27 Sep 2017 / 17:29

Serbia’s Child Migrants Find Road to School Long

Marija Jankovic

Several hundreds migrant children are due to enroll in schools across Serbia this month, but their reception varies and old issues of discrimination still exist.

In a classroom in the Belgrade suburb of Borca, 12 children sit in a Serbian language class.

But what stands out this September morning is a cacophony of languages – words popping out in Farsi, Pashto, English, French – even in German.

This group of boys and girls talking in a variety of different languages are all migrants from Afghanistan, sitting in a Serbian school for the very first time.

The words on the board in front of them spell out the Serbian words for “days”, “months” and “seasons” next to their translations into Farsi, or Persian,

“I can already write Serbian Cyrillic letters. I learned that in a refugee camp over the summer,” Farisa, aged 12, says.

Farisa and her friend sit in classroom in Jovan Ristic School in Belgrade's neighbourhood of Borca. Photo: BIRN

Jovan Ristic School in Borca is one of 47 schools in 17 municipalities in Serbia which, according to the Serbian Refugees Commission, will enroll a total of 645 children from asylum centres this school year.

While some of these children already attend classes, others will continue to enroll until the end of the month.

Farisa will spend the first two weeks in class with 11 boys and girls from the refugee camp.

After that, two or three of the migrant children will be placed in ordinary classes along with other Serbian children.

Although shy, Farisa, who spent the last eight months living in a camp in the Belgrade suburb of Krnjaca, says she hopes to attend classes with other Serbian children as soon as possible. She wishes to get to know them and improve her Serbian.

This is her first opportunity to get an education. Her family lived in the border regions of Afghanistan, where the hardline Islamist Taliban forces were active.

Although she should have been in school for five years already, she never set foot a classroom because the Taliban had closed all the schools in her area.

“Half a year I was at home, listening to classes on the radio. My father also taught me a bit of mathematics on our way to Serbia – but that’s not enough,” she says. [They left Afghanistan two years ago.]

“Now, for the first time, I have books and a backpack, and I’ve become a schoolgirl,” Farisa adds.

This year, for the first time, the Serbian state has laid out official plans to educate migrant children and train special school staff to handle them.

While most of the schools welcome these children, and the teachers are ready to work with them, not everyone is pleased.

In the northwestern town of Sid, parents protested in early September against sending against their children to school with children from asylum centres.

Other schools still feel unprepared to accommodate and work with migrant pupils.

Issues also emerged in the last school year, when about 200 migrant children attended schools in Serbia.

Problems included claims of discrimination or complaints about the long distances between the camps and schools.

A number of the children who enrolled last year dropped out, as a result.

A fresh challenge for Serbia

Mileta Corovic, school principal at Jovan Ristic, says that for child refugees the most important thing is to get out of the camp and spend time with their peers. Photo: BIRN

Children of asylum seekers have a right to free primary-level education under Serbia’s laws on education and asylum and under the Geneva Convention.

But it is a new issue for Serbia. Refugees and migrants previously passed quickly through Serbia on their way towards EU countries.

However, after governments along the so-called Western Balkan Route closed it in 2015, some migrants have become stuck in Serbia along with their children.

"Since March, refugees in Serbia have spent an average of eight months here until they move on. That’s why education is in the best interest of children according to all international conventions,” Ivan Miskovic, spokesperson for Serbian Commissariat for Refugees, told BIRN.

Last year, according to the UN children’s wing, UNICEF, only about 200 school-age migrant children in Serbia attended school.  

The enrollment was done also only on the initiative of activists, schools or the parents themselves.

Farisa’s elementary school in Borca was among the first to accept refugee children for the last school year.

About 20 pupils then sporadically attended classes. Teachers and psychologists at the school on their own initiative drew up a plan and a program for their education.

“Child refugees are spending their childhood in refugee camps, so a real education is almost impossible for them,” school principal Mileta Corovic says.

“For them, it is not that important to learn Serbian grammar of mathematics. The most important thing is to get out of the camp, change the environment, and spend time with their peers from our country,” Corovic says.

This year, however, Serbia’s Education Ministry received financial and logistical support from the EU and organised the enrollment of migrant children in schools in nine towns.

Throughout the camps, brochures on pupil enrollment written in Farsi, Urdu, Arabic, English and Pashto have been distributed, informing parents and children about the educational possibilities on offer.

About 500 teachers underwent training in August to help the children adapt.

“For all of us, the enrollment of refugees into schools is a novelty,” says Miskovic whose commissariat is in charge of organising the children’ transport and the distribution of snack meals.

New school year, old problems

Hamida Hussaini sits in front of a refugee camp in Bogovadja. Photo: BIRN

When Hamida Hussaini, a mother of two girls, arrived in Serbia from Afghanistan via the Balkan Route last December, she found she could not cross into Hungary as she had expected.

Since the Balkan route closed, Hungary has strengthened its border controls to stop illegal crossings, despite international complaints about the brutal treatment of those caught entering the country illegally.

The more rigorous controls in Hungary left thousands of migrants on the other side of the border in Serbia, waiting to continue their journey. 

Hussaini, her husband and daughters, were settled in a refugee camp in Bogovadja, a village in central Serbia.

She has since applied for asylum in Serbia. In March, her older daughter tried to enroll in the local Mile Dubljevic Primary School, only ten minutes’ walk from the camp.

She is nine years old and should be in third grade already – but has yet to spend a single day in class.

Hamida said a hostile response from the school soon stopped that plan.

“The school in Bogovadja told us that we are refugees and that they cannot put our children with the others,” Hamida says.

Her daughter remained until the end of the summer at the camp, along with 102 other girls and boys, 74 of whom are of school age, according to Serbia’s Refugee Commissioner.

"Every day I watched my daughter get bored, and I was worried that my younger daughter, who is only five, will never get educated,” Hamida says.

Her friend from the camp, Mina Jakubi, the mother of three sons, also arrived with her family from Afghanistan. She has been in the Bogovadja refugee camp for a year now.

She has the same problem. “My boys are 10, 12 and 15 years old. But in February, they told me that I cannot enroll them [in the school] because they do not know Serbian,” Mina says. 

“But if they had learned only one word of Serbian a day, they would be fluent in it by now. We brought them to Europe to learn European culture, and they are totally excluded!”

Nevenka Jeftic, the school principal, told BIRN she knew that Serbia is obliged to offer elementary education to all children, including asylum seekers.

However, she said refugee children could not attend classes last year, as she did not know how to integrate them.

“We did not enroll the refugee children in school last year. We simply could not afford to,” Jeftic says.

“They did not know any Serbian, and some did not speak English, either… That's why we did not enroll them."

"If they had learned only one word of Serbian a day, they would be fluent in it by now. We brought them to Europe to learn European culture, and they are totally excluded!"

Mina Jakubi, the mother of three sons

The Education Ministry told BIRN that last year they did not enroll refugee children to the school in Bogovadja because the school “requested more preparation from others because there were more refugee children than there were domestic children attending the school.”

“The parents of local children at that school were worried about incidents that had occurred in previous years,” the response from the ministry said.

“There was a large influx of refugees who were not adequately accommodated at the centre in Bogovadja. A large number of adults in those years were living out of the centre with no clear place of residence. They [the locals] were concerned about the safety of their children.”

Parents in Sid also raised issues about the inclusion of refugee children in local schools. The northern municipality also hosts an asylum centre.

About 200 parents in the village of Visnjicevac staged a protest on September 11, saying they did not want their children to share classrooms with migrants.

Parents told regional TV N1 that they were not racist but were worried about their children’s safety.

“The problem is you can’t touch them [the migrant children]; you can’t look at them, you can’t raise a hand or even point a finger at them,” one woman protester told TV N1, repeating rumours about the rules that would allegedly apply once their children started sharing classes with migrant children.

Serbian daily newspaper Danas reported on September 22 that one school in this municipality will not be enrolling migrants’ children.

The school explained that the decision was not made due to protests by parents but due to financial costs, saying that it was not cost-efficient to organise transport to the school for only ten refugee pupils.

In Bogovadja as well, both principal Jevtic and the Education Ministry said children from refugee camp would attend school this September.

"I do not know how it will all go … I have to send the teachers to a preparation seminar, and then we will decide on the moves,” Jevtic told BIRN early in September.

While in first few days of the school year only two girls, who speak Serbian, had enrolled there, by mid-September, 15 migrant children were attending the school.

The director told BIRN that there had been more applications but that some had “dropped out”.

Placed with other marginalised children

Rados Djurovic, director of the Asylum Protection Center. Photo: Media Centre Belgrade

The issue of migrant children who do enroll in school but then give up emerged last year.

“Due to a number of problems, only 200 of them started [school] and most of them then gave up,” said Rados Djurovic, director of the Asylum Protection Center, which has been working on enrolling refugee children in schools in Serbia since 2012.

The Education Ministry assigned most of the migrant pupils who went to school last year – 73 out of 200 - to Branko Pesic, a special adult education school in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Zemun.

The school agreed to enroll 20 students, and when some of them dropped out of the school, or left Serbia, a new group was enrolled.

While adult education schools normally only enroll children older than 15, the school website states that some attending the school are under 15, with the approval of the Ministry of Education and Sports.

Some 80 per cent of the pupils at Branko Pesic are Roma, members of a minority that already faces routine discrimination in Serbia.

When BIRN visited the school in August, a few days before the start of the new school year, principal Nenad Ciric said that almost all of his pupils were children of Roma families who lived in grim settlements or were children who had been forced to leave regular schools because they had problems following the lessons.

“These are children from the margins of society,” Ciric said. “Nobody came to this school because their life was easy. Learning is often a little harder for them.”

Most of the migrant pupils attending the Zemun school were from the refugee camp at Krnjaca, some 18 kilometres from the school. Most of them arrived in Serbia without parents.

“These children could learn Serbian in a month, and they can do a lot for themselves in our country, if they decide to stay – or if they have to stay.”

Nenad Ciric, principal at Branko Pesicschool.

Sulimankhail, a 17-year-old Afghan who came to Belgrade alone, and has been living in Krnjaca for nine months, hopes to go on to college one day.

He moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan when he was seven, after his father was killed, and then, with other refugees, came to Europe.

“I know this is not a regular school; it is for children who have problems with education, but I will stay,” Sulimankhail said.

“It’s better than just sitting in a camp every day and thinking how I don’t have anything,” he said.

“It means a lot to me to learn Serbian, so that I can find a job as soon as possible, at least a part-time one. I also want to improve my English.”

Djurovic, from the Asylum Protection Center, says the enrollment of refugee children in schools that mainly educate children from already marginalised communities creates a closed environment.

“In the school in Zemun we are creating a ghetto for children who cannot follow lessons,” Djurovic said.

"In addition to Roma children who have already been discriminated against, the same happens with the refugee children. Last year they felt the same as in the camp – closed. They did not have any contact with the local environment and many of them gave up,” he said.

But the ministry told BIRN it rejected this claim. Schools in Serbia “do not segregate, they are inclusive”, it said.

The ministry stated that Branko Pesic school was “sensitised for work with children from vulnerable categories” and that it had encountered a great deal of enthusiasm among the school staff.

“We have noted that some groups are more sensitive, and accordingly, some children stay longer in these schools. Our educational system fights against discrimination of any kind,” the ministry wrote.

Enthusiasm and a belief in value of education are indeed visible in the school.

While some schools that enroll children this year have translators, Ljiljana Panjkovic, a Serbian language teacher, worked with her pupils last year without one. “We communicated easily, even though we did not have translators,” she said.

“It was enough that a pupil knew English and I could teach. If they did not know, we would use ‘Google translate’. Knowledge is useful to them and they are very grateful,” she added.

School principal Ciric says teachers in other schools often fear that refugee children will be disruptive, but that such fears were exaggerated.

“These children could learn Serbian in a month, and they can do a lot for themselves in our country, if they decide to stay – or if they have to stay,” he concluded.

Fellow Bio


Marija Jankovic

Marija Jankovic is a journalist at the Serbian daily Vecernje Novosti, specialising in the energy industry.

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