The schools that allowed you to get out of the closet

The exhibition at the La Chaux-de-Fonds History Museum dedicates ample space to underground schools. Aline Henchoz

In the second half of the last century, many boys and girls children of seasonal workers could only be educated thanks to the courage and passion of some people who, by defying the law, gave birth to real underground schools.

This content was published on July 4, 2022 – 4:00 pm

The one on display at the Historical Museum of La Chaux-de-Fonds is certainly not a particularly bright chapter in contemporary Swiss history.External linkin the canton of Neuchâtel.

With the title “Enfants du placard; à l’école de la clandestinité” (“Children in the closet; at the secret school)”, the exhibition wants to “give a voice to those who have largely been denied the floor”, emphasizes the director of the museum Francesco Garufo.

It is for all the boys and girls who had to live illegally in Switzerland (hidden in the closet) because their parents had a seasonal work permit.

The infamous A-license, which was abolished in 2002 with the entry into force of the free movement of persons between the Union and the EU, did not allow family reunification. Many parents who ‘made the season’ in Switzerland were thus forced to leave their children in their home country, where they were cared for by other family members. Often, however, the posting was too painful, and therefore seasonal workers, mainly from Italy, Spain and Portugal, took their children with them. This breaks the law.

Do not make noise!

There are no exact figures due to the illegal nature of the phenomenon. In the early 1970s, it is estimated that there were up to 15,000 illegal boys and girls in Switzerland. Only an estimate, but which certainly gives an idea of ​​how many children may live in the shadows during this period, which as mentioned lasted until 2002.

More or less common sentences, but which had a very special meaning for secret children. Aline Henchoz / La Chaux-de-Fonds Historical Museum

In the shade, in fact, or rather in the wardrobe. “Pay attention”, “Do not talk to anyone”, “Do not make noise” … On one wall of the exhibition are reproduced sentences that we probably all hear as children, but which for the boys and girls had a very special meaning. Being discovered can actually mean deportation.

A 1969 report of the RTS Temps Present broadcast

“We made a noise and someone reported us,” he recalls Rafael, one of six ‘children in the closet’ who said yes to witnessing the exhibition. The policeman in charge, however, shows great compassion, and when he enters the apartment he rhetorically asks the parents of Rafael, who has meanwhile hidden in a room with his brothers: “We agree that there are no children here . … “.

The difficulty of testifying

“It is not easy to find people who are willing to testify,” he notes Sarah Kianiwho is working on a research project on ‘babies in the closet’ at the University of NeuchâtelExternal link, directed by Professor Kristina Schulz, and whose first results have merged precisely in this exhibition. “Many have said no, there is a sense of shame that persists even after years,” he continues.

However, what emerges from the collected testimonies is not just sad or difficult pieces of life. “There have been different ways of dealing with this underground situation, and it’s not always dark stories,” he notes. Sarah Kiani. “This exhibition also wants to transcribe the diversity of lived experiences,” Francesco Garufo repeats.

The importance of school

But if there is one common denominator that stands out before the eyes of all these experiences, it is the importance that the school has played in letting these minors out of the closet. It is no coincidence that the exhibition devotes plenty of space to this theme.

Today, the right to family reunification or the right to access education is clearly enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, this treaty is relatively new (1989), and Switzerland ratified it in 1997, which, among other things, expressed reservations about the issue of family reunification.

In other words, the primary school remained for many decades a mirage for those living without a permit in Switzerland.

Speakers like desks

However, not all remained vacant. In 1971, the first “special class” for illegal children was opened in Renens, in the canton of Vaud, by migrant associations.

The following year, two friends in Neuchâtel set up a secret school, which will be active for two years. “Cashiers from the Brunette Cigarette Factory are used as desks,” reads a billboard at the exhibition.

A few years later, in the early 1980s, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, also in the canton of Neuchâtel, the teacher was Denyse Reymond creates another school, which later becomes the Mosaic SchoolExternal link and it still exists.

And the historical museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds reconstitutes a classroom of the Mosaic School in a wing of the exhibition with the notebooks of the students who participated in it, their drawings …

The courses taught by Denyse Reymond they are open to all children who are in an illegal situation and not a small aspect for these families who certainly do not swim in gold is free. The funds needed to cover the expenses are collected through donations.

“These kids didn’t know where to go, and nine years ago, when I started this school with my daughter, we went to look for the kids where they were hiding,” he says. Denyse Reymond in this archive service of Swiss Radio and Television RTS.

Secret … but not too much

“In addition to their main task, which is to educate children, these schools have also played another clock function – he specifies Sarah Kiani in other words, for these boys and girls and their families, they have been a gateway to everything a child needs, namely medical, dental, cultural and sporting activities … “.

Although the existence of these schools was more or less known, the municipal and cantonal authorities – at least in Neuchâtel and Geneva – quietly turned a blind eye. On the basis of a 1983 letter from a La Chaux-de-Fonds teacher active in these fields, the cantonal authorities would even have participated in the funding.

This gray zone lasts until 1990, when these two cantons are pioneers in Switzerland, deciding that the right to schooling takes precedence over the rules of immigration to Switzerland. Public schools thus officially open their doors to boys and girls who do not comply with the law.

Education for all

In the following years, other cantons took the same step, also because the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – ratified as mentioned by Switzerland in 1997 – explicitly gives the right to free primary education for all. Today, everyone can go to primary schools.

However, the repeal of the seasonal statute in 2002 does not mean the end of the secret. According to an estimate from the State Secretariat for Migration, in 2015 between 50,000 and 99,000 people lived in Switzerland without legal residence status. Among them also many boys and girls.

If access to education is now guaranteed, the unknown things exist that weigh on them and their families. Just four years ago, a parliamentary proposal put forward by the right (and then withdrawn) called for, among other things, to facilitate, for example in the field of education, the exchange of information between state bodies on persons without valid residency. A measure that, according to some, could have made undocumented parents give up sending their children to school.

“The issue has changed a lot since the 1970s and 1980s, but it is still relevant,” he said. Francesco Garufo. It raises the question of integration, of family reunification. The story of the children in the closet allows us to reflect on the importance of integrating and training young migrants today. “

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