Undocumented migrants open school
"Sans papiers" challenge Zurich’s asylum policy and run their own German language school.ZURICH -- "Please show me your homework!" Bah Saidou tells his students. Some students in the full classroom hand in their papers. The lesson of the day focuses on grammar.
But this isn't a regular school. The class takes place in a squatted building and Saidou is a so-called "sans-papiers" - an undocumented migrant. The 60 students in the class are asylum-seekers, immigrants with temporary admission, and people living in Switzerland illegally.
It is estimated that Switzerland is home to 100,000 to 200,000 sans-papiers. Three main groups can be distinguished between those who entered the country on work permits that have expired, those who came to Switzerland to work illegally, and refugees whose asylum request was rejected.
Saidou, the teacher, is from Guinea. He came to Switzerland in September 2002 and a few months later received a "non-admissibility decision" or NEE on his asylum claim.
He has been living in Switzerland illegally since then. When the new asylum law came into effect in January 2008, Saidou stopped receiving social aid. He was placed in an emergency centre and depends on assistance from Zurich's Department of Social Affairs.
The new Swiss asylum law left one opportunity for illegalised migrants: the "provision for cases of hardship" allows sans-papiers who have lived in Switzerland for at least five years and "integrated very well" to request a residency permit.
The cantonal authorities of Zurich, however, request high standards for applicants, such as German language proficiency.
In December 2008, a group of sans-papiers took over a church building in Zurich for more than two weeks, demanding their right to stay in Switzerland. "Shortly after the occupation of the church and the talks with the canton's council, we and our supporters decided to establish language classes on our own," says Saidou.
The project started with about 30 people. Today it serves more than 150 students.
Berhanu Tesfaye is one of the students. Born in Ethiopia, he fled to Switzerland in 2000 and was issued a NEE twice. He unsuccessfully filed a request under the hardship provision. "My application was rejected because my German language skills weren't good enough," Tesfaye explains.
"Then I came to the school. Four months later I successfully passed the exams. The certificate allows me to hand in an application again."
For many undocumented migrants, the school is their only opportunity to learn German. A woman from Nigeria who prefers to remain anonymous says, "I came here in 2002. In 2003 I was allowed to attend classes, but this was stopped in 2004. I received a NEE and was no longer permitted to attend language classes. This school is my only way to learn the language properly."
Berhanu Tesfaye regrets that some students can't attend all three classes per week.
"Many students live in emergency centres far away from the school. We've raised some money with fundraising meals and a party. This allows us to cover travel expenses for many of the students, but it's not sufficient."
More than a year ago, the sans-papiers began to gather weekly at the Refugees Welcome Café in Zurich to sell their cheques for cash, allowing them to buy train tickets and other items.
Bah Saidou is disturbed that Swiss politicians demand foreigners' integration into Swiss society, but provide few opportunities to do so.
Hans Hollenstein, the Zurich’s security director, says the school is doing something positive. "They allow the migrants some integration for the time being. We can tolerate that. However, I want to make clear that these people are illegally here and have to leave the country as soon as possible."
In mid-August one of the sans-papiers' activists, Ishmail Fayé, was arrested. Originally from Sierra Leone, he had prevented several deportation attempts. For the past year, he lived under Zurich's emergency regime and moved weekly between emergency centres.
Currently in custody at Zurich's airport prison, Fayé speaks of the canton's policy. "They want us to leave the country. That's why they're applying this strict regime. They try to make your life unbearable, so you leave," he says.
Inter Press Service / Ray Smith/ Expatica 2009