They Call Me ‘Mister Rob’ (or, ‘Finding My Purpose in Switzerland)

(NB: To view all the photos on this blog just double-click on the first photo)
One source describes purpose as:
the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists’
Mr Rogers, my Year 10 English teacher at Murwillumbah High School, although he enjoyed my creative written expression of the world around me, always had grave concerns about where I would end up in life. Mostly my answers to questions in the classroom would just leave him shaking his head and muttering lines like, 
‘Swales,where have I failed you?’
On the other hand, Don Bartholomew, my Agriculture teacher for three years (and father of world surfing champion, Rabbit Bartholomew), thought I had a lot of potential in the rural science field and arranged for me to receive a bursary to assist with funding my senior years at high school. (Unfortunately my parents didn’t share his vision and thought it best that I left school and got a real job in a bank.)
I doubt whether either of them would have foreseen me at fifty nine years of age living in Switzerland and working as a volunteer in an asylum seeker’s centre, because it is certainly something that had never been on my to do list either.
And for me that is the interesting thing about purpose. I just laugh when I hear young people about to leave school saying that they are unsure of what career or study to undertake. And I always tell them at eighteen years of age and with all your life experiences being confined to a classroom how would you even have a clue. In most cases their real purpose in life hasn’t even been created yet.
Back in late 2009 when Jo came across the idea of extending her passion for drama by teaching in a country on the other side of the globe, I must admit I had no idea what the parameters of undertaking such a position would entail. Her suggestion that I could live in an exotic foreign country for a couple of years and while away my days writing that definitive novel in between supporting her and traveling to see all those amazing cities, sites and cultures I had spent many years of my life dreaming about, instantly locked in on my sensibilities.
When Jo received the phone call that she had the job at the International School of Lausanne in Switzerland, the fantasy quickly changed to reality. What was I really going to do each day while she was up to her ears in students, curriculum and lesson plans?
Here’s the short version of the twists and turns my life took to find out what this Swiss sojourn was all about.
From the shores of Hobart Harbour, I immediately enrolled in an online ‘Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages’ course. Somehow I thought in a French speaking country, people would be lining up to learn how to speak my mother tongue. The course certainly gave me something to fill up the breathing spaces between work in my life over the ensuing three months and I truly thought that I was now heading in the right direction. In hindsight I would have been better of digesting everything that the book ‘French for Dummies’ had to offer.
A few weeks before we were to fly out to our new Swiss home Jo attended a training course in Melbourne for her upcoming job. In between indulging my senses in sublime coffee and poetry in Desgraves Street and the adjoining galleries and museums, I happened into the Immigration Museum in Flinders Street. And that is where my Swiss purpose light bulb commenced to glow with some passionate voltage.
The museum that day was celebrating Ethiopia’s National Day (28th May, also known as Derg Downfall day). The hallways and gardens were overflowing with displays, colourful, happy and very beautiful people, inspirational music and dancing and some of the best food I have ever tasted. Never before had I witnessed so much celebration and joy without a drop of alcohol being present. And the amazing thing was that most of the people celebrating had arrived from war torn Ethiopia with no more than the clothes on their backs and a plastic bag of possessions in their hands. When I got back to our hotel I was quickly googling to see what the refugee situation was like in Switzerland. The picture was as grim as the Australian model and that is when I got the idea that I would like to spend my time working with these people.

These are some of the photos from that day at the Melbourne Immigration Museum

Several months later I found myself in Switzerland working as a volunteer gardener at an aged care facility at Rolle which is about a half an hour west of Lausanne. The facility is associated with our church. It was autumn. And each day as I raked up mountains of leaves from the acre of gardens and lawn, my education of this particular season being described as ‘the fall’ was completed. After one particularly challenging day of making sculptures with piles of dead leaves and arguing with the Bize wind, I took some time out to read an inspirational book I’ve often turned to. Under the reference of ‘leaves’ this is a line that I found to be the most interesting.
The leaves of the trees are for the healing of all nations.’ 
After lunch I returned to my leaf sculptures knowing that somehow I was on the right track. I just needed to be patient.
It wasn’t until April 2011 that the pieces of the puzzle quickly fell in to place. Along with the new growth of spring, Jo came across an email reference at her school to an asylum seeker’s centre at Crissier The centre was funded by a Vaud government organization called EVAM. Knowing nothing about how the centre operated I sent them my CV. Two weeks later I had an interview and started work the following week as a volunteer Children’s Activities Officer. My brief was just to hang out and get to know the people at the centre and to do spontaneous activities with the children that would garner their trust and that of their parents. 
Early days at EVAM pics:

Wednesdays quickly established themselves as the main part of my week. The children at EVAM did not attend the local school on Wednesday afternoons and so it was my role to keep them entertained. I started out doing things like trying to teach them how to play rugby league and cricket. We also watched dvd’s and did some art classes. With 30-40 kids from 22 countries aged from 3-17 there were many new challenges each day we got together and sometimes every moment brought up something new to deal with.
Within a few weeks I was able to meet up with teachers from the International School of Lausanne (ISL) and we quickly established a weekly outing for a busload of the children from EVAM to take part in fun stuff with a group of interested students at ISL. These outings ranged from basic games to sporting activities, cooking, art, music and visiting places of interest in and around Lausanne. 

And a snapshot of what happened:

 Through all seasons
Now THAT'S a snowball!!

 Friendships were forged

 That can never fade away
 Because they are now a part
 of Swiss art and history

So as a famous Aboriginal Australian once proved, if you stay with a right idea, ‘From little things, big things grow.’ Fourteen months later, as Jo and I prepare to fly back home to Australia and to whatever adventure awaits us there, we leave behind an idea that is now known as ‘The Friends of EVAM’. This consists of a dedicated group of students and teachers from ISL and some of the parents of the students. This group of amazing human beings give up their free time to do awesome things with and for the up to seventy children that find themselves at EVAM Crissier on any given day.

 As well as driving buses and cars to transport our EVAM family, they find funds for the external activities such as Zoo and Park visits. These activities are complemented by the families from ISL donating clothing, toys, books, computers and personal items, which willing workers distribute to where they find a need at the centre. In addition, some of the parents are working one on one with families to help them adapt to their new life in Switzerland and many children visit the centre in their school holidays. And in July the kids from EVAM are having their own art exhibition at CHUV Maternite Hospital in Lausanne. So how cool is that?
Now this brings me back to that definition of purpose I mentioned earlier, ‘the reason something is done’. From where I sit, the real purpose for my visit to this very beautiful country, that is filled with equally beautiful and generous people, was to be a part of this EVAM/ISL family that I have described above and to be a very small cog in Switzerland’s multicultural future. To sit in the rooms at the EVAM centre drinking coffee and tea with families and individuals and to listen to their stories of overcoming adversity. To be blown away by the smiles on their faces and the glow of hope in their eyes and the never ending mountain of love and faith that they express, despite what might appear as overwhelming odds. And just as importantly, to watch the cultural and social acceptance and friendships that have developed between two very unique and inspirational groups of children and young adults, that are in very different ways both marginalized in the same culture. 
The most important thing for me has been the ‘never will I forget you’ friendships that have developed from the opportunity to share time with inspirational people of all ages and cultures. And to think I had never heard of Eritrea before working at EVAM.
Yesterday was my last adventure out with my EVAM family. The mums and parents from ‘The Friends of EVAM’, organised a bus trip to a fun park south of Lausanne called Signal de Bougy. Coincidentally (if you believe in such long shots) yesterday was also International Refugees Day, and a lot of big fun was had by all involved in our big day out.

Photos from my last day out with my EVAM family

And just as coincidentally, this will also be my last blog under ‘Rob In Lausanne’. And fittingly, I feel, my most fruitful.
(p.s. But you can keep posted to this URL for a new Australian flavoured blog with the corny
 title, ‘Rob in Le Sun’, commencing sometime before the end of July)


  1. Hi Rob,
    I have really enjoyed your stories in Europe as told through this blog, and find your words and photos have painted everlasting images of the challenges and joys of your wonderful adventure. But your final entry is not about chocolate box images and exotic destinations, but the uncompromising humanity and decency you and Jodie have shown to the less fortunate, to the disenfranchised, to those who deserve the same life as the rest of us. Thank you for being so inspirational.
    For purely selfish reasons I'm sorry your sojourn through Switzerland has come to an end, but can't wait to catch up with you both soon,
    Love Peter

  2. Thanks Pete. Interestingly enough it has been my EVAM friends and the young people from ISL that have been involved in the program who have inspired me the most. They have offered me a unique friendship centred around a shared humanity of totally being who you are no matter what your circumstance. This is something that I've not clearly felt before.

    I'll bring home one of the Art Exhibition posters to add to your collection of exotic art by six year old Serbians. It has taken a while to organise but is being held in the CHUV Maternite hospital from 2nd July to 15th October. Fifty framed original paintings, all signed by the artists and for sale at 300 francs each, proceeds to the EVAM/ISL children's fund. The curator is confident that they will all sell.

    See you in a couple of weeks. We'll be the foreigners with sun tans.


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