India’s strange addiction to Switzerland

A love story based on scenery, souvenir T-shirts, watches and hope.

Come summer vacation, we’d pack our bags and head east into the impoverished, potholed interior of India to visit relatives. We would come home to embarrassing poverty: a mud hut, misshapen windows that looked out to a courtyard full of drying cow dung and happy naked mud-streaked children riding rodeo on billy goats. We would come bearing trinkets from the city: a carved stone Ganesha, a box of gulab jamuns and posters of Switzerland.

The bent, twisted and prematurely-aged uncle we stayed with would return home at sunset from his daily toil to his half-room, half-goat shed reeking of sweat and cheap tobacco. His cheeks hollowed, his chest bare and scrawny, eyes cataract-clouded and squinting in the kerosene-oil light, he would switch on All India Radio and rest his cracked soles on a stool. He would then spend an hour gazing at the poster of a steam engine winding through Interlaken in Switzerland. He didn’t talk much but collected posters: blooming tulips in Gstaad, ruminating cows in the Canton of Uri and the clear Lake Lucerne. He’d have a mouthful of rice, ghee, an onion and a pinch of salt for dinner, stare at the posters for an hour more and finally blow the lantern out and fall asleep.

Withered, tubercular and dying, he still continues to this day - asking those returning from Delhi to bring him “Swiss” posters.

Ever since Bollywood fled the Kashmir Valley bloodshed and started cavorting on the meadows of Interlaken, Indians have been flocking to Switzerland. For many others the prospect of visiting Switzerland remains a frustrating dream.

The cable car station at the snow-strewn summit of Jungfraujoch has a kitschy ice-cave with cut-outs of Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan. Swiss shopkeepers and restaurant owners have developed the uncanny ability to spot Bollywood producers on the streets. Vegetarian restaurants have sprung up in tiny alpine villages where pilgrims come to sup from Chennai and Mumbai. Meanwhile, the Swiss government has launched a new tourism drive to lure second-tier city dwellers in India, who have never been abroad.

At high school in India, I knew a chap who now works at CERN in Geneva. He was dirt-poor and only owned two pairs of trousers, one of which was for school uniform. After classes he, an “untouchable”, would stay behind to sweep the school corridor and mop the latrines. He kept a folded photo of a Bollywood actress in his wallet, preening herself on a green meadow with the Eiger looming behind. His ultimate driving force in life was a desire to live and work in Switzerland. Today, somewhere out there in Geneva, there is a badly-dressed Indian boy splitting atoms with a smile on his face.

There is perhaps a deeper reason for this fascination that the average Indian professes for Switzerland. A reputation for governance, cuckoo-clock punctuality and the incredibly spotless setting are a stark contrast with the bribery and squalor back home. It is a promised land, a land like no other; an infinitely better place representing the way things should be.

Consider Britain and India: lovers and haters, master and slave, a BDSM relationship befitting ropes and shackles, colonial fetishes, Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul, Bend It Like Beckham, Mountbatten and Kipling; every conceivable story between the two has been played out. All permutations are exhausted. It is time India looked for new pastures and new stories, and what better way to start than “lights, camera, action!”

Just think of it. Two nations dissimilar in every way coming together. Indians yearn for the manufactured languor of the Swiss, the Teutonic forests and waterfalls, the sheer otherworldliness. The Swiss love the money the Indians bring in. It is one of the greatest love stories of our times: one based on scenery, souvenir T-shirts, watches and hope.

The Indian in his rural hinterland now knows of the yodelling on the meadows, the panoramic views from the Glacier Express and the impossibly green turf on the Grindelwald. The Swiss on the other hand... are just bemused.

So unlike India in every way, and yet the object of so much affection... Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".