ST. GALLEN, Switzerland – Missing the train at 6:45 in the morning does not start the day well. The anger with myself, the world and the punctuality of the Swiss train system reaches a new peak. There aren’t many people around on a Saturday morning in a small Swiss town like St. Gallen. Those who do their job at the train station appear to be the only ones awake. One of them is my bench fellow, Iraqi immigrant Bjar Morthada Ali, who starts his working day as the minibar operator on the train to Geneva.
Right in front of us hangs a political campaign poster for the “anti-immigration initiative,” with its main goal to reduce the number of immigrants in Switzerland.
On Feb. 9, the initiative proved to be successful: The Swiss voted in favor of the introduction of immigration quotas. Not only does the vote carry big consequences for the free movement of people in Europe, but it has also caused an immediate and considerable uproar among the Swiss themselves. My young Swiss friends are going to the barricades against what mostly rural Switzerland has voted for. Although more exposed to immigration than rural citizens, the young, liberal Swiss do not fear more competitive labor markets, nor do they feel that public transportation has become too crowded—a highly lobbied argument in favor of the initiative.
Ali arrived in Switzerland 10 years ago as a political refugee from Iraq. He is married and has two kids, but does not hold permanent residential rights to live in Switzerland. “They want me to learn better German, but I don’t have time. I need to work,” he says, pointing to the arriving train. For five years, he has been working as the minibar operator for the restaurant services company of the SBB, the Swiss public train enterprise, well recognized for an average delay of three minutes in 2013.
Ali rarely notices the anti-immigration initiative posters next to him when entering the supply and delivery door to his workplace, the train. In a Swiss-German dialect with an Arabic accent, he says, “It is a little bit difficult here,” noting that the Swiss are less open to foreigners. “People in Germany are more friendly to foreigners.”
He can’t remember why he chose Switzerland over other destinations when he fled the second Iraq War. But he will stay, “because of my two kids.” He disappears into the catacombs of the train, which is departing on its trip to Geneva and back again. Given the very unlikely three minutes’ delay, his job for the day will be done at 3:56 p.m. Like almost every day, tomorrow, on Sunday morning, he will wake up again to serve coffee to the Swiss at their seats, no matter whether they are young, old, villagers or live in the city.
Editor’s note: The author is a German citizen and holds a temporary-residence permit in Switzerland.