• Switzerland's news in English

Eritrean refugees find shelter at Swiss abbey

Nina Larson/AFP · 21 Oct 2014, 09:53

Published: 21 Oct 2014 09:53 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

The 21-year-old fingers his large crucifix as he walks past grazing cows and immaculately groomed horses towards the towering Einsiedeln Abbey.
"I'm very happy that I'm in this place. It is peaceful and there are no disturbances," said Teklestion above the sound of tolling church bells.
He is one of some 30 Eritrean asylum seekers given refuge this month at Switzerland's most famous monastery in the country's north, about 32 kilometres from Zurich.
Founded in 934 and, according to legend, miraculously consecrated by Christ himself, the Benedictine monastery's Black Madonna is said to have a magical aura.

It draws more than a million pilgrims a year to the tiny, idyllic town of Einsiedeln.
But since early October, the monastery has transformed a building that usually accommodates pilgrims into a makeshift asylum centre, with around 80 Eritreans expected to pass through by the end of the year.
"I'm Benedictine, everybody who knocks at the door of a monastery has a right to be heard," said Abbot Urban Federer, smiling behind steel-rimmed glasses, his broad gold and blue ring of rank hidden in the folds of his habit.

 Influx of asylum seekers 

And the central canton of Schwyz knocked.
"Like every other country in Europe, we have experienced a mass influx of asylum seekers, most of them Eritreans, since July," explained Fiona Elze of the Schwyz migration authorities.
"Our reception centres were full," she told AFP, and the monastery showed "exceptional readiness to help".
Between July and September, Switzerland received more than 7,800 asylum requests — a 45-percent jump from the same period a year earlier — with 3,500 of them having fled autocratic Eritrea.
The wealthy Alpine nation is bracing for a total of around 25,000 asylum applications this year, up from nearly 21,500 in 2013.
The growing numbers are distributed across Switzerland's 26 cantons, and Schwyz, with some 150,000 inhabitants, is required to take two percent, or around 500 people, Elze said.
"For a small canton, that is a demanding challenge," she said.
Many Swiss cantons are dealing with the influx by opening up some of the country's multitude of underground military shelters to house asylum seekers.
Schwyz also had that option, Elze said, but was wary of placing people in shelters without natural light.
"This is more humane," she said, nodding around one of two bright, tidy, bunk-lined rooms that together can hold 32 men at a time.
As they are transferred into more long-term housing in the community, new asylum seekers will take their place, but all are expected to be out by the end of the year.
There is also a schoolroom where the men take daily German lessons, a saw mill where some of them work to make pocket money, and a kitchen for most meals.
A hot lunch is provided each day in a dining area near the heart of the abbey.
The monastery's ornate Benedictine church with its peaceful gardens and stables set against the backdrop of rolling emerald hills alive with the chimes of cow bells definitely makes for a pleasant setting.
Most of the Eritreans here are, coincidentally, devout Christians, albeit Orthodox rather than Catholic, and many say they find solace in the spiritual settings and the tranquility of the church and the Madonna shrine — notably after difficult journeys to Europe.

Harrowing journeys

Several describe hiking across the Sahara desert through Sudan and into Libya, both assisted and abused by people smugglers.

And most, then, risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean.
"When we were picked up in the desert by the Libyan people smugglers, one tortured me badly," said Teklestion, speaking through a translator.

"I almost died."
Samuel Tesfmicher, 23, told AFP he was held in handcuffs for three months in Libya before being crammed into a boat that almost sank after days on the Mediterranean.
"Water gushed in," he said, saying he feels lucky not to be among the more than 3,000 migrants who have perished trying to cross that sea this year alone.
Father Urban said he was moved by the plight of these men and was happy he could do his "spiritual duty".
While many in Einsiedeln have embraced the project, others in the town of 15,000 inhabitants are horrified, he acknowledged.
Switzerland is among the countries in Europe that, per capita, take in most asylum seekers and resentment towards the newcomers is widespread, especially in conservative, traditional cantons like Schwyz.
"I have explained to them that they are not really welcome, and this is a fact," Elze said.

Story continues below…

"It's simply honesty," she said, adding though that "now that they are here we will do our best."

Teklestion did not appear fazed, voicing hope he could get a work permit and become a productive member of Swiss society.
"I would like to get a job," he said, "and then I would like to establish a family, to have a good life."

For more news from Switzerland, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Nina Larson/AFP (news@thelocal.ch)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Swiss woman wins headscarf court battle
Photo: Jack Guez / AFP file picture

A Swiss court has ruled against a company that fired a longtime employee after she began wearing the Muslim headscarf, marking one of the first such rulings in Switzerland, media reported Sunday.

Montreux throws hat in Olympic rings
Could Montreux host the 2026 Games? Photo: Ivo Scholz/Swiss Tourism

Montreux is to put itself forward as the host city for the 2026 winter Olympics as part of a potential bid by the cantons of Valais and Vaud.

Geneva car share scheme could help reduce city traffic
Catch a Car is aimed at short hops within a city. Photo: Catch a Car

Catch a Car, already in Basel, launches in Geneva next month.

Swiss women will ‘work for free’ for the rest of year
Female employees in Switzerland earn 19.3 percent less than their male colleagues. File photo: Randy Kashka

Switzerland's gender pay gap means from today, Friday October 21st, women in the country will effectively be working for free for the rest of 2016.

Swiss luxury watches stolen in Paris raid
Police outside the Girard-Perregaux watch store on Thursday. Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP

The 10 Girard-Perregaux watches are worth half a million euros in total.

Brother-in-law arrested over murder of Swiss teacher
The victim worked in a school in Stabio, near the town of Mendrisio. Photo: Oliver Graf

The primary school teacher was found dead in Ticino earlier this week.

Inside Switzerland’s largest nuclear bunker – 40 years on
Designed to house 20,000 people, the bunker was built in and over two motorway tunnels. Photo: Unterirdisch Ueberleben

The Local takes a tour of the Sonnenberg bunker in Lucerne, opened 40 years ago at the height of the Cold War.

Ten Swiss ski resorts named most expensive in Europe
File photo: Renato Bagattini/Swiss Tourism

Skiers in Switzerland pay the highest prices for their ski passes of anywhere in Europe, according to research.

Eco group fights Bern over wind farm plans
There are currently more than 30 wind farms in Switzerland. Photo: Alpiq

Wind turbines are “gigantic and destructive” machines, says Paysage Libre Suisse.

Vegan wins battle to be accepted by Swiss army
Antoni Da Campo will now carry out his military service. Photo: Antoni Da Campo

A Swiss man who was told he would not be accepted for military service because of his strict veganism has finally succeeded in making the army change its mind.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Photo: Richard Juilliard/AFP
Man makes Geneva airport bomb threat ‘for a joke’
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Photo: AFP
Solar Impulse team reveals plans for unmanned plane
File photo: Martin Abegglen
Swiss to vote on passport rules for 3rd gen foreigners
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Photo: AFP
Swiss wingsuit hotspot Lauterbrunnen won’t impose ban
Photo: Swiss Tourism
Six reasons Switzerland isn’t as boring as you might think
Photo: Swiss Tourism
Report: Switzerland one of world’s best places for girls
Photo: The Local
Thief returns Swiss cow bells worth thousands
File photo: Wikimedia Commons
One in three rapists isn’t locked up: statistics
Photo: activistin.ch
Tampon-tax protest turns Zurich fountains red
Photo: AFP
Geneva police to lift ban on bearded officers
Photo: Marcel Gillieron/AFP
Suicide chef’s restaurant keeps Michelin stars
Photo: Lara de Salis
11 things the Swiss get tired of hearing abroad
Photo:  Ivo Scholz/Swiss-image.ch
Survey: expats in Switzerland have money but few friends
Photo: AFP
Swiss press criticize Bern’s 'capitulation' on immigration
Photo: Jura Trois Lacs tourism
German ex-policeman is Swiss city’s new hermit
Photo: Dmitry A. Mottl
Ticino votes to favour local workers over foreigners
Photo: file
Some deodorants could cause breast cancer: Swiss study
Photo: Royal Savoy
In pictures: Inside the latest Swiss luxury hotel
Photo: AFP
Geneva airport bomb hoaxer faces 90,000-franc bill
Photo: Schaffhausen police
Mother leaves toddler son alone in car to go clubbing
Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
Swiss populist attacked by knife-wielding pensioner
Photo: File
Bern argues over passports for 3rd generation foreigners
Photo: Broad Bean Media
Muslim pupils must shake hands – ‘no ifs and buts’
jobs available