Our vendors: Ramadan Mohamed (Surprise, Basel, Switzerland)

Surprise vendor Ramadan Mohamed, 42, has applied for around one hundred apartments in Bern, Switzerland but only received rejections. Now a door finally appears to have opened for him.

Surprise vendor Ramadan sells the street paper in Bern

By Ramadan Mohamed

I fled my home country of Eritrea more than 10 years ago to escape military service or, to put it another way, to evade military prison. Back in the 1980s, we had to enroll at military school at the age of just 14 and begin our military service upon turning 18. After getting into trouble with an army officer in autumn 2000 (apparently for asking questions that it is best not to ask) I ended up in prison.

After a little more than two and a half years in detention, I managed to escape with three friends. As deserters, we were no longer safe in Eritrea and so we decided to leave the country. My friends decided to flee to Ethiopia. I, on the other hand, chose Sudan – after all we fought against the Ethiopian enemy during my military service. I didn’t want to go there.

In Sudan, I met an Eritrean girl who had lived there for some time. We decided to emigrate to Europe together. Our journey first led us through the Saharan desert to Libya from where we wanted to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, our progress was not as rapid as expected. We first had to earn money for the crossing. I was lucky and found work as a security guard and caretaker. We were tricked three times by the people who were meant to be organising a place on a boat for us. Although we paid the agreed amount, their contact numbers were no longer valid.

In the end, we spent five and a half years in Libya. Our daughter, who is now nine years old, was born during our time there. And so it was that the three of us boarded the vessel that brought us to Italy in the summer of 2008. Because I had already heard so many good things about Switzerland (and particularly Geneva with its many international organisations), that was our intended destination.

It was a complete coincidence that we ultimately ended up in the Canton of Bern [the area around Bern] – but perhaps also for the best, as it is apparently even harder to find an apartment in Geneva than it is in Bern. I have been looking for an apartment for almost a year now, as my wife and I decided that it would be for the best if we went our separate ways. I can’t say exactly, but I must have already applied for around one hundred apartments and visited even more. But I am rejected every time. It gets pretty depressing after a while.

And this is even though I have a letter from the welfare authorities confirming that they will cover my accommodation costs until I find a full-time job. I am currently working as a Surprise vendor – mostly on Tuesday and Friday mornings on Kornhausplatz [inthe medieval city centre of Bern], but I would actually like to work more.

Unfortunately, back problems mean that I cannot take any old job. But perhaps there would be an opening for me street cleaning in Bern. I plan to apply in the near future. To improve my opportunities and chances on the job market and naturally also to allow myself to be better understood, I attend a German language course three times a week. The pressure to find an apartment as soon as possible sometimes makes it difficult for me to concentrate on the course.

I would be over the moon if I were to finally find an apartment after such a long time. It would also be great if the one- to two-room apartments were not so far from the city centre, as I also help with the upkeep of three garden plots as part of a inter-cultural community garden project. I always thoroughly enjoy going there. The garden work is good for me and it delights me time and time again to see how the courgettes, pumpkins, tomatoes and other vegetables grow. What’s more, I also value the contact with other members of the community garden, who originate from Serbia, Turkey or Eritrea, like me.

Ramadan was speaking to Isabel Mosimann.

INSP publishes an international vendor story every week. Come back next Wednesday to read another story from one of the thousands of inspirational men and women who sell street papers.