On the occasion of its first anniversary and to help promote their fundraising, we set out to Belgrade to visit the “Workshop”, a place where asylum seekers can come to learn a variety of subjects, from Languages to Math or Computer Science. It’s a place run by volunteers from Refugee Aid Serbia and North Star, combining education, an opportunity for integration and, as they describe it, a “familiar atmosphere”. It is also a glimpse of what integration of new comers can be like, an insight into a world with less prejudice and bigger understanding. In the following lines, we present you ‘The Workshop’.

There’s a tiny, steep road in the center of Belgrade, near the busy Terazije, the Zeleni venac’s market and the noisy Kraljice Natalije: that’s Pajsijeva Street, and if you happen to knock at the door of the number 4 on a sunny afternoon you will find yourself into one of the most surprising places.

Children playing computer games, teenage girls with colorful chadors repeating German words, young men and boys chatting and showing each other’s their English homework, four volunteers coming from as many countries and everywhere, books, flashcards, schedules, drawings: welcome to “The workshop”, the educational center managed by Refugee Aid Serbia.

We are welcomed by Jessica, project manager and Diana, the educational coordinator, our guides for the afternoon, introducing us to the space, the activities, as well as fellow volunteers and some among the most talkative and sociable of their students.

Opened in April 2017, today the Workshop is visited by roughly 25 refugees and asylum-seekers daily, providing English, Serbian, German, French, Math, Science and Art classes, as well as offering various recreational activities. The age of students and participants to the activities ranges from 4 years old to 30 years old, while the average time they spend in Serbia is one and a half years.

The reasons behind these long periods of stay in a so-called “transit country” include the official shut-down of the Western Balkans’ Route, countries borders, as well as the restrictive procedures for legal access to Hungary or Croatia. As Diana explains: “most people are either waiting for the list to go to Hungary, the rest is just trying, because their goal is to go to Western Europe.”

She also described the life of an asylum seeker, and the feeling mostly associated to people who are in Serbia just waiting to cross to another country:

“The asylum process is so slow, you can wait up to two years for the first interview, it will be years before you are actually able to be part of society. Imagine you are in your twenties, for example, and you are applying for asylum here, and you have been here for one year and a half, and you don’t have any opportunity to go to University, to work: your life is completely stuck. You are just waiting for your first interview, it’s simply impossible.”

Having started as a humanitarian project, distributing food and clothes, with time the two associations recognized the need for initiatives aiming to integrate refugees and asylum seekers in Serbia, even though, they recognize, for most of them, the goal is not to stay in Serbia.

There are very few legal means to cross, and that’s also why the nature of our activities is also changing. The first year, we were mainly working in distribution of food and shoes and clothes. Now, the project is much more education-based, much more integration-based”, she continues. As Jessica adds, in the future, “the priority is definitely to become an educational center.” The space could also become bigger, but there is something special about the mix of languages floating in the air.

It is, after all, and despite the wider context, a place of leisure, to be with friends or to make new ones. It is a place of meetings, between international or local volunteers, between refugees of different places, ages or interests. Diar, a student from Iraq, found out about the Workshop when a friend he met in the “Barracks” told him about it, since then, he “liked it and because of that I am coming here every day.”

With the wish to go to the United Kingdom, he says that the English classes are “useful”, but also that he likes the way teachers work. On the text accompanying the fundraiser, we also learn about the story of Mustafa, a 11-year old boy:

“Volunteers would sit on the bean bags and read for hours with Mustafa. Books about the world, cricket, chapter books… Each evening he took a book back to the camp, and the next day he would return it and take a new one. We received reports from his friends that he would read the books every night and receive help from the older boys with the words he didn’t know. Mustafa now has near perfect pronunciation and has a reading list two pages long on our reading club wall.”

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This is the ‘Workshop’. A beacon of hope and solidarity, stubbornly but quietly located in the middle of Belgrade, a city that became known for its ‘barracks’, with volunteers and asylum seekers from every corner, laboring against discrimination, persecution and violence, offering a place to feel, amongst and despite all the difficulties, at (a) home.

Story: Francesca Fornari and Alexandre Fonseca, EVS Volunteer at Volunteers’ Center of Vojvodina with the project “People BeyONd Borders” (Erasmus + Program).

Photos: The Workshop

For more information:

https://www.northstarserbia.org/

https://www.facebook.com/NorthStarSerbia

https://www.facebook.com/theworkshopbelgrade/

In case you would like to know more about “The Workshop” and why a bigger budget could help them to improve their activities and the service they provide to refugee population in Belgrade, you can visit the official page of their crowdfunding campaign here:

https://www.gofundme.com/educating-refugees-at-the-workshop

 

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