After having spent eight months in Serbia as a refugee, Karim was the first person to be granted asylum by the Serbian authorities in 2017. Though a positive sign, the decision is bitter-sweet for this 29-year-old man from Afghanistan.
How old is Karim? His face tired and etched with lines, he looks older than his 29 years. But his body is still that of a young man. This Afghan computer engineer is the first person to have been granted asylum in Serbia in 2017.
However, Karim didn’t believe his luck. “I suppose that they must have found my application very serious,” he says, with an ironic smile. Karim never really wanted to apply for asylum in this Balkan country. His dream was to reach France and settle down there. But after arriving in Belgrade at the start of winter in 2016, he realized quickly that his stay would be longer than he had imagined. Hungary and Croatia had closed their borders in the summer of 2015 and were only letting a few people trickle through each day.
During the winter of his arrival in the Serbian capital, the temperatures fell to minus 25 degrees Celsius. Karim, like many other people in exile, found refuge in the dilapidated depot behind the station. It was at this moment where he realized that getting out of the country would be arduous. So he considered the possibility of applying for asylum, at least in order to escape miserable living conditions.
Threatened by the Taliban
Karim had a heavy past behind him when he set foot on European soil. A graduate in information technology (IT)from Kabul University and gifted in English, the father of three young children worked for one year as a translator for the American army. He thought of it as a way to earn a living, like any other. But the Taliban, who are regaining territory in Afghanistan, saw it differently.
“They went to see my brothers and told them that working with non-Muslims was a sin,” he says. Then, one day, the extremists turned their threats into execution. They killed Karim’s two brothers. He was targeted, too, but narrowly escaped the explosives that had been placed in his house.
Fearing that the next assassination attempt would be fatal, Karim left his district, Kote Sangi, southwest of Kabul, and fled into exile. He crossed Turkey, then Bulgaria, hoping to reach France, find a job and bring his family over.
‘The Serbians want nothing to do with us’
From Belgrade where he is stuck, Paris still seems far away and Karim mocks himself for being the first person this year to have been granted asylum in Serbia. “How lucky I am to have been compelled to stay in this poor country,” he quips. Karim is convinced that everything would have been simpler in France. “I’ve got friends in Paris who’ve already bought homes,” he says, without wondering whether or not this is true.
Indeed, he sees nothing to be pleased about. “I can’t work and I can’t travel,” Karim laments. “The only thing I can do is stay at the migrant centre. The Serbians want nothing to do with us,” he adds, sounding annoyed.
For the last two months, Karim has been living in the Krnjaca refugee camp a few kilometres from Belgrade. He would like to move, but that step is not yet close. The law enables refugees to get permanent housing one year after being granted asylum but Serbia. The authorities had not foreseen the complications of handling such an influx of migrants, they are struggling to cope.
The young father is desperate to see his wife and three children, aged 2 to 6 years old, who are still in Kabul. The Serbian authorities have told him that he can bring his family over, on the condition that he obtains Serbian citizenship – this means in five years’ time, at least. But nobody is in a capacity to explain the process to him. “I’m also the first person to ask for family reunification,” says Karim. “The authorities have never had to treat a case like mine, so they don’t know what to do.”
While waiting to be reunited with his family, Karim is trying to integrate into his new host country. In order to support himself, he intends to find a job but, given the economic situation in Serbia, he is under no illusions. “Serbia is a poor country so even if I find a job, I can’t send much money back to my family in Afghanistan,” he explains.
‘Asylum will bring him a bit of stability and certainty’
To make himself useful, Karim goes to the premises of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), a humanitarian organization founded in the US by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. There he teaches English as well as computer skills to kids, every day, despite not being paid.
Milosh Thomas, a Serbian social worker, is one of Karim’s colleagues at the ADRA. He encouraged Karim to request asylum and supported his application. “In my point of view, Serbia is, without a doubt, not a perfect country for welcoming migrants but at least asylum will bring him [Karim] a bit of stability and certainty,” says Milosh, 33. “Afterwards, if he still wishes to do so, he could always try to go to France or Sweden.”
Milosh advocates the idea that Serbians are capable of great empathy towards refugees and that their integration is possible in his country. “What makes me sad is that all these young men are losing the best years of their lives,” he says. “But perhaps Karim will finally decide to begin something here.”