Stranded in Serbia, migrant kids grasp at normality with school start

|     Boris Babic     |

BELGRADE (dpa) – For migrant children stranded in Serbia’s refugee camps, the beginning of the school year is a welcome chance to bring a bit of normality back into their lives despite being far from home.

“I like going to school. I learn,” Nabi, 14, says in Serbian.

He is one of 12 Afghan children attending classes at the Jovan Ristic school in a Belgrade suburb not far from the Krnjaca refugee camp.

According to the UN refugee agency, there are 4,200 migrants in the dozen or so centres across the country.

Children make up half that population, including several hundred unaccompanied minors.

While many of the migrants had at first been refusing assistance for months, fearing deportation, the mood seems to be changing now that they’ve been stuck for several months without hope of moving on soon.

“They’re stranded here, and if you ask them, they say that they want to continue on.

“But since they’ve seen that the outward flow is very slow, they started using the possibilities that come with an extended stay,” explains Igor Mitrovic, director of ADRA Serbia, the national branch of an international humanitarian organisation.

Even if they still want to continue on and apply for asylum formally, it may be years until they can move.

Migrant children file towards the classrooms at the Jovan Ristic school in a Belgrade suburb not far from the Krnjaca refugee camp
Children arrive at Jovan Ristic school in a suburb of Belgrade for the first day of class, led by aid workers
A group of Afghan women attend a vocational training class at a centre run by the national branch of ADRA, an international humanitarian group. While many of the migrants had at first been refusing assistance for months, fearing deportation, the mood seems to be changing now that they’ve been stuck for several months without hope of moving on soon. – PHOTOS: DPA
Experts at a centre run by ADRA interview an Afghan woman about what study or apprenticeship programmes interest her

However, during their stay, they are entitled to an education and, after a nine-month period, are allowed to work legally.

As the migrants have adapted to the situation, so too have the schools.

Since few of the migrant students speak more than a few words of Serbian and English, they attend a separate, intensive language course in addition to those they attend with local kids.

Despite the language problem, the children are highly motivated to learn, says school psychologist Biljana Mihailovic, adding that most excel at maths and computer science.

Going to school “is their anchor to normality, after all they went through. Most survived a hard, often humiliating and dangerous trek and are stuck in a drab camp for months,” she says. “So, while kids often complain about going to school, for them it is different.”

ADRA has also opened a centre near the Krnjaca camp offering educational opportunities to all after finding that others in the migrant community who were too old for school also wanted to learn.

“Children join schools, while older kids and adults, including mothers, can take courses,” Mitrovic says. “They realised that they can make something with their life, maybe even here.”

At the compound run by ADRA, anyone can take language and vocational training courses, including those to become painters, make-up artists, mechanics and tailors.

Women and men attend, Mitrovic says.

However, in its quest to aid the thousands of migrants facing the prospect of a prolonged stay, Serbia, plagued by economic woes, could find itself struggling to care for them without outside assistance.

It remains crucial to secure support for those stranded, especially children, who are the most vulnerable, aid workers from organisations such as the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) warn.

“We need to keep that interest here, because Serbia, with its economic situation, is unable to care for these people as, let’s say, Germany can. Serbia is also outside the European Union and cannot draw its funds,” says Vesna Banovic, the IRC’s child protection manager.

“It is important to keep the children in focus. As the refugee population declines, the interest of donors moves to the central Mediterranean route, pushing Western Balkans to the margin,” she adds.

Afghan teens shoot pool at a recreational building on the compound run by ADRA
Two boys play football in gym at a recreational building on the compound run by ADRA

So far this school year, the migrant children have been nearly universally welcomed at school.

The largest shadow on the effort was cast by parents in Sid, a town hosting a refugee camp in a former highway motel near the border with Croatia.

Saying they do not want kids of other religion in class with their own, they have been protesting nearly daily since school began, threatening to send their children elsewhere if the migrants join.

The Serbian refugee agency KIRS, however, stressed that migrant children also have the right to an education and began bussing them to classes on September 18.

“Parents should try to imagine their children in such a situation,” the agency said.

The country’s largest daily, Blic, was more blunt in its response to the parents’ actions. It headlined a September 13 report on the protest with: “Parents in Sid show ugliest face of Serbia.” – dpa