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New York kids share Swiss experience

New York teenagers enjoy the high life on the Uetliberg

(swissinfo.ch)

A ten-day visit to Switzerland is providing a change of scene for 15 children from low-income families in New York.

A varied programme of events, including visits to traditional tourist attractions, has been lined up for the young people.

The visit is sponsored by the Swisspeaks cultural festival - which runs until the end of April in New York - in conjunction with the American Fresh Air Fund. The United States charity has been organising holidays for city children since 1877.

For the New York teenagers the trip is a rare opportunity not only to travel abroad but also to spend time in the countryside.

The children are staying with host families in the Zurich region, who all have a good command of English. In overall charge of the visit is the Bern-based Organisation of Swiss Abroad (OSA).

The host families have been extremely positive about the experience.

"The children are happy, polite and clear up after themselves. They are clean and say thanks for everything. We are getting on really well," said family members who accompanied the teenagers on a trip to the top of Uetliberg hill.

Tom Morgenegg, the OSA official supervising the visit, says the organisers have arranged a full programme but are ready to adapt to the needs of the children.

"We know that the programme is a good one, but it's not set in stone. We are flexible. If it turns out that less is more, we will scrap some of our plans."

Travel as education

The travel programme was approved by the Fresh Air Fund, which classes the trip as "educational".

Michael Clark, who is secondary schools coordinator for the charity, says the organisation helps provide poor children from New York with a future.

"All 15 children visiting Switzerland are from poor backgrounds and most are from broken homes," said Clark. "Most live in the Bronx or Queens."

The Fresh Air Fund looks out for 300 children from New York alone for a period of three years each. Regular camps help prepare the children for a better future.

"The success rate is excellent," said Clark, adding that most of the children would live normal lives, finish school and find jobs. "We make sure that they receive an education."

The journey through Switzerland serves as further education and also promotes interpersonal contact. The children know each other from New York or from the Fund, but they have never before lived abroad with host families.

Image making

The Swisspeaks festival is about showing New Yorkers that there is more to Switzerland than the Swiss Army Knife.

An ambitious programme reveals the country as a centre of the European avant-garde movement, from the schizophrenic outsider artist Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) to experimental music.

Yet the Alpine folklore element is not completely excluded, thanks to its importance for the Swiss tourist industry.

The SFr2 million ($1.45 million) festival could not have come at a worse time, coinciding as it did with the war in Iraq.

There was even talk of cancelling it, but finally the organisers decided to go ahead with promoting Switzerland in New York despite the war.

However, it has not succeeded in raising the level of public awareness about Switzerland. While Raymond Loretan, Swiss consul in New York, speaks of "new attitudes being formed despite the inauspicious circumstances", the New York media has largely ignored the festival.

Opening ceremony

Although the Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, was shown briefly on television at the Swisspeaks opening ceremony, the questions put to him were almost exclusively about the war in Iraq.

The "New York Times" has covered one event, while the other dailies have run previews only.

The New York children, on the other hand, say they will be promoting Switzerland on their return home. They will be telling their families and friends about the Uetliberg, sharing a fondue, Lucerne, the castle in Thun, Bern, and the Red Cross museum in Geneva.

And even if, as seems probable, they never return to Switzerland, at least they have had a good time here.

"One thing hit me straight away," said one boy. "Here it's so quiet and dark at night. At home it never gets so dark at night."

swissinfo, Urs Maurer (translation: Morven McLean)

NY kids summary

The New York children's itinerary:

April 20 - Arrival in Switzerland.
April 21 - Family day
April 22 - Family morning and walk from the Uetliberg.
April 23 - Lucerne and Transport Museum; Fondue evening.
April 24 - Zürich and inline skating on the lake. Afternoon with the host family.
April 25 - Bern, and Thun castle.
April 26 - Geneva, Red Cross Museum.
April 27 - Family day.
April 28 - Return to New York.

end of infobox


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