A look into the life of Rafiq A. Tschannen, your Associate Chief Editor of The Muslim Times. (Cultural shock: From Expatriate Life in Bangkok to Humanitarian Relief in Kosovo).
Well, after ten years in Bangkok my job came to an end. When I was employed my employer needed a ‘German speaker’ as Finance Director, because we reported to the Head Office in Germany and Switzerland. In the meantime the company set up a regional headquarter in Singapore and from now on we needed to report to Singapore. An English speaker would do, therefore, and an Indian to replace a Swiss was cheaper. (The Production manager from Germany was replaced by a German speaking South African, who like me in my Pakistan job, did not know what ‘expatriate salaries’ he should ask for. The Sales manager was replaced by a German appreciating the beauty and beauties of Thailand and did not care how much/little he was being paid).
In the meantime my second wife had a daughter, Nafisa. She was just a few months old, when I lost the job in Bangkok. It was a bit complicated to reach with two families to Switzerland and therefore I sent the junior family back home to her parents. She was of course worried, because some friends told her that ‘he will never come and collect you again’.
In fact the thought never occurred to me, nor to my first wife actually, that I should not collect her when circumstances permitted. Logically it was easier and cheaper to stay with the parents for the time being. But I suppose her worry of possibly being abandoned was also understandable.
Well, our daughter Nafisa was born (of my second wife) and we had some frustrating bureaucratic experiences. According to Swiss law at the time a child of a ‘not registered / recognized marriage’ should have the nationality of the mother and according to Indonesian law at the time the child should have the nationality of the father! Consequently our daughter was in fact stateless! A very strange thing to happen to a Swiss father who was confident that he had thought of everything…
Due to the good relations that the child’s mother had with staff at the Indonesian Embassy an Officer there was kind enough to enter the child in the Indonesian passport of the mother ‘for the time being, until you sort out your problems’. She was however not registered as an Indonesian citizen and when the passport came up for renewal the entry was not transferred to the mother’s new passport.
The Swiss law at the time was that a Swiss father of a child of a foreign mother can apply for ‘facilitated (speedier) naturalization. In other words at the time of birth she was not yet a Swiss citizen. Consequently I applied for this facilitated naturalization. I was told it will take about six months. When I checked with the Embassy after a few months I found that my application was still on the desk of some officer and was not submitted to Switzerland. I think the reason was that there was some ‘rumour’ that I was married, which would / could be a crime according to Swiss law. Consequently the desk officer did not know how to react and, in good old bureaucratic manner, just left the file on his desk. When I checked up on it he was on leave and some other officer apologized and sent it on to Switzerland.
Consequently it took about one year for the application to be approved. By that time I was in Kosovo and the newly opened Consulate in Prishtina was happy that they could issue their first Swiss Passport there.
(Later on the Indonesians changed their nationality law also. A child of an Indonesian mother could now apply for Indonesian nationality also. Consequently Nafisa also got an Indonesian passport. The law however states that by the age of 18 the young lady should decide which passport she wants to keep. My view is that this is too early, because at that time she will not yet know where her future husband might want to take her. Well, we will see about that later).
After my job came to an end I remained in Bangkok for a couple of months looking for other jobs. I had an interview with BMW for the position of Finance Director for a new assembly plant. As I had already taken part in opening a new production plant in Thailand with my previous employer I thought I was well qualified for this position also.
The problem was that the German Human Resources Manager who came to interview me was married with an Indian. When she heard that my wife was from Pakistan she remarked that Pakistan and India were still shooting along their common border. Surely I thought this was not my fault (I find it silly, anyway), but it was enough: Our ‘personal chemistry’ did not match and I did not get the job. (May be she did not like my first names of ‘Mohammad Rafiq Ahmad’, but we never really know why we did not get any particular job).
One local University did offer me a position, however, the salary was on the ‘local pay scale’ and I did not really know how I could manage my two families that way.
And so we came to stay with my sister Elisabeth in Switzerland. I was on the internet sending out job applications for a few weeks, a few hours each day. I was in my sister’s house together with my wife Nilofar and my wife Neni with Nafisa were in Scotland, with her sister.
Times changed. I got my first job in Hotel Handeck as Front Office Clerk after one phone call. I got my job in Swissair Zurich after walking into their office. I got my job with Swissair Paris after walking into their office. I got the job with Zublin Pakistan after one letter. I got the job as Chief Accountant with the Afghan-Swiss Trading Company after one letter. I got the job as Managing Director’s Assistant with Union Trading company of Ghana Ltd. after about ten letters. I got the job as Finance Director with Panalpina World Transport Nigeria Ltd. (and later on in Zurich) after the same ten letters where I got the UTC job. I got the job as Finance Director in Jolly Beach Resort after may be 3 letters. I got the job with Matthys Kies AG in Zurich after applying to about 5 vacancies (and got a second offer in Geneva as well, which I turned down, because I did not want to let my children face the new challenge of having schooling in the French language). I got the job as Finance Director with REHAU LTD. in Bangkok after looking for Betel leaves for my dear mother-in-law in a Thai shop in Zurich. And now I was looking for a job on the internet for hours every day and – nothing – for several weeks.
In the meantime my junior family was staying in Edinburgh. My daughter started to walk and I missed the first steps.
Our daughter Aischa was/is living in Istanbul. The city was struck by a severe earthquake. Allah was kind enough to give me the idea to inquire with Caritas Switzerland whether they are going to assist there. I told them that I would like to help them with their emergency relief efforts and that I was good in controlling funds and spending other people’s money. (or something like that). They called me for an interview.
Well, there was no job opening in Istanbul, but there was the next best thing: A job opening as Financial Controller of the Caritas rebuilding project in Prizren, Kosovo.
The bombing of Serbia was about to end, Kosovo was ‘liberated’ and to a large extend destroyed. Caritas Switzerland was planning to rebuild a few thousand houses that were burned down by the retreating Serbian army.
Well, coming from a higher middle class expatriate position in Bangkok and going to an NGO position in Kosovo was rather a cultural shock. From two luxurious apartments in Bangkok to a humble one in Prizren was also quite a cultural shock. And from a nice office with a nice Secretary in Bangkok to a shared office in Prizren was again a cultural shock. The salary package was a Swiss salary package, not the expatriate package of Thailand. But it was the first one and only job offer that I got after looking for a new position for about 4 months. So of course I took it.
I got the contract as Chief Accountant for Caritas Switzerland in Kosovo. Caritas Switzerland was also the ‘Lead Agency’ for the whole Caritas Network. That means they were coordinating the activities of all other Caritas Organizations, such as Caritas Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and also CRS Catholic Relief Services of USA. The ultimate Caritas Headquarter is in the Vatican, but each national Caritas Organization was very independent. They had to look for their own funds and consequently had their own policies.
Caritas Switzerland obtained their funding mainly from the Swiss Television Foundation ‘Glueckskette’, which managed to obtain large funds. Many Kosovar workers were in Switzerland and consequently most Swiss knew some one from Kosovo and consequently donations rolled in. Further funding came from various Governments such as Sweden, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, smaller amounts from France. Less than 10% of funding came from Catholic sources. ‘Glueckskette’ clearly stipulated that they did not want any ‘Catholic’ stuff in the projects that they were funding. Consequently not more than 10% of funds were used for Catholic villages and the rest were sort of ‘neutral’. Mostly supposed to be Muslim Albanian Kosovar villages.
I am writing ‘supposed to be’, because Kosovo looks back to a long Communist presence, during which time all religion was pushed down. Consequently in fact not many Kosovars were practicing Muslims or regular in prayers. I understand even the one who was supposed to be the Chief Imam, approved by the Government, thought that going to the Mosque five times a day is a bit much and consequently in his Mosque only Friday prayers were regularly held.
The ‘secret agenda’ of Caritas Switzerland however was the same as all other Caritas Organizations: to strengthen the Catholic church in Kosovo. Just after the departure of the Serbs initially the Catholic church in Kosovo was a bit ‘suspect’. They had good relations in the past with the Serbs, but now they tried to have good relations with the new reality in town: the Albanian-speaking mostly Muslim Kosovars.
About ten percent of the funds of the first year came from Catholic funds and about ten percent of the funds were utilized for Catholic villages. Nothing wrong with that.
After one year the Chief Delegate left and the new one soon had problems with the Swiss staff. The desk officer from Switzerland came and asked me whose fault the fighting was and I mentioned that if you want peace then the Chief Delegate and one of the Project Officers should be replaced. They followed my advice and by default I became the Chief Delegate.
I think Caritas Switzerland in a way was happy with me, the Swiss Muslim, as the Chief Delegate, because they could now pretend that they were totally impartial. In fact the whole Kosovo was quite impressed by this fact and appreciated it.
At first our offices were in a large warehouse, which CRS, the American Catholic Relief Services had rented. They were supplying food for the first winter of ‘liberation’. At the same time CRS was financing a million dollar project to renovate an office building within the Bishop’s Compound. As soon as that renovation was complete we moved in there.
Even though Caritas Switzerland was supposed to not promote Catholic links, just the fact that our millions were being spent out of the Bishop’s compound I suppose strengthened his position in the country. He looked ‘supportive’ to the Albanian Kosovar public.
When the Serbs retreated and the ‘Allied forces’ bombed Serbia for a few weeks the Serbs took the time to burn down as many Kosovar Albanian houses as they could. Thousands of them. The Caritas project was to rebuild them. I think we rebuilt about 3500 of them over a period of 3 years that I was there.
Regarding this bombing: During the period of bombing the Serbs killed many Kosovars and burned down thousands of houses. If the allied forces would have marched in immediately they decided to intervene thousands of lives (and thousands of houses) could have been saved. But of course they were more concerned with one or two of their own lives rather than with thousands of other peoples’ lives.
The work was done like this: We would come to the house with an architect. He would look at the building and see if some parts can still be used. He would then draw up a bill-of-quantity specifying how much building materials it would need to reconstruct.
We would first deliver the materials for the foundation. After inspecting that this was done (by the Beneficiary himself) correctly we would deliver the bricks for the walls, when the walls were completed we would inspect again and deliver the materials for the roof. Most work was done by the beneficiaries themselves. When needed we would supply some professional help.
At first I reached alone. My first wife was in Switzerland still and my second one in Scotland. I tried to find two apartments, but with thousands of houses burned down this was a difficult task. I did find one. The owner had moved from Prizren to Prishtina and the apartment was vacant.
The neighbors in the house were very helpful. For instance when I happened to visit our Head Office in Switzerland and my wife in Zurich the neighbors would invite my junior family and help them to pass the lonely time. At one time I went to Zurich for Eid and such festival days are always difficult for a polygamist, because part of his family will have to celebrate alone. The neighbors took my young family with them to their grand father’s house to have Eid lunch there. A little bit better than being at home alone.
After bombing Serbia for about 6 weeks the ‘Coalition forces’ came in to occupy Kosovo. The United Nations formed the Government. It is probably the first time that the UN actually formed a Government of a newly ‘independent’ state, well, not yet a legal state, but a territory at least.
The Swiss Army also took part in it. One Swiss Officer told me that ‘we were told that this was a temporary Mission. Therefore we came with removable mobile homes. We ‘set up camp’ within a week and we could remove everything within a week’. The Swiss Officer was wondering why the Americans constructed permanent structures. It was said that they signed a 99 year lease for their military base, probably with option to renew (what the British forgot in Hong Kong).
One US General was so happy about their base. When the US President visited he told him that ‘one year in Kosovo is equal to two years back home’ in respect of training of the US soldiers. Great achievement. And cheaper than the bases in Germany.
One incident which did not make it into any press: The US army ‘arrested’ or ‘kidnapped’ several persons. One was an Iranian dentist, working for an Iranian (government sponsored) NGO, one was a Saudi Architect, building several schools financed by the Islamic Development Bank and one was a simple Syrian sweet maker who had a sweet shop in town. They were picked up at work. The Syrian for instance simply did not come home and the wife had no clue where he was.
In the case of the Saudi a high level Saudi delegation came and wanted to make an official opening ceremony of a school. They requested that the Architect should be released in time. He was not.
I asked by e-mail the Iranian NGO if they had any News of their man. They had not. The Iranian representative thanked me for my inquiry. He said I was the one and only person who bothered to ask.
After about 3 weeks all 3 were released without any charge. Well, they did not have any hidden agenda and were actually what they said they were. My interpretation is that the arrest were simply made for the Americans to train their soldiers a bit in interrogation techniques.
I used to sit together with the Bishop sometimes drinking Turkish coffee. In Kosovo it was permissible to call Turkish coffee Turkish coffee. In Greece they drink the same thing but beware! Do not call it Turkish coffee, they want it to be called Greek coffee.
During my talks with the bishop we solved the future of Kosovo during the course of finishing the first cup of coffee. We agreed that if both Kosovo and Serbia would become members of the European Union than they could settle their differences as equal partners. A ‘slave / master’ kind of relationship would not lead anywhere, but negotiating on equal terms might.
Economically Kosovo has practically nothing to offer. We have to realize that in Kosovo we did not only have a ‘post-war’ situation but also the effects of the collapse of the Communist Yugoslavia. In Kosovo there were some large textile factories which used to have 2 to 3000 employees. With the collapse of Yugoslavia the market was gone and all had lost their jobs. Even with ‘freedom’ coming up this could not be reversed.
Practically nothing worked in Kosovo. In rural areas (where our projects of reconstruction were ongoing) people had small land holdings. We gave them a pregnant cow. This was something, but not much of course. The small farmers could sort of keep away from starvation, but not much more.
Therefore, the Bishop and I agreed, the only future for Kosovars was to be members of the European Union, so that its labor could move there to work and send the money home.
Well, it has not yet happened. Kosovo is not yet in the European Union. Many Kosovars try to find jobs in Europe, some succeed, many do not.
Well, I did enjoy to be Chief Delegate of Caritas Switzerland and I did enjoy to coordinate the very Catholic Caritas Network. I even made it to the Vatican for a meeting of Caritas Balkan Organizations.
First in that meeting spoke the Caritas Network coordinator for Macedonia, a member of CRS, the American Catholic Relief Service. They had plenty of cash. In Macedonia the work of the Caritas Network was not going well. The Bishop wanted to interfere, the Caritas Organizations while seeking the approval of the bishop could not allow him to interfere and consequently projects were slowed down.
This permitted me to start my presentation with ‘As I have excellent relations with the Bishop of Kosovo…’ the projects in Kosovo were going well.
The main project of Caritas Switzerland was the reconstruction of about 3500 houses. We also had other smaller projects. Agricultural support for the villages we were working in and infrastructure support, such as repair of electrical distribution. We also opened a Kindergarten in Prizren. My daughter Nafisa was able to take advantage of it. We also supplied firewood in large quantities for the first winter.
The relationship with Caritas Luzern was very cordial. It was in fact a pleasure to work for them. Within our staff we had some more or less difficult guys, but we managed to get along (after my predecessor and one project manager had left). We used to go for Coffee breaks to town mostly in the morning and the afternoons. Prizren had peacefully a Catholic Church, an Orthodox Church and a Mosque in the City Center. At the time of my stay in Prizren, with the Serbs mostly gone, the Orthodox Church was closed and protected by the German Army. Later on, after my departure from Kosovo, an Albanian Kosovar gang broke into the Orthodox Church and burned it down. It had coexisted peacefully during the Ottoman empire for hundreds of years but did not survive freedom. The small German Army contingent did not have the courage to fire and were overwhelmed. It happened too quickly for them to get instructions from the Headquarters whether they should use deadly force or not (?!?).
Well, three years into the job with Caritas I was getting worried about my future. Kosovo was their largest project, could they guarantee my future employment. Actually I should not have worried, because of course the Bam earthquake came (in Iran) and later the Pakistan earthquake and then the Tsunami and after that Haiti. There seems to be always employment in the disaster relief.
But anyway I saw an advertisement for Head of Finance and Administration for the International Organization for Migration in Kosovo. The salary would be in dollars and one dollar was SFR 1.78. Consequently I moved on to IOM in Prishtina. Prishtina was not really my dream destination, but I was thinking that after some time I could move elsewhere with IOM. They should have / would have more choices than Caritas.
I must say that I did not really enjoy my work in Prishtina all that much. With Caritas I was the Chief Delegate and here I was ‘only’ the Head of Finance and Administration. I was shown respect, but the relationship in such a large organization was not as cozy as the one in small Caritas. Also the system needed some time to get used to it and to understand it.
My boss was also looking after Macedonia and I also took care of both Kosovo and after a while Macedonia, as the Financial Controller of Macedonia was off on maternity leave.
IOM had some strange projects. When I was introduced around I was shown this and that project and was not introduced to the biggest one: Kosovo Protection Corps. I was just told that ‘they are in this building’. In the KPC project American military personnel were ‘training’ (or ‘brainwashing’) ex Kosovo freedom fighters. They were trained like military but without weapons. I said ‘brainwashing’ because a large team, more than 50, were for instance sent to Georgetown University Summer Camp to learn English. It would of course have been cheaper to bring a couple of teachers to Kosovo. But evidently they should get a good impression of their future ‘masters’ (?).The later President of Kosovo was the team leader in this project.
The relationship between this project and the rest of IOM was not good. I told the IOM staffers however: The Management of IOM has decided to accept this project and therefore we now have to do a good job and not grumble that this is not ‘our kind of project’. On the other hand I told the KPC project staff that your US Government has decided to give this project to IOM. Therefore let’s follow our rules and regulations. I think I improved the situation greatly. When I left the KPC project manager was worried that the situation will revert back to as it was before. I asked him to kindly give me in writing that he thinks I integrated his project well, which he did. Ironic the whole thing, as I am not known as a great US supporter I suppose.
What else can I tell about Kosovo? Prizren was a nice little city with a very Turkish flavour. In fact they do have a Turkish minority, left over from the days of the Ottoman Empire. My accountant was from that community. A very nice guy. He had gone to obtain his University education in Turkey.
Around Prizren there were mountains. We could drive up the mountains for pick-nicks and other outings. In the winter there was snow and people were skiing. On the other side of the mountain, actually in a Serbian enclave, there was even a skiing lift.
Ones it has snowed freshly. It was very nice. The road was cleared up to the top of the mountain. It was not cleared on the other side, as there were Serbs living there and no Albanian would go there (or permitted to go there by the UN military, the German army in this part of the country). Now it was such a nice Sunday that the traffic was totally blocked. I would not be able to leave until all the skiers and onlookers would return to town. We did not come well prepared. We did not have sufficient milk for baby Nafisa. I saw some foreigners coming up from the other side of the mountain and I asked if the road is clear. They said it was ok if you keep to the middle track. What they did not spell out and I was too silly to realize is that it was ok for a four wheel drive but not for a small Caritas car. I drove down and after about one km I got stuck. I could not move. Again and again I was in the ditch.
Some cars (foreigners, 4 wheel drive) came from the other side. They had to help me because I blocked the road. They pulled me out and again I was stuck. And again. (my wife remarked that for the first time she saw my face expression as being really scared…)
Finally we decided that my wife and daughter should try to hitchhike down and inform the UN police at the next check point. We walked up back to the top and to the front of the cars and arranged transport and off they went.
Then one local guy came up to us and asked what our problem was. We told him. He said: ‘well, just drive backwards up’. I told him that this is what I had tried for two hours.
Nice guy came with us. Sat in my car. Drove backwards. And was up in a few minutes back to the cleared road! A small miracle I thought. In the meantime traffic had eased and I started to drive down. Half way up the mountain I met the UN police. A police officer from Senegal was on his way to save a Swiss man from the snow. This was a bit embarrassing. But anyway, all ended well.
During my stay in Kosovo the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at (Community) of Kosovo was also organized. A Pakistani Missionary arrived via Germany. A Kosovar Ahmadi, who in the meantime had a Netherland passport, came back to Kosovo to join him. The Mission was supported by the Jama’at Germany. Friday prayers were started to be held. During the time of the UN Government there were no visa facilities and no work permits. Everyone who wanted to come could enter. The UN ‘government’ did not stamp the passports. They were not sure whether they were authorized to do so I suppose.
After one year with IOM in Prishtina I was given notice. The funding was going down and my Assistant, with a P3 salary scale, compared to my P5, could do the job. That was quite a shock, with my expensive two families to keep up.
Luckily (sorry about that, but such is life) war clouds were gathering in Iraq. It was January 2003 and Saddam Hussain’s days were numbered. My boss in Kosovo kindly suggested that I go to the Headquarters in Geneva and offer my services for Iraq. In the Headquarters I had to make the round of about 6 top executives plus the Director General. After a couple of days I was told to proceed to Cyprus, where the UN Iraq Country Team started to assemble. I was among the first ones to reach there.