Dr. Hossam Abdel-Rihem

I had the privilege of glancing behind the scenes at the Marienberg Trauma Center for Refugees. Roger Hochenreutener, the Managing Director of the VSGP (Association of St.Galler Municipal Presidents) praised you in the highest tones. "There are only two trauma specialized psychiatrists in Switzerland and we are extremely lucky to have one of them available to us; Dr. Hossam Abdel-Rehim," he said. Let me introduce you to the very tall doctor, with the big smile and enormous heart.

I was amazed how you made the complex issue of trauma understandable for someone like me. You compared trauma to a glass bowl that has been shattered into thousands of pieces.  The events of the trauma are like that, without sequence, without understanding.  Although it’s not impossible to put the pieces back together, it’s timely and professional help is mandatory.  What impressed me the most was how much compassion you expressed about the hideous fates of your patients but were able to switch off the pain in the most effective way - with a huge smile? That made an impression on me.

You listen to the other people's stories everyday. Today, I invite you to tell yours. Please tell us how an Egyptian doctor has become a Swiss doctor and made Switzerland home.

How did your foreign adventure begin? 
In 1978 I began medical school in Egypt.  I was offered an internship in the Balgrist Clinic at the University of Zürich specializing in Orthopedics. After the internship was finished, I returned to Cairo and completed med school.  In 1985 I was able to return to Switzerland for a further Internship. That is when I met my Swiss wife.

Do you remember how you felt or what seemed foreign or different?
I noticed immediately the different hair and skin colors. The people dressed differently. It was summer and the women were dressed casually and more revealing than I was accustomed.
The communication style between men and women was also less formal.

One of my greatest challenges after I arrived here from Miami was the weather, especially the cold and the fog. You came from Cairo; was the weather a problem for you as well?
The cold nights and the rain really bothered me.  I was used to two seasons; hot and hotter.
It was the winter of ’85 when I arrived, an extremely cold winter with enormous amounts of snow. I didn’t own a winter coat and walked through the snow with sandals. I learned the true meaning of cold toes.

How did you find the Swiss meals? I’m sure it was different in Egypt.
Yeah, the food was different.  I don’t eat pork and it was awkward to constantly to remind or tell people.

Bread was served at each meal of the day. Big, thick pieces of dark bread instead of thin flatbread. Not only was it a change for me, it was heavy. Funny, for breakfast you were served this big piece of bread  but with a tiny portion of butter and jelly. How was such a little amount of butter enough for such a huge piece of bread? I wondered what there was to eat in wealthy Switzerland. 

Rice is a staple in Egypt. We eat it at almost every meal.  Here it’s the potato, which for us is a vegetable.

I asked myself why it was called a “Herdäpfel” (oven potato) when actually that was the pronunciation in Wartau dialect. In Swiss dialect it’s “Erdäpfel” which translates to earth’s apple.

My work colleagues were so proud of a drink – the Swiss Drink “Rivella”. Everyone told me I should try it. I did and the drink got stuck in my throat.  I thought it was awful – and it’s made out of lactic acid. Nein, Rivella is not for me.

I was told that Rivella was a Swiss beverage like Coke except made with milk.  That turned me off right away. We can appreciate, accept, and even love a lot about our new homes, but thank God not everything.

You spoke German before you arrived in Switzerland – did you also understand “Schwyzerdütsch”?
Through my German courses in Egypt, the Internship in Zurich and the two years with my wife’s family in Switzerland, I did pretty well.  At least it was acceptable and I understood most things.

Who or what helped you along the way?
The internship allowed me a glance into what I was getting myself into. I was introduced to the foreign culture and the social structures. I wanted to, was willing to embrace them and adapt to them without giving up who or what I was. I viewed it as an opportunity and personal gain.

Morally, my wife’s family supported me so much. I am so grateful for their support.

The Balgrist Clinic was very international and it made a very positive impression on me. The atmosphere was very international unlike in a factory. There the refugees and migrants are faced with rejection – it is not comparable. For that reason, I can understand them.

Relocating to a new country – a new home isn’t always easy. What difficulties did you face on your journey?
In professional terms, I knew if I wanted to achieve something, it was up to me to make it happen -I couldn’t count on outside help or support, but with rejection. And I received plenty of it. I applied for jobs for two years. I heard constantly, "in Switzerland, as a foreigner you have no chance.” I had the same response even in academic circles. It was a test in courage and patience. In med-school my favorite subject was optometry. As I expressed my desire to become an Optometrist, again I was told I wouldn’t have a chance because there were already too many Swiss to fill the positions. So, I chose psychiatry and continued my education in Bern.

I knew that I would face obstacles and receive criticism and of course I experienced doubt and considered what I had left behind.
But I have a strong will and faith in myself. I considered: Do I accept the difficulties as defeat or do I choose to believe in myself?  This was a conscious decision. I chose to believe in me.

Do any cultural misunderstandings come to mind that you have experienced?
I've been in Switzerland for 29 years, but about five years ago I took a tram in Basel. I thought, " I am going only a few stations," and opted for the short-haul ticket. I temporarily forgot the Swiss precision and didn’t count the number of stops. I paid a 50sfr fine because I travelled two stations too far. I can’t chalk this one up to a beginner’s mistake. 

When you think back to the first years in Switzerland, what screamed “culture shock” the most?
My wedding. We married in Switzerland. I wasn’t prepared for the reception. There were games - games at a wedding?  That was something I had never seen.

Having to submit tax returns each year was new land for me. In Egypt there weren’t yearly tax returns.

The entire political culture and democracy were completely different. The relationship between the people and the authorities in Switzerland is different than in Egypt.
Egypt is a culture where authority means submission. Politics (Siasah in
Arabic) - comes from the word discipline/train - one controls the other - the horse must do whatever it the rider wishes. “I have to submit to authority if I want to avoid punishment.”
In Greek it is the opposite: “Poli” majority means to manage the business of the people. This is an enormous difference in the perception of the people. It has to do with fear.

When did you realize that Switzerland is now “home"?
It was after the birth of my children. I relate a home with a house and family. We were no longer just a couple - we were a family.  The Swiss define family differently. When they speak of family, they refer to their own children or the immediate family. In Egypt, we speak of the extended family; aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Before our children were born, we went back and forth considering whether we would move to Egypt or stay here. Because of the children, their education etc. we have more ties to the society and are consequently bound by them.

Recently, I was introduced at an event by a colleague who couldn’t pronounce my name properly – but I thought ok, that happens. He said, “He is an Egyptian doctor” – even though I have been practicing here for 29 years, I’m not a Swiss doctor. Again and again, we (foreigners) are made to feel that we will never be “real Swiss”.

I’m not sure if “Tagesanzeiger”, SRF (Swiss TV), Tele Ostschweiz and other local TV and Radio news agencies would agree.  You’ve been featured quite often in the last few months.

What do you like best about your new home?
The organization, neutrality, and a certain social justice.  We don’t need an FBI – or secret police of any kind – everybody knows everything about everybody.  It is the most sovereign, efficient police in the world.

What I miss the most from my country?

  • The extended family
  • An easygoing lifestyle – ease of just being

It is a major concern for me to remind the readers that there are two sides to integration.  The refuges, migrants must do their part to adapt and it is up to them to take the first steps.  But acceptance and appreciation are needed from the Swiss to make it work.
How can we help in the current refuge crisis?
They need accommodations – maybe even in private households with simple household jobs.

Many of these people are able to work but not with the accuracy the Swiss demand. We need to be prepared to lead them by the hand – we need to be flexible.  They could help farmers or assist truck drivers with loading and unloading. They need jobs, but they will never have the Swiss precision.

Be friendly an open for encounter - that impresses them.

The fears from certain people, that the Swiss society will be lost or overrun are unfounded. Anyway, fear is a bad advisor. Let us not be dictated by fear - it never happened that a country has been besieged and conquered by immigrants.

I compare Switzerland to Dubai or Qatar. Both are small countries very wealthy countries. They can’t progress without any foreigners/immigrants. The media, the economy, the politicians are not the makers – the workers do the work – they are the makers. It is condescending and hurtful to look down on them. We need each other.
Thanks you so much for the interview and your tireless efforts in Marienberg.  I wish you lots of strength for the difficult times ahead.


excellent and inspiring read. great questions and wonderful answers from a very hard working, strong, swiss doctor. :)

beth wimmer
23.11.2015 - 13:10:05

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