A life lived in secret


Rahel Schmucki



Frau sitzt auf einer Mauer im Park

Maria has lived and worked in Switzerland without a valid visa for 21 years. She is one of over 100,000 undocumented immigrants. How did it come to this point? And how does a person survive in this way?

Maria smooths her black dress over her knees and waits nervously for the conversation to begin. Her black hair, already going a bit grey at the roots, is loosely tied back. She’s sitting in someone else’s apartment, because she cannot tell anyone where she really lives; her name isn’t even really Maria. The 64-year-old from the Dominican Republic is an undocumented immigrant and has lived for more than 21 years in a major Swiss city without a residence permit. If the police were to find out about her, she would be deported immediately. A colleague serves as an interpreter during our conversation. Maria only speaks Spanish.

Maria came to Switzerland for the first time in 1997. At the time, she was 40 years old and had just lost both of her jobs in the Dominican Republic – one in a sewing factory and one at a bakery. She was unable to find a new job, but she needed money to pay for her children’s education. Through acquaintances, she came in contact with a Dominican family that lived in Switzerland and offered her a position as a nanny and housekeeper. The family arranged a three-month tourist visa for her. «It was very easy to come to Switzerland this way,» Maria says.

«I was exploited.»

When these three months elapsed, Maria simply stayed on in Switzerland and continued to work for the family. She cleaned, ironed, did the shopping and watched the children around the clock. She earned 600 Swiss francs a month as well as room and board. She never treated herself to an ice cream or a cup of coffee. Everything she could scrape together she sent to her children in the Dominican Republic. «The work was much harder than I had imagined. The family exploited me.» But Maria was unable to leave. The choice was between little and nothing at all.

Then she got sick and became sicker and sicker, felt exhausted and had increasingly severe abdominal pains and bleeding. As an undocumented immigrant, she could not see a doctor. That was only possible in her home country. So she continued to work and saved for a ticket home in order to obtain medical care. When she returned to the Dominican Republic after three years in Switzerland, she was diagnosed with an advanced uterine tumour. «That was a shock for me, but also a relief that I finally was able to get help,» says Maria.

As Maria tells her story, she remains very calm. She emphasises her words by rhythmically nodding her head and with gestures. As she does so, her mask continually falls under her nose, and every time she immediately pulls it back up.

Undocumented immigrants in Switzerland

An estimated 100,000 people are currently living in Switzerland without a valid residence permit. That’s more than one per cent of the Swiss population. Most of these individuals are originally from Latin America and came to Switzerland to work and send money back home. The majority of them are women. They work in private households, restaurants or as sex workers. Men tend to work in construction or as farmers. 90 per cent of all undocumented immigrants in Switzerland are employed, or at least they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a drop-in centre for undocumented immigrants in nearly every city in Switzerland. These centres help with legal issues, make sure that children of undocumented immigrants can go to school, and arrange for persons without residence permits to receive health insurance.

You can find more information at: sans-papiers.ch

A difficult decision

Maria recovered, but she remained plagued by financial woes. After spending two years with her family, she decided to go back to Switzerland. «It was a difficult decision. I was very happy to be back with my children. But we needed money.» She travelled back to Switzerland, this time with a two-week tourist visa, and once again earned money by cleaning, cooking and nannying. This time, however, she had several employers. She procured these jobs through acquaintances, always under the table, always illegally. «If I didn't have any work or I was sick, I had no money.»

No one paid into her retirement fund. «The families were afraid that they would be caught employing an undocumented immigrant,» says Maria. In a good month, she earned 1600 Swiss francs. She would send up to 700 Swiss francs of that to her family back home. She only kept the money that she needed for rent, health insurance and food.

Never crossing the road at a red light

Maria’s life is a life of fear. She has developed strategies to help her avoid attention. «I never cross the road when the light is red. I’ve never ridden public transport without a ticket, and I avoid crowded places because there are frequently police checks there.» Nevertheless, she never really considered returning to the Dominican Republic; her family there needed the money. And, after a brief pause, she adds: «And despite the hard work and constant fear of the police, I like living in Switzerland. This is my home,» she says, smiling a bit sheepishly.

There was a time when things seemed to take a turn for the better. In 2005, she met a Swiss man named René and they fell in love. She was in a relationship with him for seven years, was able to live in his apartment, and they planned to marry. «For me, this was a time in which I also became a bit more careless. At one point, my annual pass for public transport had expired and I didn’t notice. The reason was that I was so full of hope,» Maria remembers. Then, after her illness, came the next blow: shortly before the wedding, René suddenly fell ill and had to be admitted to hospital. At the same time, Maria’s son in the Dominican Republic also became ill. She worked more to pay for her son’s medical bills and spent the rest of her time at René’s bedside.

Frau richtet Pflanzen-Ranken an einem Metal-Pfeiler

Never riding public transport without a ticket, never crossing the road at a red light, avoiding crowds of people – Maria makes sure that she remains under the radar of the police.

Partner, son, father – all gone

René died shortly after falling ill, and with him, Maria’s dream of living a normal life in Switzerland. «I was very lucky that I was able to collect my things from our apartment,» she remembers. A doctor suspected that Maria might be living illegally in Switzerland and approached her about it. She waited three hours to report the death to the authorities. This gave Maria a short window of time in which to gather up all of her belongings and go back into hiding before the apartment was sealed up by the authorities. «In every tough situation, there was always someone there to help me. I am extremely grateful for that.»

But this difficult time in Maria’s life did not end with René’s death. Maria’s son and father both passed away in the same year. She was not able to see either of them before they died. «That was the worst time of my life.» She moved in with a friend. For six months, she was unable to work, suffered from depression and exhaustion, began taking medicine, and underwent psychiatric treatment that she was able to obtain through a counselling centre. During this time, her anxiety about the police increased further – she lived in constant fear of being discovered.

According to Maria, she was able to find a way out of this crisis through God. She stopped taking her medication, joined a small Catholic parish and got to know a group of women there. All of them come from Latin America, all of them are living illegally in Switzerland. «This became my new family in Switzerland, and God gives me so much strength.» Today, they go to church together every day, pray together and offer each other support.

This community has turned Maria into a fighter – now, she is fighting for the visibility of undocumented immigrants in Switzerland. «I’ve become braver and I no longer want to hide myself away,» she says, softly hitting the table with her hand to emphasise her point. And her fighting spirit has also started to turn the tide. She found a room in a large flat share. «For the first time, I like where I’m living.»

There is also a way that Maria could be able to obtain legal residency: a petition for a hardship case. To qualify, an applicant must speak German at an A2 level. While Maria has started three German classes, she stopped attending all of them. «The level was too high for me, I didn’t have enough time to study because of work, and I wasn’t able to keep up,» she says. Recently, however, she decided to try again and is currently attending a German class.

Frau steht vor Engelsstatue

At church, Maria found strength – and friends: together with a group of women, she is fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants in Switzerland.

Giving up is not an option

COVID-19 has caused the situation for undocumented immigrants in Switzerland to deteriorate greatly. Many have lost their jobs and are only getting by with the help of charities and the church. Including Maria. Right now, she can only clean houses two days a week, and at her age, it’s not getting any easier. «At one job, I clean a building with three storeys.» She finds it harder and harder to climb the stairs. But Maria will not be able to retire. She has to keep working in order to receive any money.

Nevertheless, for Maria, returning to her family is out of the question. «I won’t receive any retirement benefits there, and I won’t find any work there either. Also, my daughter’s husband recently had a stroke and is currently in a coma. So they are relying on my money now more than ever.»

Maria has never given up, cannot give up, and will never give up. «If I can no longer clean, then I will simply take on more nannying jobs and look for more of this kind of work.»

«Die Unsichtbaren», von Tanja Polli und Ursula Markus, erschienen im Rotpunktverlag.

Literature tip: «Die Unsichtbaren»

«Die Unsichtbaren» (English: «The Invisibles») tells Maria’s story as well as that of 15 other undocumented immigrants. In various interviews, individuals from the relevant authorities discuss the issue and describe how Switzerland currently manages persons living in the country without a valid residence permit. The book was published in October 2021 and was supported by the Migros Culture Percentage.

«Die Unsichtbaren» by Tanja Polli and Ursula Markus, published by Rotpunktverlag.
Fr. 34.40 bei exlibris.ch

Photos: Nik Hunger

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