This library is undoubtedly the only one in French-speaking Switzerland where you can find works written in Uighur, Pashto, baka, marathi, Inuit and other rarities. A total of 282 languages are listed there. Where do we do better? “Probably nowhere,” replies Adriana mumenthaler.
It can be found in this basement on rue de Carouge in Geneva. A spiral staircase leading to an anthill. It moves, it gets busy, it calls out, and all this while respecting barrier gestures. “The gestures of the gatekeeper,” laughs a young volunteer who manages traffic. The place that bears the name of Cultural Integration Center (CIC) of the Red Cross claims 1900 members.
For the most part, foreigners who have recently arrived in Switzerland, asylum seekers, homeless people and many of those South American or Asian housekeepers that we saw during the first confinement lining up in front of the swimming pool of the Vernets to seize a food parcel. “The population that comes here is most often precarious,” confirms Adriana Mumenthaler. She has been running the “basement” for twenty-two years. At the end of March, she retires and will therefore leave her post “with a big heart like that”. Three thousand pounds when he arrived in 1998, 50,000 now, a handful of volunteers yesterday, 180 today.
But the numbers don’t matter to him. The services offered to beneficiaries, who must pay an annual contribution of 20 francs, prevail: French lessons, help with writing letters and CVs, help with homework for children, Wednesday stories, pre-integration workshops , referral to social services, etc. “We also visit homes for asylum seekers, PC shelters and remand centers to bring books in different languages, offer comfort and get these people out of their isolation a bit,” says Adriana Mumenthaler. Little woman who radiates as much energy as she empathizes.
The eye shines and the quick phrasing is punctuated with an accent that we do not know where it was caught. We think of Italy, without conviction. “Argentina”, she enlightens us. Of course, since, according to an adage, Argentines are Italians who speak Spanish! She was an architect there, her husband too. She is a native of Buenos Aires, he is Bernese. Expatriation brought about meeting, effusion, marriage. Two children were born. The crisis in the country and a record inflation rate of 96% pushed the family to pack their bags and migrate to Switzerland.
Parents must continue to speak their language, read books in their language, transmit to their children the original language which is that of the heart, of emotion and of reference.
Friends lend them an apartment in Plainpalais, then they rent in Pâquis – the ideal way to integrate, according to Adriana – and finally move to Carouge. Both work in an architectural firm. One day, she walks along 50, rue de Carouge, observes the magnificent facade of the building, sees this lighted window. She goes down and discovers what she calls interculturality. She became a volunteer, took charge of the library, began to complete the collection of works in Latin languages then filled the shelves in other languages.
In 1998, she was appointed head of the integration center and was employed. His dedication, competence and philosophy won over the people of the Red Cross. She explains: “Learning French is good, but parents must continue to speak their language, read books in their language, transmit to their children the original language which is that of the heart, of the emotion and landmark. ” Continues nicely: “A book is a weapon which commands respect, makes dignified and brings fantasy.”
To the rhythm of wars
Where does she find them, all these treasures? “People on the road bring us back, diplomats too, but our reservoir remains the Geneva Book Fair, we walk around the stands as if we were doing our errands. Example: one year from Canada, we found a book in Inuit. ” It is present in the shelving. Never came out. “But he’s here,” Adriana smiles.
Novels, essays, poems and comics are here the barometers of the upheavals of the world. They come and go to the rhythm of crises and wars. The Balkans in the 1990s and its flood of refugees, then Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea, Somalia, South Saharan Africa, etc. We are here at the Red Cross, therefore neutral. The arrivals are peeled. “Political or religious propaganda books have no place there,” warns Adriana Mumenthaler.
His last year at the head of the CIC was not the easiest, because of the pandemic. Two volunteers died from covid. “And the inequalities have become even more evident,” she says. The doors remained open, except from mid-March to the end of April. “It was necessary to help these people write cover letters, because many had lost their jobs. So that they can also break the isolation by sharing a book and find support for their children, ”she recalls. Adriana Mumenthaler does not quite leave the rue de Carouge: she was in the beginning a simple volunteer, she will be again.
1956 Born in Buenos Aires.
1991 Arrival in Switzerland.
1998 Recruited by the Geneva Red Cross.
2021 Leaves the Cultural Integration Center.