Crafting a Future in Serbia

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Azar, Bilal and Mohamed are a strange trio – one that could only be fashioned and created in the great workshop of life.

Azar is from Pakistan, Bilal is a Kurd from the Syrian city of Qamishli, and Mohamed is from Mogadishu, Somalia. Azar speaks English and a little Serbian, Bilal communicates only in Arabic, and Mohamed, who frequently jumps in as a translator, speaks English and Arabic.

But when the three of them are in the IOM carpentry workshop at the Obrenovac Reception Centre for migrants, they do not need words and languages; the understand each other instinctively.

They’ve not had an easy journey, but the workshop has provided them with stability, friendship and dignity; commodities which were in short supply on the road.

Mohamed is recovering from the beating and mugging he received when he was arrested trying to cross the border into a neighbouring country. He spent three months in prison there but still dreams of making it to Western Europe.

Bilal does not talk much about himself, but he is unquestionably a genuine artist with an amazing talent. He creates wooden figurines and engravings, he paints, can turn his hand to maintenance and has even made two fountains.

Azar (30) is the talkative one. He set out from Pakistan four years ago and on the border with Iran, he says, police opened fire on the group of people that he was in. He successfully reached Turkey; from there he made his way to Bulgaria, and thence to Serbia. It was supposed to be just a rest stop, but he’s decided to stay indefinitely as he feels happy and accepted, even more so than in his native land.

The Centre has been his home for four years, and he hopes to get asylum and Serbian citizenship one day. Then he might change his name to  Željko.

“Ever since I arrived to Serbia, everybody has kept telling me that I look like Željko Joksimović, the Serbian musician. At first I thought they were joking, but then I noticed the resemblance – so that’s what they call me at the Centre now”, he smiles.

“I hope to build a better life here. I want to find a job and this is why I am learning new skills. I am a certified male hairdresser, painter and decorator, and during the COVID pandemic I studied carpentry.”

The workshop that Mohamed, Bilal and Azar visit daily, is funded by the EU Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace under a special COVID programme, and managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The beneficiaries are from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, who mostly stay at the Centre for a short period of time. There are 340 of them at the moment, but numbers fluctuate, especially when the weather is fine, and migrants look for ways to cross into Western Europe.

The carpentry workshop and other activities help the Centre’s residents to make good use of their time, relax and learn something new. Many have left the Centre with internationally recognised certificates in English from the Božidar Adžija People’s University as painters and decorators, hairdressers, and masseurs, which they have been able to use to good advantage at their final destinations.