Refugees start new school term in Serbian limbo

BELGRADE, Serbia (AFP) – Young refugee Shvaib Nazari flicks between his native Dari and wobbly Serbian language notes during his first week back at school in Belgrade, where his family lives in a state of limbo.

The 12-year-old is one of 700 migrant children enrolled for a new school term in Serbia – far from the image of Europe that his Afghan family dreamt of when they left home nearly two years ago.

Since the closure of the “Balkan route” last year, the country has become a cul-de-sac for around 4,000 migrants, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, who want to start new lives in the European Union (EU) but cannot cross its borders.

Nearly half of them are children, whom Serbian authorities – with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – are increasingly trying to accommodate at local schools, despite the difficult language barrier.

“The school is good, the other boys talk quite a bit and they’re noisy but I don’t pay attention to them,” Shvaib said.

“They only teach us in Serbian and we don’t understand some things.” But he and his siblings could answer a few basic questions in the local language, which they are gradually picking up thanks to extra classes.

Eight family members stay in one clean but cramped room filled with bunk beds in an asylum centre on the outskirts of Belgrade, originally built for refugees in the 1990s Balkan conflicts.

Each morning, four of the siblings take a bus to the nearby Jovan Cvijic school, one of 47 establishments now enrolling migrant children throughout the country.

“For us it’s a very important step,” said Michel Saint-Lot, who represents UNICEF in Serbia.

Leila Nazari, a refugee from Afghanistan and mother of six, poses for a photograph with her children in a refugee camp near Belgrade. – PHOTOS: AFP
Zaman Ali Nazari, the father, spoke for an interview in the refugee camp
Children playing in their room at the refugee camp
Zainab, 9, one of six children from the Nazari family, plays between barracks at the refugee camp
Zia Jan, 7, one of the six children from the Nazari family, strolls between barracks at the refugee camp
Zainab sits in a classroom in the elementary school “Jovan Cvijic” in Belgrade

“Education is not only a fundamental right for children, but it offers an opportunity to give those children a semblance of normalcy, a structured way of living, a sense of hope.”

Their inclusion in formal education is not without challenges in non-EU member Serbia, a relatively poor country of seven million people where the average monthly wage is less than 400 euros (US$480).

Many of the children in transit are “coming with their baggage of trauma – trauma from conflict, trauma from the journey, the uncertainty of where, what their life will look like three months, six months from now,” said Saint-Lot.

Then there is the language issue, exacerbated by a lack of translators.

While his younger sister Zainab sat through a recent class with an interpreter, Shvaib attended a music lesson without translation.

Valentina Pandjeitan, head teacher at Jovan Cvijic, said the newcomers went to the classes that were easier to follow without fluency, such as music, art and mathematics.

Serbian parents were initially worried that “teachers would lose time in class and be focussed on migrant children and less on other students,” Pandjeitan said.

But she said the fears proved unfounded and so “parents made no problems”.

The goal is to have all 1,500 school-age refugee and migrant children in Serbia in formal education.

But Shvaib’s father, Zaman Ali Nazari, is sceptical of their chance to study without better language skills. “They don’t understand the lessons,” he said.

And in any case, he hopes his family will be able to leave in a few months’ time to join another 15-year-old son, who is already in Vienna.

All the migrants currently stranded in Serbia are “taken care of”, with accommodation, food, healthcare and now schooling, according to Ivan Miskovic, a spokesman for the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees.

While the size of the transitory population is stable, he said the average length of stay had “significantly increased”. Hungary is allowing only around 50 migrants to enter from Serbia each week, according to the UN’s refugee agency.

The Nazari family hopes its turn will come to leave via this route in five to six months.

Fearing for his life, the father, a former driver for a government-run service in Afghanistan, said he had decided to leave the country after the Taleban stopped him and stole his cargo.

The family from Kabul left in early 2016 and reached Turkey. From there they were smuggled by boat to Greece, staying for a few months because of the closure of the Balkan route, which by then had been taken by hundreds of thousands of people.

With the help of people smugglers the Nazaris moved on to Macedonia and then Serbia.

“During our time here we have not had a single bad experience, but our problem is that we cannot stay,” the 45-year-old told AFP.

Sonja Toskovic, from the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, an NGO, said such attitudes were common among the refugees and migrants in Serbia, who want to settle in richer EU countries.

She said only about 10 per cent of them had applied for asylum in Serbia and were yet to receive a decision. Just one applicant was successful in the first seven months of this year.

Those who refrain from applying “don’t have any documentation, so they are totally invisible in our legal system” and cannot work, Toskovic said, though new laws are being prepared to improve their status.

Given the long wait to leave, some migrants are now realising that their best bet may be to stay and get legally covered in Serbia, she said.

“We are not the dream country of course and we cannot compare with Germany, Belgium, France,” she said.

But for those who left war or persecution back home, “Serbia is a totally OK country.”