Swiss ‘millionaire’s playground’ plays host to Ukraine refugees

Kloster Menzingen’s first new born Ukrainian, Viktoria, aged one, who was born in the safety and tranquility of a Swiss monastery (Paddy Dowling)
Kloster Menzingen’s first new born Ukrainian, Viktoria, aged one, who was born in the safety and tranquility of a Swiss monastery (Paddy Dowling)

Zug, Switzerland’s wealthiest canton, is famous for its flawless alpine vistas and low taxes. And here in the rolling hills sits Kloster Menzingen monastery, a temporary home to 160 Ukrainian refugees who have fled their war-torn country.

“They were bombing my city last night,” explains law graduate Hana, 28, from Odesa, as she walks along the gloomy corridor in the southern wing of the convent.

“This is our life, waking up to news that our towns and cities are once more under siege,” she says.

Olga, 67, from Sumy in Ukraine, seated in a bedroom at Kloster Menzingen, a monastery nestled in the rolling hills of canton Zug, Switzerland (Paddy Dowling)
Olga, 67, from Sumy in Ukraine, seated in a bedroom at Kloster Menzingen, a monastery nestled in the rolling hills of canton Zug, Switzerland (Paddy Dowling)
Svetlana, 44, from Irpin in Ukraine, stands on a landing of the Swiss monastery (Paddy Dowling)
Svetlana, 44, from Irpin in Ukraine, stands on a landing of the Swiss monastery (Paddy Dowling)

The exclusive and perfectly manicured district, where one in eight of its residents is a millionaire, was by the end of July host to 2,333 refugees and asylum seekers from 55 different nationalities including 828 Ukrainian refugees.

Ukrainians in Switzerland have been granted asylum provisionally, to stay and work, under a fast-tracked permit ‘S’ status, reserved for people in need of special protection. However, when the war ends, they must return.

Olga, 67, looks out of a bedroom window to the courtyard below at Kloster Menzingen (Paddy Dowling)
Olga, 67, looks out of a bedroom window to the courtyard below at Kloster Menzingen (Paddy Dowling)
Kloster Menzingen is a temporary home to 160 Ukrainian refugees who have fled their war-torn country (Paddy Dowling)
Kloster Menzingen is a temporary home to 160 Ukrainian refugees who have fled their war-torn country (Paddy Dowling)

Notwithstanding, all residents at Kloster Menzingen will be uprooted once more to a repurposed modular facility, 12km away, which will provide shelter for up to 400 Ukrainian refugees.

The wing at the monastery, which has been their spiritual sanctuary for more than a year, is closing for renovation and conversion into apartments.

Tatiana, 65, from Kharkiv in Ukraine, looks out over the monastery grounds from a veranda (Paddy Dowling)
Tatiana, 65, from Kharkiv in Ukraine, looks out over the monastery grounds from a veranda (Paddy Dowling)
Hana, 28, from Odesa, walks the long gloomy corridor in the southern wing of the convent (Paddy Dowling)
Hana, 28, from Odesa, walks the long gloomy corridor in the southern wing of the convent (Paddy Dowling)

Christian Murbach, at the Zug Cantonal Social Welfare Office, explains: “Renewing leases on existing facilities, or finding and or building new asylum accommodation in a tense housing market, is becoming increasingly difficult”.

Living in Switzerland’s Disneyland for the rich is expensive, even for those earning reasonable salaries. At the monastery, Ukrainians each receive around £175 social welfare per month – in addition to core expenses provided by the canton – explained they simply couldn’t afford to buy anything.

Tatiana, who arrived in Switzerland from Odesa eight months pregnant, explains she could never have afforded the ‘five-star’ Swiss medical treatment she received when she gave birth to baby Viktoria. “The canton has been so kind and welcoming with all the children,” she adds.

A wall in the canteen at Kloster Menzingen where residents and staff post their photographs and Walt Disney look-alike cartoon characters (Paddy Dowling)
A wall in the canteen at Kloster Menzingen where residents and staff post their photographs and Walt Disney look-alike cartoon characters (Paddy Dowling)
Svetlana, 44, from Irpin in Ukraine, stands in a dormitory room in the Swiss monastery (Paddy Dowling)
Svetlana, 44, from Irpin in Ukraine, stands in a dormitory room in the Swiss monastery (Paddy Dowling)

Menzingen monastery allocated a playroom solely for children, brightly decorated with six-foot-high cartoon murals.

And for those unaccompanied minors arriving into the canton from Afghanistan, they have been provided with a 30-bed alpine lodge on Mount Zugerberg, equipped with an open plan kitchen, gymnasium, games room and bedrooms, all with breathtaking views towards the snow-capped mountains of the Swiss Alps.

Igor, 18, from Mariupol in Ukraine, shows a photograph on his phone of his family, who are still stuck in the Russian-controlled city (Paddy Dowling)
Igor, 18, from Mariupol in Ukraine, shows a photograph on his phone of his family, who are still stuck in the Russian-controlled city (Paddy Dowling)
The chapel turned ‘games room’ houses a pool table, foosball table and table tennis equipment (Paddy Dowling)
The chapel turned ‘games room’ houses a pool table, foosball table and table tennis equipment (Paddy Dowling)

This is a stark contrast to the UK, where government ministers ordered the removal of child-friendly images in asylum centres for those children arriving unaccompanied, because they were “too welcoming”.

Most governments across Europe, reeling after Covid, were caught off guard by the Ukrainian refugee crisis and the speed at which the 7.1 million people (UNHCR) spilled across porous borders.

Hana, 28, from Odesa, looks through a window in the attic of Kloster Menzingen (Paddy Dowling)
Hana, 28, from Odesa, looks through a window in the attic of Kloster Menzingen (Paddy Dowling)
Lydia, 55, from Kherson, stands in her bedroom at the Swiss convent (Paddy Dowling)
Lydia, 55, from Kherson, stands in her bedroom at the Swiss convent (Paddy Dowling)

And, despite being immensely well-heeled, cantons like Zug were no better prepared. They were challenged; logistically by a shortage of accommodation, and beneath the polished veneer of pleasantries in society, a very steep decline in public sympathy toward all refugees.

Tatiana, 35, from Odesa, holds her Swiss-born daughter Viktoria, who recently celebrated her first birthday (Paddy Dowling)
Tatiana, 35, from Odesa, holds her Swiss-born daughter Viktoria, who recently celebrated her first birthday (Paddy Dowling)
The dining hall at the Swiss monastery (Paddy Dowling)
The dining hall at the Swiss monastery (Paddy Dowling)

As the conflict drags on, well into its second year – even Murbach concedes “we are at a tipping point now with regards to support for the Ukraine crisis, and it’s even worse for Afghanis and Syrians, for example”.

This explains why; to plan, consult and build new asylum premises replacing existing ones like Steinhausen in Zug, where “non-Ukrainian” refugees still live six-to-a-room, can take six years.

With the global migrant crisis already having a profound impact on the European continent, and the next big flow an inevitability, regions like Zug are perhaps concerned – “if they build it, they [refugees] will come”.

Hanna, from Odesa, was forced against her will by her family to leave her old life in Ukraine where she had everything and asked for nothing concludes: “I honestly don’t know how I feel about anything anymore. I sit on my bed here shaking my head in disbelief thinking, I used to sit on my own bed watching Netflix in my own apartment, and in my own country. And now I am a refugee.”