When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Students walk through the University of Zurich campus.
Students walk through the University of Zurich campus.
Céline Zünd and Marco Bruner

ZURICH — The determined look of Mambo Mhozuyenikono (not his real name) contrasts with the nonchalance of the other students who wander, trays in hand, around the cafeteria at the University of Zurich. For this 23-year-old from Zimbabwe, enrollment here is a privilege rather than an obligation — not something to be taken for granted.

Mhozuyenikono is one of 20 refugees chosen to study at the university for a semester — at no cost. "The moment I learned that I had been selected by the university was the happiest since I arrived in Switzerland seven months ago," he says.

This spring semester marks the first time Swiss universities have opened their doors to refugees. The initiative was sparked by students, who also finance the program to the tune of 11,000 Swiss francs (10,000 euros), via a solidarity fund financed by both students and teachers.

Last July, Mhozuyenikono boarded a plane to Zurich, the first city within his reach. He knew nothing about Switzerland, except its reputations as a neutral country and that they make a lot of chocolate.

The program is aimed at immigrants who have already attended university in their home country but whose academic path was cut short by exile. No diploma is required to be eligible: The only condition is to have started a university curriculum.

About 80 refugees applied to the University of Zurich's program. Among the 20 people chosen, half come from Syria. The others are from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Chechnya and Palestine. Five of them have chosen to enroll in economic studies. Other areas of study include English, biology and law. Only one of the students holds a master's degree. Eight have a bachelor's degree. The other 11 began but never completed their university studies.

A taste of freedom

Mambo Mhozuyenikono is one of those 11. Before leaving his Zimbabwe, he studied social sciences — not an easy career path in a country that tends to be closed off to criticism. "Zimbabwe is poor, not because it lacks resources, but because people in charge are is incompetent and corrupted," he says. "But if you say that too loudly, the authorities are not going to like it. They made my life so difficult that I ended up leaving."

Last July, Mhozuyenikono boarded a plane to Zurich, the first city within his reach. He knew nothing about Switzerland, except its reputations as a neutral country and that "they make a lot of chocolate." He now lives with other refugees, in a center for asylum seekers in Embrach, a village about 15 kilometers from Zurich.

Students take an exam at the University of Zurich earlier this month — Photo: University of Zurich via Instagram

The first few months were hard — aimless days with nothing to do, he recalls. To keep busy, Mhozuyenikono immersed himself in the economic theories of Indian writer Amartya Sen, burned through books on Switzerland, or read stories about Jewish migrants who fled Germany during the war. He also got to know the other refugees living with him.

"I learned so much in just a few months, about their hopes and fears, and by experiencing exile myself," he says. "One day, I will do something with what I've learned. And I hope that in the future, there will be more initiatives to help refugees integrate into society and into the job market."

Mhozuyenikono imagines his future in Switzerland. He dreams of joining an international organization or an NGO. "I would like to learn," he says. "Then get a job as soon as possible. I don't want to depend on social aid. Others need it more than me."

Learning the ropes

To guide him through the university's corridors, the young man leans on his mentor, Mitra Tavakoli. She's 23 — exactly the same age — and has helped him deal administrative forms, get his student card and look for new housing. "The fist thing he wanted to know is whether there was a chess club at the university," Tavakoli recalls.

It didn't take Mhozuyenikono very long to fit in. "I have no difficulty with my classes," he explains. "I enjoy the freedom. Here, I can express my opinions without fear. What this program brings me, what's most important to me, is socializing — understanding how people live in Switzerland."

I would like to learn. Then get a job as soon as possible. I don't want to depend on social aid. Others need it more than me.

Similar projects have been launched elsewhere in Switzerland. A year ago, the University of Geneva (UNIGE) launched a pilot project called "Academic Horizon." In addition to a French-language test, the UNIGE requires that refugees hold a bachelor-level diploma or a master's degree from a university of their country of origin — or that they pass an entrance exam. Among the first batch of 84 candidates, 35 were admitted. "They come from 12 different countries, with a majority from Syrians and Eritrea," says Mathieu Crettenand, an academic affairs associate.

The University of Lausanne (UNIL) has opted for more of a long-term approach when it comes to refugees. "The goal is for them to reach a sufficient level of proficiency so that they can be integrated later as regular students in a university," says Nathalie Janz, a UNIL education and student affairs officer. "We receive fewer than 20 applications and accept about 10," she adds.

Critics fear that such programs will lead to a drop in the quality of education. The Student Union of Switzerland disagrees, insisting that the refugees are held to the same standards and must meet the same requirements as all other foreign students. "There is no risk," the organization insists. "The refugees are only there as guest students and have no influence over the content or the advancement of a class."

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

Patronage Or Politics? What's Driving Qatar And Egypt Grand Rapprochement

For Cairo, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil,” with anger directed at Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, and others critical of Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood ouster. But the vitriol is now gone, with the first ever visit by Egyptian President al-Sisi to Doha.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with the Emir of Qatar in June 2022 in Cairo

Beesan Kassab, Daniel O'Connell, Ehsan Salah, Hazem Tharwat and Najih Dawoud

For the first time since coming to power in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi traveled to Doha last month on an official visit, a capstone in a steadily building rapprochement between the two countries in the last year.

Not long ago, however, the photo-op capturing the two heads of state smiling at one another in Doha would have seemed impossible. In the wake of the Armed Forces’ ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Qatar and Egypt traded barbs.

In the lexicon of the intelligence-controlled Egyptian press landscape, Qatar had been part of an “axis of evil” working to undermine Egypt’s stability. Al Jazeera, the main Qatari outlet, was banned from Egypt, but, from its social media accounts and television broadcast, it regularly published salacious and insulting details about the Egyptian administration.

But all of that vitriol is now gone.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ