“Neuland”, Monday, Aug. 17 on POV

A Poignant Look at Young Immigrants Trying to Make A New Life In Switzerland

Meet the young students in Christian Zingg‘s integration class, who came to Switzerland by planes, trains and automobiles — and even by rubber boats. Separated from their families and in many cases traumatized by events in their home countries, these migrants from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Serbia and Venezuela already have long and arduous journeys behind them. Anne Thommen‘s Neuland (“New Territory”) follows the adolescents over two years as they struggle to learn a new language, prepare themselves for employment and reveal their innermost hopes and dreams. But as the end of school draws near, each student must face the same difficult question: Is there a place for me in this country?

School trip of the integration school. Photo Credit -  Gabriela Betschart

School trip of the integration school. ( Photo Credit: Gabriela Betschart)

Neuland follows Mr. Zingg’s adolescent charges as they struggle to learn a new language, prepare for employment and reveal their innermost hopes and dreams. But as the end of school draws near, each student must face the same difficult question: Is there a place for me in this country?

Basel, 2010. On the first day of his integration class, Mr. Zingg introduces himself to a disparate group of young people who have made their way to Switzerland from around the world. He has two years to help these fledglings learn to survive and forge new lives. Part teacher, part life coach, part surrogate father, he gets to know each one, building trust within the group and with each student, and helping them navigate bureaucratic hurdles, family troubles and the difficulties of being a stranger in a strange land.

Ehsanullah Habibi

Ehsanullah Habibi ( Photo Credit: Gabriela Betschart)

Hamidullah Hashimi and Ehsanullah Habibi at school.

Hamidullah Hashimi and Ehsanullah Habibi at school. ( Photo Credit: Gabriela Betschart)

They’re all escaping something — war, family problems, poverty. There is Ehsanullah Habibi, who has finally made it from Afghanistan to Switzerland after traveling for a year on borrowed money — a staggering $20,000. His anxious family waits back home for him to send the loan payments — or the lender will take their property. He calls his parents regularly on a pay phone. “It doesn’t look good in Afghanistan,” his father says. “Make a life for yourself.” “Pray for me,” Ehsanullah asks his dad.

Suffering from anxiety and homesickness, Ehsanullah begins to harm himself, and makes no attempt to hide the bandages on his arms. “We know how helpless we are with this,” a teacher tells Mr. Zingg, “but if that’s a message, a cry for help, then we must speak to him.

Nazlijie at work in a retirement home (Photo Credit: Gabriela Betschart)

Nazlijie Aliji at work in a retirement home (Photo Credit: Gabriela Betschart)

Brother and sister Ismail and Nazlije Aliji left their home country of Serbia after their mother died. Smart, eager and dedicated, Nazlije longs to be a primary school teacher, but she realizes her dream may be out of reach when she hears how many years of education that would require. “You’re talented; you can do it,” her friends at home tell her on Skype in a poignant moment. Mr. Zingg is more realistic when he meets with Nazlije and her uncle. “At the moment, that’s not the path for you,” he gently explains.

Ehsanullah wants to be a house painter, but is stunned to learn he must first pass a test in mathematics. “Take a deep breath,” Mr. Zingg smiles. “I’m 100 percent sure you can do that. . . . But in Switzerland every job has a theoretical, or school part. And that’s the part which will not be easy for you.

In preparation for “Taster Week,” when students seek apprenticeships, they practice applying for jobs by role-playing with Mr. Zingg. After multiple rejections from potential employers, Nazlije is finally accepted for a trial position as an aide at a geriatric residence; Ismail is hired in construction; and Ehsanullah lands a job in a food processing plant. But Ehsanullah’s biggest concern remains paying off the loan, the balance of which is due in less than six months. When Taster Week is over, he quits school and takes a job in a restaurant. Three weeks later, he’s back, but Mr. Zingg will only accept him if he signs a pledge that he will attend 100 percent of the remaining school days and work only on the weekends.

Christian Zingg, teacher of the integration class

Christian Zingg, teacher of the integration class ( Photo Credit: Gabriela Betschart)

In June, the students graduate, and with a bittersweet mixture of hugs and tears they express their gratitude to Mr. Zingg. He asks them all to come back and visit, expressing confidence that they are now on solid footing.

I got to know Mr. Zingg three years ago during a media-education film project with his class,” said filmmaker Thommen. “I was impressed by the trust the pupils placed in their teacher. When Mr. Zingg told me some of the unbelievable stories about the fates of his pupils, I knew I wanted to make a film about this. We decided to accompany him and his next class over the two years from the beginning through the end of their schooling.”

When we started filming, I was initially just curious about all of the young people who gathered in the schoolyard during breaks and the stories they had to tell. In retrospect, I admit that I had my ideas and prejudices about the various nationalities of the young people. But the longer the filming lasted, the less I was able to think in stereotypes and the more complex the individual stories and destinies became. What followed was the admission of my prejudices, and I started to see just the people, with all their contradictions and far from their homes. I genuinely hope that it will touch the viewers and sensitize them to the fates of these young migrants and others like them who are stranded on our shores every day.