This story was first published in The Guardian on August 8, 2017.
by Finnian James, Belgrade
When the Faqirzada family set out for a future in Europe, they did not imagine it like this. As far as they were concerned, Europe meant Germany: their oldest son was already at university in Munich, and they would surely join him in the country.
The five – two parents and three teenage children – followed the same route through the Balkans that brought about 1 million people into the EU in 2015-16. But then borders began shutting.
And so for the past eight months, Muhammad Shafi Faqirzada and his wife and children have been marooned in Serbia. Slowly, they are beginning to realise they might be here for a long time.
“We did not plan on staying,” Faqirzada says. “We will wait here to reach the European Union until we die, but if we are here for much longer we must learn Serbian.”
As a result of the arrival of large numbers of people into southern Europe that accelerated two years ago this month, there are 7,600 refugees in Serbia, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Most live in 18 state-run asylum centres that provide basic necessities. Many are starting to prepare for the long haul.
Faqirzada’s three children have enrolled in school, a Belgrade primary that opened its doors to 25 refugee children this spring as part of a pilot scheme.
Morning classes are integrated with Serbian students and include biology, maths, chemistry and mechanics. Then the refugee children have their own Serbian language courses, split into beginner and advanced levels, along with another foreign language such as English or German.
“The main difference is that migrant children carry with them more trauma, past trauma – war, separation, loss … a completely new country, language and social barriers, loneliness … and the trauma of the future. Uncertainty in every sense,” said Darko Stanojkovic, a Serbian language teacher.
“The kids without parents are like our children here at the school,” said Stanojkovic. More than 900 unaccompanied minors are in Serbia, according to UNHCR.
“We talk about Afghani schools; they never had a regular schedule. Now they have some aim in their life,” said Jasmina Petrovic, another teacher.
Despite the difficulties of integration, teachers are impressed with how refugee children have thrown themselves into their new, unfamiliar environment. “They are more motivated than any students I have worked with,” said Juliana Keljajic, an English teacher.
Andjela Usljebrka is a Serbian language teacher at another pilot scheme school. Her classroom invites high-achieving Serbian students to help teach the refugees. Speaking English bridges the two groups; but as refugees learn Serbian, the Serbian children have begun to learn bits of Afghan languages as well.
“In both ways the children are trying to cross the lines between them,” Usljebrka said. It is not just the language and schooling that is unfamiliar for the refugees. Usljebrka recalls seeing the refugee children using their hands at first while playing football with Serbians. Instead of interrupting, she let them figure it out themselves.
“This initial phase was learning for all of us – policymakers, international partner organisations, and schools. It should produce data and information for further policy development,” said Anne-Maria Ćuković from Unicef’s Belgrade office.
Faqirzada, a former civil servant, counts his family’s safety and education as the two most important reasons he fled Afghanistan. “My children are happy here, they have freedom to learn,” he said.
“I will never go back to Afghanistan, I love it here,” said his eighteen-year-old daughter, Mursal. She could never walk outside her home by herself in Afghanistan, much less attend school with boys.
Beyond education, the Serbian government has been expanding the legal rights of asylum seekers to access employment. While refugees are often skilled engineers, computer programmers, and linguists, the possibility of attaining a job in their profession is bleak.
“They (refugees) do not have a diploma, they do not know the Serbian language, and the priority in our labour market are Serbians,” said Sonja Toskovic of the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (BCHR). But Serbia is missing out on a wealth of skilled labour without a process that validates diplomas earned in refugees’ home countries.
Ehsanullah Weesa, 20, wears a heavy blue hoodie in the hot Belgrade sun. It is still much colder than his Afghan homeland, he says. Weesa is fluent in six languages. He lives at the asylum camp with Faqirzada’s family, teaches English and serves as the interpreter for organisations visiting the camp.
“Some days until three or four at night, sometimes six days a week, I work,” Weesa said. He shrugs when pressed as to why he has never asked to be paid for his long hours. “Helping this community means more to me.”
Weesa expects he will claim asylum in Serbia within the month. However, the asylum office has yet to deliver a single decision in 2017. Out of more than 1,000 asylum claims launched in 2016, only 70 were decided upon. More than half of those were rejected.
“The system is not efficient enough to process all the asylum requests it gets,” said Mirjana Milenkovski of UNHCR, which has condemned the asylum procedure in Serbia as “unsafe”. However, a revised asylum law is expected to be passed by the Serbian parliament in the coming months.
Meanwhile, every weekday, five people are chosen to leave Serbia and enter Hungary – and the EU – legally. It may be a double-edged sword.
“In Hungary my family are in a 24-hour closed camp – when someone goes to the bathroom there are four police on every side of you,” said Weesa “They are not free like we are here.”
Faqirzada says many countries could learn a lot from Serbia. “In Afghanistan, no one cares for each other. In Turkey there were no schools. In Bulgaria we slept in forests. But in Serbia, the people support each other. They support my family too, I do not forget this.”
Still, if and when the Faqirzada family are given a chance to move closer to Germany, they will take it.