It took some time, after moving to Switzerland, to be able to tell people apart. To me, in the beginning, all these light-skinned people looked alike.
This article is part of our New Neighbours series, in which young refugees from across Europe guest edit VICE.com.
Yonas is 20 years old and originally from Eritrea. He currently lives in Rheineck, Switzerland.
When you’re born in a country where you don’t really stand a chance at making a good life for yourself without a university degree, you’re sure to make an effort at school. That’s why I was already a hardworking student back in my homeland, Eritrea. My parents used to say: “You have to learn, or you will never amount to anything!” That put pressure on me and as a result, I worked hard on all my school subjects. Five years ago, when I came to Switzerland at the age of 15, that turned out to be very helpful. The only things I had to learn from scratch were the language and the culture.
On my first day of school in Rheineck, I was a bundle of nerves. I knew that anything coming at me that day would be completely new to me. For example, it took some time until I was able to tell people apart. To me, in the beginning, all these light-skinned people looked alike – especially when meeting so many of them every day.
I was also surprised by the small class size of only 15 students. In Eritrea, I was in a class with over 60 students. That meant, for example, that we didn’t get printouts because there were too many of us and the school couldn’t afford it. We had to copy everything the teachers wrote on the blackboard by hand. In Switzerland, I had more time to talk to the teacher one-on-one and with fewer students, the atmosphere in the classroom was calmer.
Back in Eritrea I only spent half a day at school, five days a week, and I had all afternoon for my homework. During that half day at school, we were only taught theoretical subjects. We barely had any physical education, let alone cooking classes or crafts, like needlework.
For many kids in Africa, getting to school is an issue. It can take students in Eritrea one or two hours to get to school on foot or by car. Luckily, I used to live only a five minute walk from school. In Switzerland, getting to school generally isn’t a big deal. When students live a bit further away, they just take the bus or they cycle. The walk to my school in Switzerland took exactly twice as long as the one in Eritrea.
Right from the first day of going to school in Switzerland, I had to fight stereotypes about Africa. Most people assumed that I hadn’t lived in a real house in Eritrea. Even after I had shown them pictures of my hometown, they would later ask: “So, are there real houses in Africa?” Having to explain the same thing over and over again was pretty tiring.
It wasn’t easy making friends either. I was a good student and that made some of my classmates jealous. Like this one time, after six months at that school, our maths teacher wrote a problem on the blackboard and I was the only one who knew how to solve it. One classmate, who was at the top of the maths class at the time, hated me for it and tried to mobilise others against me.
My biggest horror was discerning High German from Swiss. For months I felt useless – I didn’t understand a word when people were talking in social settings.
Learning the language was tricky, too. My biggest horror was discerning High German from Swiss. It seems funny now but I only noticed after a couple of months that outside of school (where we were supposed to speak High German), people speak in Swiss dialect. For months I felt useless – I didn’t understand a word when people were talking in social settings. I thought I hadn’t learnt anything. It was so frustrating, since there was nothing I wanted more than to master the language as quickly as possible.
There were also moments when my classmates would speak broken and slow German with me on purpose, thinking they were helping me, by making it easier for me to understand. But they weren’t helping me learn – I had to spell it out for them that they had to speak normally if they wanted to help me at all.
It’s now been five years since I first came to Switzerland. Today, my priority is bringing attention to the situation of Eritrean refugees in the country. Besides writing articles and giving interviews on that subject, I work as a textile engineer for a company whose offices are only a few kilometres from my old school. I’m happy to say that my trip to work takes less then 10 minutes by train.