Afghan family finds shelter in Swiss farmhouse

The Sajadi family in their bed-/living room at the Hinterkappelen asylum centre

Growing numbers of Afghans are coming to Switzerland, most of them via the Balkans – including the seven-member Sajadi family. They’ve been living in an asylum centre near Bern since October 20.

This content was published on November 20, 2015 minutes
Gaby Ochsenbein in Hinterkappelen, Bern

Quiet, shy and slightly tense, the Afghan family sits around the kitchen table in an attic apartment in the rural village of Hinterkappelen near Bern. Father Hossain (40), Mother Zahra (37), and children Mohsen (10), Sajjad (14), Mohdi (17) und Maryam (20)* are here. Only five-year-old Asma is missing; today is her first day of kindergarten.

The farmhouse serves as one of the refugee centres run by the Salvation Army. There are 30 other asylum seekers living here, mainly young women from Eritrea.

The family comes from Sharistan, located in the central Afghan province of Uruzgan between Kandahar and Bamyan. They belong to the Hazara ethnic minority, which makes up roughly 10% of the population. They speak Dari, a Persian language. In contrast to the majority of Afghans, who are Sunnis, the Hazara are Shiites. Viewed as inferior, the Hazara face discrimination and persecution. A large diaspora lives in Iran and Pakistan.

Long road to Switzerland

The Sajadis embarked on their journey at the beginning of 2011. The situation in their homeland was already precarious at the time, especially for the Hazara. The father, a tailor by training, worked with his brother, a doctor, for the United Nations and the government. The Taliban threatened them repeatedly.

There was also a lack of education for the children: the schools were often closed. “The Taliban didn’t want girls to go to school,” says Maryam, who speaks good English thanks to her thirst for education and her uncle’s help.

The family fled to Iran, living illegally in an Afghan community with no hope for a better future. The children couldn’t attend school. After a year, they moved on to Turkey with the help of smugglers. “We travelled for hours by foot, even at night, over mountains and difficult terrain. It was very hard,” the oldest daughter says.

They spent four years in Adana, Turkey’s fifth-largest city. Legally, they weren’t allowed to work, but at least the children could go to school. Maryam studied architecture for a year at university. And following high school, Mohdi – the second-oldest child – passed the admission exam for studies in medicine and engineering. However, the family couldn’t afford the university fees.

Their journey continued in September 2015. From the north-western city of Çanakkale in Turkey, they travelled by boat to a Greek island, the name of which they can no longer remember.

“The boat was seven metres long and had enough space for 25 people, but there were 60 on board,” explains Maryam. The family was brought to a Greek refugee camp and travelled via the Balkans through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria to Switzerland, which they reached on October 1.

‘Afghanistan is being forgotten’

“There’s been a war in Afghanistan for 35 years, without hope for peace. I would like my children to have a better life than mine,” says Hossain. His father told him that Switzerland was a peaceful country, emerging unscathed from the Second World War. “This is the reason why we came here even though we don’t know anyone.”

In order to document the dangerous situation in their homeland, Maryam shows pictures of slain girls on her smartphone. She explains that a dozen Hazara were killed on their way to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Zahra, her mother, covers her eyes and begins to sob. She is depressed and on medication. 

Maryam, a fragile-looking young woman, complains that while the four-year-old war in Syria makes headlines in Europe, the one in Afghanistan, which has lasted for decades, is being forgotten.

Alexandra Geiser, responsible for country analysis at the Swiss Refugee Council, also says that Afghanistan receives little attention in the media. The security situation in the country has declined dramatically since most of the international troops withdrew at the end of 2014. “The country has been destabilised since then through battles between different Taliban groups and Islamic State militias.”

Few receive asylum

One reason for the increase in Afghan asylum seekers in Switzerland is that Germany increasingly tries to send them back – so they’re turning to Switzerland to evade that fate. Nevertheless, people from the area of Hindukusch also have only a slight chance of receiving asylum in Switzerland. Some 11% receive asylum, and 42% are temporarily accepted. During the current year, 87 people were sent back to the EU country through which they entered, according to the rules of the Dublin accords. At least three people have been deported to Afghanistan this year.

While Swiss authorities classify the country as dangerous, the cities of Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif are safe according to three key judgements by Switzerland’s Federal Administrative Court. In light of the situation there, Geiser describes the deportation of asylum seekers to Afghanistan as out of touch with reality. The Swiss Refugee Council has been collecting information since 2011 to show that these three cities are indeed unsafe.

Denise Graf from Amnesty International also finds that deportations to Afghanistan is extremely problematic.

“The fact that Switzerland has not changed its practice since 2010 despite the continually deteriorating security situation is difficult to understand,” she says. “If a young, healthy Afghan has a distant uncle in Kabul there are grounds for deportation.”

The situation in the land of origin is constantly analysed, according to Martin Reichlin, deputy head of communications at the State Secretariat for Migration.

“Each case is examined individually to see if a return is reasonable. If one comes to the conclusion that certain conditions are met, such as a secure housing situation and a viable social network, then a return is, in principle, possible.”

A good day for drying laundry at the asylum centre in Hinterkappelen

A long wait…

The precise fate of the Sajadi family is unclear. Marcel Blaser, head of the asylum centre in Hinterkapellen, says family will stay in the home for three to 12 months. “What’s important now is that the children can go to school and learn German.”

The father, Hossain, confirms how important it that his children have a good education. “We lost our homeland because we were not safe and had to leave. A good education, however, can never be taken away from us.”

Mohdi dreams of becoming a doctor, and his sister Maryam would like to resume her architecture studies. But the uncertainty is draining.

“What will happen to us, whether we’ll be able to stay or be sent back, we just don’t know. I’m tired after all these years. Tired of life,” says the 20-year-old.

Then little Asma returns from kindergarten with a picture under her arm. She beams; it’s obvious that she really enjoyed her first day. She sang and played and didn’t cry at all, according to her kindergarten teacher. It’s a small ray of hope.

*All names have been changed. 

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