Applying for asylum in Switzerland is a long process. And those who come seeking refuge still have to get on with their lives, despite not knowing if they’ll be able to stay. We found out how one family is putting down roots.
More than a year ago, an Afghan family of seven arrived in Switzerland and applied for asylum. The Sajadis* felt like strangers, didn’t understand a word and lived for months in a cramped space. Since then, much has changed for the better, even if starting life in a new world is anything but easy.
“Life is too short to learn German,” groans Maryam*. The 21-year-old is sitting with her brother Mahdi*, 19, in Fritz’s* apartment in the Swiss capital, Bern. Today they are learning about main and subordinate clauses, about “weil” (because) and “obwohl” (although). The retired high-school teacher is precise; he corrects them both until the sentence they formulate is accurate and idiomatic. Their enthusiasm to learn is a source of great pleasure for their teacher. They know how important it is to learn German in order to integrate and, above all, to carry out their ambitious career plans.
Fritz has been teaching the two young Afghans German for a year. “They are very engaged and have quickly learned how to express themselves. Both have wit and humour, and they argue every now and then about who is the more intelligent. Their expectations are very high.” “I am Einstein’s granddaughter,” Maryam interrupts, and punches her brother affectionately in the side.
The pair come two or three times a week to Fritz to learn this “difficult” language. They talk about this and that, and ask him for advice, as their teacher has long since become someone they trust. “At the beginning I had to make it clear to them that they had to be punctual, but now everything works perfectly. All in all, the time I spend with them is very enriching for me,” says the committed teacher.
A journey of 6,800 kilometres
The Sajadi family comes from Shahristan in central Afghanistan. They belong to the Hazara people, who make up about 10% of the population and speak Dari, a Persian language. In contrast to the Sunni majority in Afghanistan, they are Shiite. The Hazara are considered inferior and suffer discrimination and persecution. A large diaspora lives in Iran and Pakistan.
The Sajadis left their home in early 2011 and travelled via Iran to Turkey, where they spent four years in the city of Adana. Then they took the Balkan route to Switzerland, where they arrived in October 2015 and applied for asylum.
For the first months, the family shared one room in Salvation Army accommodation in a rural community near Bern. During the daytime, they stacked their mattresses on top of each other in order to have room to eat. After four months, the two oldest children moved in with Marianna*, who lives in the same village.
A retired trained carer, she has supported the family wherever she can ever since, bringing structure into their lives, doing homework with the children, going to parents’ evenings and helping the children to make career decisions and to find work experience. “I am lucky to have found this family. Spending time with them has opened my mind and is a great bonus for me – this is a so-called win-win situation. I wish all refugees had a godmother or godfather.”
German is a difficult language
The language is the biggest challenge for everyone. “At the beginning I didn’t understand anything and that was tough,” says 15-year-old Said*. “Now it’s more-or-less OK.” The tall, lanky ninth-grader wants to suspend his 10th grade next summer to do an apprenticeship as a car mechanic in order to become an aeroplane mechanic later. He plays football, enjoys being outdoors, listens to Turkish pop and rap, plays guitar and likes singing. “He’s an easy-going sort,” says Marianna.
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