A mile-long line for free food in Geneva, one of world’s richest cities

  • >> Patrick Kingsley and Laetitia Vancon, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-05-31 01:29:10 BdST

The first people arrived before 2am.

By 4am, more than 100 people stood waiting in the darkness outside the ice hockey stadium.

By 7am, the line stretched for more than 1 mile, heading north to the river, then west down the riverbank, then all around a sports centre parking lot, then past the squash courts, the boxing club, the theatre, under the Pont de Saint-Georges, before doubling back up a riverside corniche.

By early afternoon last Saturday, nearly 3,000 residents of Geneva, one of the world’s richest cities, had filtered through the stadium to receive a food parcel worth about $25. Some carried babies. Some were in wheelchairs. Some had waited for more than six hours.

In medical terms, Geneva has not been as gripped by the coronavirus crisis as other areas of Western Europe. In the city and its surrounding suburbs, fewer than 300 residents have died in a population of half a million.

But in economic terms the crisis has been ruinous for Geneva’s underclass — the unauthorised and underpaid workers often forgotten about in a city better known for its bankers, watchmakers and UN officials.

Thousands of people working in the shadows of the Swiss economy lost their jobs overnight in March, as hotels, restaurants and families fired their cleaners and maids who were living in the country illegally in response to a lockdown enforced by the central Swiss government.

Unable to draw on state support, most were then forced to rely on charity to survive. Ultimately, that demand led volunteers and city officials to set up a weekly food bank at the ice hockey stadium near the river.

“If you wanted to pictogram Geneva, what would you put?” said Laura Cotton, a Swiss-British hospital decorator who volunteers at the stadium. “Money, money, money. And, OK — cheese and chocolate.”

“But COVID has showed the flip-side,” Cotton added.

Volunteers pack donated food into nearly 3,000 bags at a repurposed ice rink in Geneva on May 22, 2020. The New York Times

Volunteers pack donated food into nearly 3,000 bags at a repurposed ice rink in Geneva on May 22, 2020. The New York Times

The coronavirus infection rate has plummeted in Geneva in recent weeks, allowing authorities to markedly ease social distancing restrictions.

But the economic impact on the city’s poorest remains dire.

Sukhee Shinendorj, a 38-year-old from Mongolia, was already living on the cusp of poverty even before the coronavirus reached Switzerland. He earned about $1,600 a month as a restaurant cleaner — barely enough to feed his two children in expensive Geneva.

Then in March the restaurant where he worked shut, prompting his boss to fire him. Now Shinendorj fears losing his apartment and relies on the stadium handouts for food.

On Saturday, he woke up at 1 a.m. and walked 2 miles to the stadium to try and beat the line. But there were already several people waiting.

“Catastrophe,” Shinendorj said of his situation. “It’s a catastrophe.”

Behind him in the darkness, a giant Rolex logo shone from the watchmaker’s headquarters across the street.

The scenes at the stadium have been jarring for some Genevans, forced for the first time to recognise profound social inequalities they previously ignored or dismissed.

Geneva is home to several arms of the United Nations, including the World Health Organisation, the International Organisation for Migration and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. But the ethos of those institutions has not been entirely embedded within the city at large.

While Swiss citizens and businesses received financial support during the lockdown from authorities, foreign workers living in the country illegally were left to fend for themselves.

Even foreigners with official work permits were wary of applying for state help, fearful that it would make it harder for them to renew their permits in the future. Others said they were simply unaware of the possibility.

Nubiany Rocha, a pregnant Brazilian nanny, arrived at the stadium at 5am, pushing her 8-month-old daughter’s carriage. Rocha had a valid work permit until 2022, she said, but didn’t know that might make her eligible for state aid.

A group of seasoned activists first spotted Geneva’s need for the food aid. In late March, campaigners from Caravane De Solidarité, a group originally founded in response to the 2015 refugee crisis, began handing out food in the street.

People sit outside in Geneva, as coronavirus restrictions are relaxed, on May 22, 2020. The New York Times

People sit outside in Geneva, as coronavirus restrictions are relaxed, on May 22, 2020. The New York Times

But that led to the arrest of one of the group’s leaders, for flouting social distancing regulations.

After a public backlash, city authorities stepped in, permitting several groups to distribute food from several disused schools. But as the lines outside the schools kept lengthening, it was clear a bigger venue was needed.

So in early May, city officials allowed the volunteers to base themselves at the Patinoire des Vernets, an ice rink just outside the city centre.

International aid group Doctors Without Borders has joined the effort, bringing its expertise from countless war zones to help manage the operation.

“It’s very strange,” said Dr Roberta Petrucci, a medical coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, who lives nearby.

“I never thought I’d see this a few hundred meters from where I live,” said Petrucci, who is more accustomed to working in crises in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Congo and Liberia.

The worsening impact of the economic collapse on the city’s poor is illustrated by the number of food parcels given away at the stadium last Saturday — 300 more than the previous week.

At a nearby homeless shelter, set up by city authorities at the start of the crisis, staff members said they initially welcomed people who had already been living in the streets. But now they are sheltering a new kind of visitor: People who’ve lost their homes as a result of the economic side-effects of the pandemic.

Numbers are still small — only about 20 people fall into this category, or 10% of the residents at the shelter. But most of them arrived in the last two weeks.

The stadium handouts also tell a more hopeful story about the city, said Charlemagne Hernandez, a co-founder of Caravane De Solidarité.

The vast operation, which relies almost entirely on volunteers and donations, is the product of decades of activism in the city, which has created a more tolerant culture than in other Swiss cantons, Hernandez said.

On a Friday evening, the donors to the food bank included some of the city’s wealthiest residents, who brought their donations to the stadium in the trunks of their Porsches, Teslas and Mercedes.

“It has something to do with the humanitarian tradition in Geneva,” Hernandez said. “That’s what we do better than any other Swiss city.”

As he left the stadium, shortly after 8am, Shinendorj, the Mongolian cleaner, had a bag of food but still no job.

He said he planned to spend the next 12 hours walking through the city, going door to door to ask for work.

“Before, the sun was shining,” he said. “Now the sky is black.”

© 2020 New York Times News Service