Integrating into Swiss society and understanding its unique culture, codes and rules can be complex, especially for people who have just arrived from countries like Syria, Afghanistan or Eritrea. A number of Swiss organisations are helping asylum seekers to familiarise themselves with their new life in Switzerland and deal with issues ranging from flat-hunting to sexuality.
Canton Valais recently decided to make a sex education course compulsory for migrants. This is part of an introduction to Swiss basic rights. Among these is the right to sexual health.
According to Damian Mottier, general secretary of the Valais Office for Health, Society and Culture, under Swiss law each canton is obliged to set up a centre for sexual health offering advice on sex education and disease prevention. And by making sex education compulsory for asylum seekers, each region guarantees thus equal access to information for all. The sex education course has become “an essential part of their integration process,” Mottier says.
Sexual knowledge gaps
Mottier says many asylum seekers do not initially understand the reasons for taking the course. But their skepticism soon fades. Once a basis for trust has been established, many migrants are grateful for discreet and safe access to information about Swiss laws, customs and traditions. They also receive information about the age of consent, female genital mutilation, self-determination in sexual relationships, access to contraception or support in the case of unwanted pregnancies.
At the same time, Mottier says there are huge cultural differences and knowledge gaps when it comes to sex. Some participants initially believe that the contraceptive pill causes infertility, or that female genital mutilation helps women and makes them more fertile and feminine. Others believe that women should only leave the house in the company of a man, that her place is in the home, and that only her husband can decide what form of contraception she uses.
Are the Swiss reserved?
Along with a lack of education, there are often prejudices that remain firmly entrenched until asylum seekers start meeting Swiss locals and better understanding their culture. The Kulturschule network – an organisation funded by the Evangelical church (see box) – aims to provide migrants with this intercultural knowledge.
The Kulturschule says it provides cultural know-how to asylum seekers from the day of their arrival until they enter the labour market. The Thun network was founded by the Christian church GPMC. The GPMC association operates on a charitable basis according to Christian principles. The founders stress that the courses do not pass on Christian content.
From an organisational and legal perspective, each Kulturschule is independent. Individual Kulturschules receive expert and financial support from private people and institutions such as foundations, which are committed to helping migrants integrate in Switzerland.
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Dany Misho, an educator at the Thun Kulturschule, says the most widespread preconception is that the Swiss are reserved – that they are unwilling to interact with other cultures and that Swiss society is conservative. The role of this nationwide network is to eliminate these prejudices, Misho says. “If a job application is unsuccessful, then applicants can be quick to accuse the employer of racism, when in fact he or she may not have had the right qualifications.”
Some asylum seekers only move within their own cultural and language circles for months or even years, never coming into contact with Swiss society. That’s how the idea for a Kulturschule arose, explains Dany Misho’s wife Kathrin. She leads the Thun Kulturschule. The couple met through their voluntary work.
Waste separation, washing machines and prohibition signs
In their contact with asylum authorities, the Mishos repeatedly heard social workers complaining that they didn’t have enough time to help asylum seekers move into private accommodation, or to explain certain Swiss rules and regulations – for instance waste separation, using the washing machine or the meaning of prohibition signs. “But these are important practical aspects,” Kathrin Misho says.
The right greeting in the right place
The Kulturschule offers three courses: “Swiss Life,” “At Home in Switzerland,” and “Working in Switzerland.” Asylum seekers learn everything from how to find a job or apprenticeship to how to rent an apartment and how to recycle waste. But they also learn codes of conduct that are self-evident to the Swiss but may be unusual to foreigners, for example whether a seat on public transport is vacant, or how to greet passers-by in villages or on hikes.
Most asylum seekers in Europe hail from countries that are not democratically ruled and where human rights abuses are common. In 2015 and 2016, they were primarily Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fleeing war. Since then, most asylum seekers have been Eritreans – there were 3,375 asylum applicants from Eritrea in 2017.
Given their backgrounds, it is not surprising that what most interests the asylum seekers in the “Swiss Life” course is the Swiss political system. Ahmed Mohamed from Yemen, for example, says “I have learnt a great deal from the course about social interaction. What amazed me was the system of government. The rights of women and their position in society is also very interesting and different from what I am familiar with in Yemen.”
Basic knowledge for the labour market
The step from theoretical courses to practical application is, however, still a big one. Many asylum seekers don’t get a job or labour permit for years.
Dany Misho, who is himself a former refugee from Iraq, leads the “Working in Switzerland” course. He describes the most important ingredients for a successful job search, such as learning one of the national languages and good educational qualifications. But he also covers the importance of work in Swiss society, gender equality in the workplace and how to deal with new situations, such as accepting a female boss. “All these aspects are not self-evident in many countries,” Misho says.
But can people apply this advice practically, given the difficulties they face on the labour market? “We are not trying to gloss over the realities and look at this through rose-tinted spectacles; rather we want to prepare asylum-seekers for these situations and give them hope by offering positive examples of people who have been successful despite the hurdles,” Misho says.
He came to Switzerland as an asylum seeker himself, completed a specialist training and got a job. Kathrin Misho says it is very important to engage foreign trainers on the courses. “They look at the subjects from another perspective and speak from personal experience. At the same time, they address social questions and phenomena that we may not necessarily be aware of, because they are so self-evident and integral to our culture.” For her, it is sometimes good to know how people from other countries view Switzerland – and “sometimes we burst out laughing when they talk about our funny habits.”