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Switzerland

Hitting The Books in Switzerland's 'Refugee University'

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."

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