Afghan Refugees – Aiming at Self-Help! In Quetta, a town in Pakistan close to the Afghan border, many Afghan refugees have been hosted since the 80ies. They are fighting day by day to survive. Since 1986, Ms. Elizabeth Neuenschwander has set up – actively supported by the refugees themselves – a reciprocal work and education system which is aiming at economical independency of the refugees, consisting of:

  • - a primary school for children of Afghan refugees in Quetta, Pakistan;
  • - embroidery work of women in the desert camps;
  • - sewing courses for disabled men;
  • - a training center for young women who have finished primary school.

Elizabeth Neuenschwander and her team in Pakistan provide the Afghan refugees with the infrastructure necessary to make their own living make sure that the manufactured products are being sold in Western Europe. (full text).

There are humans, who intersperse themselves under far more difficult circumstances than the company Statron. To them the 76-jährige Elizabeth Neuenschwander belongs. With her donation „assistance to the self-help “cares for it, completely after the slogan Non stop power, in the border area Pakistan/Afghanistan of 1400 pupils and pupils, in order to provide for them by education a better initial position. Under their guidance also young adults secure themselves a modest income, which permits them a human being-worthy life by sewing and Sticken. Traditionally we support their donation with donations and the sales of their products. It will participate even also in our anniversary cause. (text)

Lies: 1000 Frauen … (Für was wir kämpfen).

Lies: Sechs aus tausend.

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