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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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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