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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

‘A beautiful country’: How Ukrainian refugees see Switzerland

The Local’s Helena Bachmann is hosting two young Ukrainians in her home in Vaud. This is their take on the pros and cons of Swiss life.

'A beautiful country': How Ukrainian refugees see Switzerland
Roman and Nadiia cook home-made vareniki. Photo: The Local

When Nadiia, 23, and her brother Roman, 16, left their home, mom and older brother in the city of Odessa, all they knew about Switzerland was that it was beautiful, clean and safe.

After arriving, they say they were not wrong on that score.

Their first impression when they arrived in mid-April was “amazing views, beautiful towns and villages”, Nadiia recalls.

As they got to know their surroundings in the Lake Geneva region, they made even more discoveries. Roman, for instance, was impressed by the state of Swiss roads and how the narrow ones could accommodate two-way traffic.

He also likes that most roads have bicycle lanes.

One advantage of seeing things with a fresh set of eyes is noticing seemingly trivial things that those of us living here don’t pay attention to and mostly take for granted.

Roman mentioned that there is no difference, in terms of infrastructure, between towns and countryside. How many of us have made this astute observation?

And Nadiia commented on the abundance of fountains that spout clean, drinkable water.

READ MORE: Ten things Geneva residents take for granted

Last but not least, and unlike many other foreigners who find the Swiss aloof, Nadiia and Roman’s experience has been the opposite.

All the people they’ve met so far have been “nice, friendly, kind, and helping us integrate”, Nadiia said.

Bottles, paper, batteries

Among their most surprising discoveries (aside from the ones mentioned above) was Switzerland’s recycling system.

Coming from a country where “everything is stuffed together in a bag and thrown into trash” — as Roman described his nation’s approach to recycling — the Swiss way of disposing of waste was a real eye-opener.

The two took to the new ‘recycling culture’ quickly and willingly, hauling household garbage to nearby bins and separating paper, cardboard, plastic and glass bottles, organic waste, and Nespresso coffee capsules more assiduously than we do.

Roman and Nadiia are equal to the (recycling) task. Photo: Helena Bachmann/The Local

“Easier life”

Both siblings like to cook, which we embraced with enthusiasm and gratitude.

We have been the lucky recipients of Ukrainian specialties such as borstch (a beet-based soup), as well as pelmeni and vareniki — round or crescent-shaped dumplings stuffed with ground meat or potatoes, respectively.

Needless to say — and that is a rare thing in our house — everything is made from scratch: beets, cabbage and carrots for the borstch are grated by hand, and the dough is made and kneaded manually as well.

When I pointed out that all the ingredients — such as grated beets and dough can be purchased pre-made, and that people in Switzerland usually don’t spend so much time in the kitchen, the two conceded that life here “is easier” as there are fewer domestic chores to do, but they still prefer the traditional, more laborious way of food preparation.

Prices and bureaucracy

In their six weeks here, the two have noticed some negative aspects of Swiss life as well.

The biggest shock — as is the case for most new arrivals — are the prices.

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland so expensive?

On the day after they arrived in Vaud, Roman was stunned that a loaf of bread we bought cost 3 francs, while the same one sells for the equivalent of 50 cents in Ukraine. Cost of other consumer goods has been a shock as well, though they now begin to grasp that Ukrainian prices and wages can’t be extrapolated into Swiss ones.

Another thing the siblings don’t like so much is that shops close by 6:30 pm on most days, after which time there is not much to do, especially in the small town where we live.

Nadiia also mentioned how slow the Swiss bureaucracy is.

While the two received their status S — which allows them and other Ukrainian refugees to stay in Switzerland for a year — relatively quickly, the cantonal procedures related to integration and French language courses take much longer.

Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

However, they understand this slowness is due to the large number of Ukrainians that are currently here — more than 3,500 in Vaud as at beginning of May — who have to be processed as well.

The sheer number of people who have sought refuge in the canton in a short period of time is an unprecedented situation for all the services and departments dealing with these refugees, so delays are par for the course.

Oh yes, another important perk…

Among Roman’s personal Swiss-life favourites is the one allowing those over the age of 16 to drink some alcoholic beverages, while the legal drinking age in Ukraine is 18. 

So far he only had one beer, but it’s good to know Switzerland’s charms go well beyond chocolate and edelweiss.

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POLITICS

‘Colossal’: World leaders meet in Switzerland for Ukraine recovery conference

Leaders from dozens of countries, international organisations and the private sector gathered in Switzerland Monday to hash out a "Marshall Plan" to rebuild war-ravaged Ukraine.

‘Colossal’: World leaders meet in Switzerland for Ukraine recovery conference

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who will take part virtually, warned Sunday that the work ahead in the areas that have been liberated alone was “really colossal”.

“And we will have to free over 2,000 villages and towns in the east and south of Ukraine,” he said.

The two-day conference, held under tight security in the picturesque southern Swiss city of Lugano, had been planned well before Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24.

It had originally been slated to discuss reforms in Ukraine, but once the Russian bombs began to fall it was repurposed to focus on reconstruction.

As billions of dollars in aid flows into Ukraine, however, lingering concerns about widespread corruption in the country mean far-reaching reforms remain in focus and will be a condition for any recovery plan decided here. 

‘Roadmap’

Lugano is not a pledging conference, but will instead attempt to lay out the principles and priorities for a rebuilding process aimed to begin even as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to rage.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Switzerland Artem Rybchenko said ahead of the conference that it would help create “the roadmap” to his country’s recovery.

Zelensky had initially been scheduled to come and co-host the event alongside his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis, but now he is due to give his address Monday afternoon via video link.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has however made a rare trip out of Ukraine since the war began to attend, and was met at the airport Sunday by Cassis and regional leaders.

Five other government ministers were also among the around 100 Ukrainians who made the long and perilous journey, although Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reportedly had to cancel at the last moment due to illness.

In all, around 1,000 people were scheduled to participate in the conference, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, several government chiefs and numerous ministers. 

‘Marshall Plan’

Questions have been raised about the value in discussing reconstruction when there is no end in sight to the war.

But Robert Mardini, director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the RTS broadcaster that while the reconstruction itself could only happen fully after the bombs have stopped, it is vital to give “a positive perspective to civilians who have lost their homes, and who are struggling with anxiety and uncertainty for the future”.

Others stress the need to begin laying the groundwork well in advance, as was done with the wildly successful Marshall Plan, a US initiative that pumped vast sums in foreign aid into Western Europe to help the continent rebuild and recover after World War II.

The task is daunting.

Rebuilding Ukraine, which four months into the war has already seen devastating destruction, is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

The effort will require “colossal investments”, Zelensky acknowledged at the weekend.

Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) has estimated the damage done so far to buildings and infrastructure at nearly $104 billion.

It estimated that at least 45 million square metres of housing, 256 enterprises, 656 medical institutions, and 1,177 educational institutions had been damaged, destroyed or seized, while Ukraine’s economy had already suffered losses of up to $600 billion. 

Could last decades 

Simon Pidoux, the Swiss ambassador in charge of the conference, said that it was too early to try to estimate all the needs, insisting Lugano instead should provide “a compass” for the work ahead.

“I think the effort will last for years if not decades,” he said.

While not a donor conference, a number of participants are expected to make new pledges and propose frameworks for providing more funds.

The European Investment Bank will for instance propose the creation of a new Ukraine trust fund, which with investments from EU and non-EU states could eventually swell to 100 billion euros, according to sources familiar with the draft plans.

The proposal, which is due to be announced Monday afternoon, aims to create a platform able to generate investment towards reconstruction, and also towards Ukraine’s EU accession goals, they said.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is meanwhile due to set out her country’s vision for the rebuilding, according to a statement. In her comments to the conference Monday, she is expected to highlight the importance of Ukraine’s full recovery from “Russia’s war of aggression”. That, she will say, will be “a symbol of the power of democracy over autocracy.”

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