Shelter Schweiz – They Strengthen Families

It is a sunny afternoon when we ring at a door in Rupperswil, a small village in Switzerland. Martin Wälchli, the regional head of Eastern Switzerland of Shelter, welcomes us. Together with him and Daniel Bühlmann, the regional head of Central Switzerland, we sit ourselves down in their conference room and start to pester them with our questions.

Shelter Schweiz is an organisation which finds foster families for children. The organisation has a network of around 70 to 100 foster families.
During the last couple of years some of those families have decided to host UMA in their homes.

The logo of the organisation. “We strengthen families”

The two men look at each other smiling when we ask them about how they’ve started to put their attention to the “UMA problem”. Then they start telling us the story of how Shelter began to work with UMA.
During the past years the number of minors seeking for asylum in Switzerland has risen more than ten times. It has gotten as far as, in the last year, the canton needed to find a solution for the UMA allocated. Since UMA are not allowed to be placed in accomodation centres together with adults. Like this 3 UMA got an accomodation in foster families through Shelter by this time. Today Shelter has found foster families for about 12 UMA.
Finding a foster family and preparing it for the mostly not easy task is a long process. First, some clarification procedures take place and then the family gets some training. There is an introduction seminar lasting for four days and further education every year. Hereby the families get an introduction into the culture of the UMA and the nature of asylum. Often cultural mediators and translators are consulted to help with cultural and linguistic disagreements and difficulties.

Every family member has to adapt to a new situation and find its new place in the family when a new family member has suddenly become one.
To make it easier for the UMA the authorities earlier wanted the UMA to only be placed in two into a foster family. The problem with this system was that the minors didn’t learn the German language as fast as possible which is essential for their integration. So this rule got abolished for the UMA learn the language more quickly in a German only environment.

Besides the different languages there are numerous other factors which complicate the integration of an UMA, of a refugee in general, into a society. Difficulties and different ideas in things like cleanness, having the meals together at the table, “mine and yours”, being adult, the dealing with women and men and the motivation to integration occur on the daily basis.


Because of all the given cultural and social differences it is important that both the foster parents and the UMA are informed, to a certain extent, about the other culture. This makes it easier for both sides to understand the behaviour of the opposite.
Therefore, besides creativity, a certain oppenness, distinctive self-reflexion and the will to develop and to work on itself, are important characteristics a foster family needs to have. The openness for different cultures and outlines of life and the ability to reflect and understand one’s own acting. They have to be willed to adapt themselves and to work and grow on themselves.

Often the UMA are really independent in their acting, but in the inside they’re emotionally very vulnerable. Also they mostly are confronted with a different reality than they had been expecting when coming here. Sometimes their family or even the whole village has payed for their journey in the hope of them being able to make money for them in Europe. Despite the facts being totally different than expected they still don’t want to ruin the honor of the family.
Despite all the the conflict potential and difficulties being able to live with a foster family is a huge chance for an UMA. They can enlarge their individual possibilities and increase their social network through their family and their aqquaintances. The integration is certainly accelerated and made easier through a family offering the child its love and affection but also responsibility and authority.


“Family creates quality of life”

According to Martin Wälchli there is no definite answer to the question about when integration is to be called successful. He tells us that it is important to be able to talk about ones feelings and culture, that one has the possibility to go to school, find an apprenticeship, make a certificate, find a place to live and to reach the status B. The goal of a successful integration therefore is that one isn’t being a burden to someone else anymore and is able to live one’s own life. In short: Being able to take responsibility for oneself and one’s life.
After the long conversation we say goodbye to each other and step outside into the scorching heat. We are a little overwhelmed of all the information. But we are satisfied. The talk has been really interesting and has shown us, once more, what is possible with initiative, openness and creativity.

Thank you, Martin Wälchli and Daniel Bühlmann, very much for the interesting and also open conversation!


Much love,



For more information about Shelter Schweiz


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