Switzerland: Armenian Communities Built by Refugees

Yesayan Switzerland feat photo
St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church, Geneva

St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church, Geneva


I was born in Tehran, Iran. My first journey outside of the country was a trip to the United States. I was 20-years-old at the time, and traveling with my mother. It was a 45-day chartered trip in July of 1969 – 50 years ago.

In those days, traveling outside of the country, especially to the United States, was a special occurrence. Several of our friends and family members gathered at our home to say goodbye. Our flight was scheduled for the following morning, at around 4 a.m. The guests stayed until late at night, and some even accompanied us to the airport.

My mother and I had a stopover in Zurich, Switzerland. The tour company had arranged an excursion of the city via bus. The sight of that European city took my breath away. The architecture was imposing and the geranium flowers hanging from windows were astonishing. The cobblestone alleyways told of its past history. I remember it as a grey, cloudy, and misty city.

Having never visited a European city before, Zurich gave me a taste of what those cities were like. I left with fond memories. Our stop lasted maybe three or four hours, and then we flew to New York’s LaGuardia airport.

Since that brief visit, I didn’t return to Zurich until recently – about 50 years later – when, on my way home from Istanbul to Los Angeles, I had a three-hour layover in Zurich. My friend Juliette had been living in Zurich, with her family, since 1980. I told her of my plans, and asked if she could arrange to meet me at the airport, which she did. Meeting Juliette presented a good opportunity to expand my knowledge on the Armenian community in Switzerland.

Let’s start from Geneva: At the end of 19th century, Geneva had become a hub for Armenian intellectuals. Several young men traveled to Geneva to continue their higher education. A few notable Armenian literary figures, such as Ruben Sevak, Avetik Isahakyan, Derenik Demirchian, Siamanto, had visited Geneva. Additionally, the Social Democrat Hunchakian party was formed in Geneva in 1887. The official organ of the Dashnak party, Droshak – Դրօշակ, “Flag,” was published in 1890 in Geneva. In 2011, Journalist Armand Gaspard had prepared a report, where it showed evidence of Armenian presence in Switzerland for the last three centuries.

The first Armenian families that settled in Switzerland, at the end of the 19th century, were those fleeing the persecutions of the Ottoman Empire’s Sultan Abdul Hamid. They first settled mainly in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, then, later – during the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the years that followed – even more refugees arrived.

A potential reason for the first wave of refugees arriving in Switzerland is Antony Krafft-Bonnard, a pastor, who was born in Switzerland in 1869. Bonnard was 24-years-old when he attended a lecture about the horrendous situation of Christian Armenians, victimized by the Hamidian massacres in the Ottoman Empire. These massacres, which occurred between 1894 and 1896, were ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in an effort to ethnically cleanse the surrounding lands. The lecture left Bonnard with a deep sorrow, and pushed him to help the Armenians in some way. He devoted the rest of his life to the Armenian Cause and rescued several Armenian victims. Following his passing, his four children carried on their father’s humanitarian legacy.

Catherine Yesayan (left) with Juliette

Catherine Yesayan (left) with Juliette

Impressed with the stunning appeal of Krafft-Bonnard, several Swiss families expressed a willingness to adopt Armenian orphans after the Hamidian massacres. Soon after, thanks to the efforts of Bonnard, a center was created in the village of Begnin, called, “Le foyer Arménien” or “The Armenian Hearth.” The center’s aim was to shelter and care for the hundreds of Armenian refugees in Switzerland. About 2,000 Armenian orphans were sheltered in Swiss orphanages from 1898 to 1922. Some of the orphans, after finishing their studies, remained permanently in Switzerland. Prior to his death, Krafft-Bonnard wrote series of books based on the Armenian massacres.

Dr. Jakob Kuenzler (1871-1949), a Swiss who was stationed in Urfa, also witnessed the atrocities that the Armenians were subjected to. In his book, “In the Land of Blood and Tears,” published in 1921, he recounts the story of how he and his wife saved 8,000 Armenian orphans of the Genocide. In honor of his efforts to save the orphans, his bust is installed at the Genocide museum in Yerevan.

At the end of the Second World War, the Armenian community in Switzerland boasted approximately 300 people. Since then, the number has continued to grow. The tumultuous situation in the Middle East, the Islamic Revolution of Iran, and the collapse of the former Soviet Union have all contributed to the growing number of Armenian refugees in Switzerland. Today, the exact number of Armenians in the country is not known. However, it’s estimated to be between 4,000 to 6,000.

In 1969, St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church was built in Geneva. It’s the only Armenian Church in Switzerland. An Apostolic Church under the jurisdiction of the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin, a Center connected to the church was constructed in 2006. It all began with a key donation from Hagop Topalian, who, in 1985 – right before his death –created a foundation bearing his name. Today, the Topalian Foundation finances the Armenian language school, which is located in the Center, where Armenian children meet every Wednesday during the school year. The Center includes: a 300-seat multipurpose or banquet hall, a library with about 3,000 books, various meeting rooms, and a kiosk selling books and other objects from Armenia. The Topalian Foundation has close ties with the Armenian General Benevolent Union, whose offices are located in the center as well. There are other Armenian foundations in Geneva, as well, created by private groups for humanitarian purposes.

One of the lanterns installed in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide at the Trembley park, Geneva

One of the lanterns installed in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide at the Trembley park, Geneva

Thanks to my best friend, Lila, who lives in Evian, France – about an hour from Geneva – I’ve had the opportunity to visit Geneva a few times, although they were day-trips. While there, Lila and I have gone sightseeing, including the city’s most famous landmark, the Water Fountain or Jet d’Eau, on Lake Geneva or in French “Lac Léman.” In 2017, Lila and I attended a Sunday mass at St. Hagop’s church. After the service, everybody was invited to gather at the community room for refreshments. There, I met and had the opportunity to chat with many of Geneva’s old-time Armenians. I also met some newcomers, mostly from Armenia, who were very involved with the church and other Armenian institutions, such as language schools or cultural activities. The Armenian community of Geneva even has a choir called “Chorale Arax” as well as a dance group – Troupe Sanahin.

On April 13, 2018, a monument was installed at Geneva’s Trembley Park in the memory of victims of Genocide, called “Lanterns of Memory” or in French, “Les Reverberates de la Memoire.” The memorial is composed of nine, very tall, decorative bronze street-light poles with cascading bulbs resembling tears. More than 500 people gathered at the park for the unveiling of the monument. Charles Aznavour, French-Armenian crooner, and the Armenian ambassador at the time, was in attendance and delivered short remarks.

Finally, the most important stronghold of the Armenians in Geneva, is the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia, installed by special permission from the Confederation, because Geneva is not the capital of Switzerland. The embassy also serves as a Permanent Mission of Armenia to the United Nations and other international Organizations in Geneva.

Now, back to Zurich, where I started my story: Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland. The spoken language is mostly German, because it is situated in the German part of the country. Zurich is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Downtown Switzerland,” as it is the economic engine of the whole country. The city is also known for its high standard of living, and it’s rated as the most expensive city in the world for its cost of living.

When I first met her at the airport, Juliette spoke of her circle of friends, consisting of about 10 Armenian couples who meet regularly. However, she was unsure about the exact number of Armenians in Zurich – she estimated 1,000. Juliette gave me a breakdown of the various Armenian-related places and things. At Oberentfelden, a city close to Zurich, there’s an Armenian Club, where Armenians gather for special events and occasions. She even mentioned an Armenian bakery, owned and run by Lillith Arutchian and her husband, who is Swiss. They started an online Armenian bakery business – both traditional and contemporary. She explained that the bakery is close to their home and she often places orders from them. The name is “Miassyn,” in Armenian meaning “together.” Sona Shaboyan, a pianist, also has started a business of importing wines from Armenia. The name of her company is “Heres.”

Juliette, who has two sons, spoke lovingly of her grandchildren. She is now a grandmother, and told me little anecdotes about her grandchildren. She explained that she speaks to them with a mixture of Armenian and German, and they respond to her in the same way.

I sincerely enjoyed my short visit with Juliette at the airport. The Armenian presence in Switzerland might be small, but they have a rich history with their host nation while they preserve their Armenian culture through an incredibly vibrant community.

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One Comment;

  1. Donald J. Axel said:

    This story about the refugees and the massacres need to be told and retold. Just today the man in the White House said that there was no genocide. Terrible that this has to pass in a modern socalled civilized society. I hope California is better off in that matter.