Green-fingered vendor finds new vocation, but won’t stop selling street paper

By Monika Bettschen, Surprise

As so often in late fall, the weather is as mild as on a spring day. Only the leafless trees bear witness to the true season. In the neighborhood streets of Bern, Switzerland, people are taking advantage of the lovely weather to prepare parks, beds and border beds for the winter. Branches are stacked in piles on a meadow next to an apartment house on the East Ring.

Surprise vendor Tesfamikael Hailemikael at work at his second job. Credit: Annette Boutellier

Several employees from Steve Schumacher’s landscaping business have been working on two majestic trees since early morning. They have just erected a hydraulic lift next to one of the tree trunks. The struts are carefully adjusted to accommodate the uneven ground before the steel arm lifts two workers in the basket to the tree’s naked crown.

One of these workers is Tesfamikael Hailemikael from Eritrea. Together with his colleague Ivan Suarez, he cuts back single branches between the forks, creating space for the tree to grow harmoniously next spring. Each time the chain saw roars into life, sawdust whirls around like snowflakes and the piquant aroma of tree sap fills the air.

“I enjoy this kind of outdoor work very much. And fresh air is good for you,” Hailemikael says laughing as he climbs out of the lift’s basket once they’re back on the ground. The 37-year-old with the infectious smile came to Switzerland in 2007. In the beginning, times were difficult. “But I was highly motivated to stick it out. I took loads of courses and educated myself further. I quickly realized that it takes a large portion of patience to find your footing in a new profession.”

Diligence and persistence paid off. In Eritrea, Hailemikael was a skilled mechanic. In Switzerland, he began selling Surprise about three years ago. At the beginning of October 2013, Hailemikael entered an internship with the Facility Management Bern AG, successfully convincing his new boss Steve Schumacher of the quality of his work. In garden maintenance alone, the business tends 285 facilities.

“I still sell Surprise because it’s just so much fun having conversations with so many different people.”

“The work is highly diversified, extending from ploughing and shoveling snow in the winter to equipment maintenance, as well as spring cultivation in the gardens and mowing and tending lawns and meadows in the summer,” said Schumacher.

“I noticed right away how well Hailemikael fit into my gardening team. He learns very quickly and we all feel he is good person be around.” Following the three-month internship, Hailemikael signed a short-term work contract. His good work earned him a permanent, full-time position in October 2015.

All the same, Hailemikael still occasionally sells Surprise in front of a Co-op store in downtown Bern.

“When I have the time and energy, I still sell Surprise because it’s just so much fun having conversations with so many different people. It something of a hobby for me,” Hailemikael explains.

When asked about his professional goals, he says, “It was just this kind of work I was aiming for. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me and I’m happy to have reached my goal.”

Now, he simply enjoys working with his colleagues and doing his best. His eyes wander over to his colleagues who have continued pruning the tree. He hurries back to work. An honest and open congeniality permeates the group. Aside from Hailemikael, the team is multi-national; comprised of a Serbian, two Spaniards, two Columbians, a Chilean and two Swiss colleagues.

“They are like a family to me,” says Hailemikael. We believe him.

Translated from German to English by Ramey Reiger / Translators Without Borders

You can read more inspiring vendor stories here.