“In a city like Zurich, there are very few people who were actually born here. Almost everyone has moved here, some from a neighbouring town, others from a completely different continent.”
Christof Meier, Head of the Integration Office of the City of Zurich, investigates what exactly this means for our shared sense of community. In an interview with Valeriana, he tells us how to translate the idea of a well-integrated society into practice — and why instead of mere tolerance we urgently need a real sense of togetherness.
Valeriana: Mister Meier, what is your personal background and how did it lead you to your current position as Head of the Integration Office of the City of Zurich?
Christof Meier: I am a trained secondary school teacher and made an unsolicited application to the AOZ (Asylum Organisation Zurich) during my second degree in ethnology. Two days later, I got hired as a night guard in a transit centre, and three months later, I started work on my first special tasks for AOZ. I stuck with it, and, at some point, I became head of the then-new psychosocial service. In 2000, I moved to the Federal Commission for Foreigners to set up the first national integration office, and in 2006 I finally came to the city of Zurich.
Valeriana: What motivates you to help people going through the integration process?
Christof Meier: My work deals with social issues and tries to make constructive and future-oriented contributions to improve the coexistence between people. What’s especially interesting to me is that there are so many different topics here and new ones are constantly being added. That is why I find my work as interesting as I find it meaningful. It’s a real joy and a great privilege.
Valeriana: What are the City of Zurich’s strategy and goals when it comes to supporting integration?
Christof Meier: Roughly speaking, there are three basic objectives behind our approach to integration. Firstly, the programmes and services provided by the city government should be laid out in such a way that they reach the whole population, meaning that they should also reach foreign language speakers and newcomers. Secondly, we try to provide supplementary programmes where they are needed, for example, language lessons or guidance upon arrival. And thirdly, we have projects and activities related to living together in the city. This can be about how to best live side by side or — even more important — how to live together.
Valeriana: Can you name specific measures and programmes?
Christof Meier: In terms of the first point I had mentioned, for example, a couple that has newly arrived cannot wait to attend their parenting counselling service until they have learned to speak German. Such services have to be laid out in such a way that they are available for everyone. However, this isn’t really something that we should be doing at the Integration Office, this is just what professional public service looks like. In terms of the second point about language learning, we supplement private language courses where needed. The courses we support, for example, usually also include childcare, because many foreign language speakers are dependent on it and the market can’t provide this due to cost reasons. And in terms of the third point, we support groups and organisations in realising intercultural projects. On top of that, we also deal with higher-level issues such as racial discrimination.
Valeriana: In your view, what is especially important for integration work to be successful?
Christof Meier: Above all, it is important that integration policy is based on both realpolitik on the one hand and social policy on the other hand. By that, I mean that the question is never whether or not we want the newcomers. They are already here. We’ve got the population that we’ve got. That is the starting point of any integration policy. And social policy because it concerns almost every aspect of our daily lives. It starts with prenatal courses and ends with funeral options that respect religious or cultural specificities. So, what’s needed is an attitude that views our society’s diversity as given, and which is oriented towards our common future. In that sense, successful integration work supports the individual and, in parallel, also works towards lifting social barriers to integration.
Valeriana: How important is it in your opinion to promote social interaction and contact between immigrants and the local population? And how can this be implemented?
Christof Meier: In a city like Zurich, there are very few people who were actually born here. Almost everyone has moved here, some from a neighbouring town, others from a completely different continent. They all need social contacts and friends, in other words, opportunities to meet people and do activities together. So, when we think about how to support the integration of those who have come to us from abroad, then our own experiences can be very valuable here. We know, for example, when we start a new job or join a club, key to our successful integration into said groups is whether we are welcomed as opposed to someone telling us that we’re not wanted. So, what it’s really about is just everyday life, as well as our neighbourhoods, clubs, public spaces, as well as openness and curiosity and a common language.
Valeriana: What can we do as individuals to help people integrate? What would be your call to action?
Christof Meier: No one is friends with everyone or even in close contact with everyone. But if we choose not to stay in our closest bubbles, but to exchange with “completely different” people on the basis of openness and curiosity, then this will result in a truly interconnected city. The goal should be for everyone who lives here to feel like they’re part of Zurich, independently of any other affiliations they may have — and we really have to make it possible for our fellow city dwellers to feel this way.
Photos courtesy of the Integration Office of the City of Zurich