Amran's story: a Libyan refugee in Serbia

Amran Khalifa has seen both ex-Yugoslavia and his homeland Libya sink into violence. He came to Belgrade in 1989 to study at university – and returned in 2011 as a refugee. He told InfoMigrants why he wants to stay.

"I have a PhD, you know."

"OK. Can you bag me a kilo of potatoes as well?"

A few weeks ago the joke went viral on Serbia's social media. In this country of high unemployment, you're better off as a card-holding member of the ruling political party than with a university degree. There are plenty of highly-educated people like the guy in the joke, struggling to survive while doing menial jobs like selling groceries at the market.

It's much the same story for 49-year-old Amran Khalifa, who came to Serbia as a refugee from Libya. Amran is fluent in Serbian as well as four other languages, and he has a PhD in archaeology. He has several part-time jobs and yet he can barely make ends meet. "Life in Serbia is hard," he told InfoMigrants in Belgrade, where he lives with his wife and three sons in a rented apartment. "Imagine what it's like to be a refugee, without a full-time job or your own house."

The story of how he got here in the first place is rather unusual. So is his decision to stay in the Balkan country, which for the past couple of years has been a transit state for about a million migrants. Most of them have made it to Western Europe. But Amran and his family are still in Serbia.

Threats from Islamists

Amran comes from a Berber family in the Libyan coastal town of Zuwara. He has pictures on his phone of stunning Mediterranean beaches, bright sand and a turquoise sea. In 1989, he came to Belgrade to study archaeology. At the time this was not unusual. Both socialist Yugoslavia and Libya were members of the Non-Aligned Movement, an alliance formed at the height of the Cold War.

But just a few years later, Yugoslavia collapsed, and the region descended into chaos. During the bloody wars in Croatia and Bosnia, Amran joined his fellow students in Belgrade to protest against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. Meanwhile, he somehow managed to complete his degree.

The next few years saw Amran crossing continents several times: back to Libya, then again to Serbia for a master's degree, back to Libya where he got married, a PhD scholarship in Canada, and finally the end of his doctorate in Belgrade. By now it was 2011, the year the Gaddafi regime in Libya collapsed. After the war in Yugoslavia, Amran saw his own homeland sink into violence and anarchy.

"I was, let's say, a bit active against Gaddafi's political regime," Amran says. Having supported demonstrations and helped other Libyans escape to neighboring Tunisia, going back home was out of the question for him. "The only way for me to finish my studies and for my children to finish school was to apply for asylum in Serbia," he says.

Amran is clearly a man who doesn't give up easily. In 2012, he started a project to preserve archaeological heritage from radicals in Libya, and as a result he received threats. "In the ideology of the Islamists, saving archaeological heritage means that you are against Islam, that you are trying to promote Christianity," he says.

Center for asylum seekers in Bogovadja Serbia  Credit N Rujevic

Stuck on the Balkan route

After Amran applied for asylum, there was a large influx of refugees to Serbia in 2015 and 2016. Accommodating them in official asylum centers presented the country with a big challenge. "We are not a member of the EU and don't have access to the EU refugee fund. That means that our refugee budget is very small. We are as poor as a church mouse," Vladimir Cucic, Serbia's refugee commissioner, explains.

Cucic says that more than 4,000 migrants, most from Afghanistan, are accommodated in centers for asylum seekers throughout Serbia. A few hundred more are unregistered in the country and are trying to cross the border to head towards Germany, either with the help of human traffickers or on their own.

The presence of thousands of migrants over the years has led to the flourishing of a new industry. NGOs have sprung up, helping refugees with basic necessities as well as workshops, psychological assistance and legal advice. They are in need of people like Amran Khalifa – well-educated polyglots who enjoy working with refugees.

Amran Khalifa volunteers in a center for asylum seekers in Bogovadja near Belgrade  Credit N Rujevic

I want to show people that we may be refugees but we have something to offer. Nobody wanted to be a refugee, 

Khalifa explains in the asylum center in Bogovadja. Every day, Amran Khalifa comes to this village in central Serbia, a one-hour ride from Belgrade. Here he works with "Group 484", an NGO offering psychosocial support to children, women and parents in the Bogovadja center.

Family comes first

"The moment I saw them – no education, no language, no idea about future – I felt sorry for them," Khalifa says, as the hallway echoes with the noise of children playing. "On the other hand, I realized that I am in a much better position compared with them. The work with them gives me the strength to continue."

Everybody here seems to like Amran, especially the children. But as he thinks about his own three sons, his tone changes. "I have a lot of friends here. But for my sons, it's a different story. They don't speak Serbian." His biggest mistake, Amran says, was to leave Canada even though his children were born there and have Canadian citizenship.

On a break, Khalifa tells jokes about the similar mentalities in Serbia and Libya, and he makes his Serbian colleagues laugh. Yes, he fits in perfectly here, but he is tired of struggling to make ends meet. "Family has to come first," he says. "I would like to leave Serbia as soon as I can. I just haven't had a real chance yet."


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