Nearly one million migrants passed through Serbia at the height of the European refugee crisis. Almost none wanted to stay. But Safaa Alobaidi has a very different story. He came a decade ago — and doesn't want to leave.
"It's a bit messy," says Safaa while entering his room. "Messy" is a quite an understatement: clothes, dirty dishes and tangled cables are strewn all over the place. But pictures on the walls and some flowers reveal that this is not a room for just a month or two. For Safaa Alobaidi, a refugee from Iraq, this domestic chaos is the only home he has.
As a veteran resident of the Center for Asylum Seekers in Banja Koviljaca, a spa town in western Serbia, the 60-year-old Safaa doesn't share a room with other migrants in the main building. He now lives in the small studio apartment in the separate house instead.
Safaa was granted "temporary subsidiary protection" in the Balkan country in 2008, meaning that he did not receive full asylum but also could not be sent back home. In his case, "temporary" has lasted for almost a decade.
"Baghdad was completely destroyed. Every person on the street had a machine gun, military vehicles were everywhere," he says, recalling the time of occupation after the fall of Saddam Hussein. "They were killing as they liked it. Everyday."
Safaai holds two academic degrees from university. On the whole, he had a better life than most others in Iraq. Yet he feared for his wife and son. And for himself. When a close friend was killed in Baghdad, he simply left, he says. "I didn't care if it was for Serbia, Italy, Germany or Libya … I just wanted to see my family safe."
The initial idea was for him to establish a life somewhere so that his family could follow. It never happened. First it was an issue of bureaucracy, then a lack of money. Finally Safaa's wife, fed up with waiting, broke up contact.
"It's my fault because I couldn't help them," Safaa says slowly while suppressing tears. For a moment he looks like a devastated man with a guilty conscience. "I saw my son twice for a few minutes in a video chat. But I couldn't talk … what was there to say?"
Nobody wants to stay
Safaa's story is unusual. Before the major refugee influx of 2015, Serbia only had a dozen recognized refugees on the register — not counting the hundreds of thousands of Serbs who fled Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the bloody Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s.
According to the EU Commission, nearly one million migrants passed through Serbia on the so-called Balkan route from the start of 2015 through the end of March 2016. But only few dozen actually wanted to stay. Serbia is struggling with high unemployment rates and extremely low salaries. In the last year alone, about 40,000 Serbs left the country to seek better opportunites elsewhere.
"I tell them that they have to make use of their time in Serbia to learn something about life, about respect," Safaa declares. Speaking broken English, Safaa often drops a Serbian word into his sentence when he forgets the English one. "If you want to go — doviđenja, good bye. But don't forget Serbia! Serbia is small but has a big heart," Safaa adds, as he works at a sewing machine in a small workshop.
Engaged in the community
The Center for Asylum Seekers in Banja Koviljaca was established a half a century ago, the first of its kind in what was then socialist Yugoslavia. It's solid construction, set atop on a hill above the town and surrounded by woods, now accommodates about one hundred people, mostly families.
Back in 70s and 80s it sheltered refugees from the Eastern Bloc and even some Chileans after the 1973 military coup. Now most of the people are Afghans or Yazidis from Iraq. For many of them, Serbia pops up as the dead end of their journey towards Western Europe; neighboring countries have closed their borders and control them tightly.
"All these people were in search of a better life," says Robert Lestmajster, manager of the asylum center, who has spent three decades working for Serbian authorities. "Some of them were only economic migrants coming from underdeveloped areas of their countries. Some were really escaping war atrocities."
"Safaa is engaged in everyday work here," Lestmajster adds with a smile on his face. He has seen thousands of migrants but nobody has stuck around as long as this friendly Iraqi with a mustache. "He gets paid to assist us with translation and helps in other ways. He is a very good person, dedicated. He wants to help all these people but also to have his day filled up," the manager tells DW.
'This is life'
A bright smile appears on Safaa's face as soon as he begins talking about the children and youngsters who have passed through this camp. Some of them called him "father." One said to him: "You were not just teaching me language. You were teaching me life."
Although entitled to look for a real job outside the center and live wherever he pleases, Safaa has never wanted to leave his messy room in Banja Koviljaca. "This is my family here," he almost whispers. "Every day I see my son, my nephew, my wife … I see my people. They all need help. And I help them, I play with children, I buy them candies …"
As for his real family, he has three brothers in Germany, one of them a famous doctor in Frankfurt. His wife and son are meanwhile doing great — in San Francisco. "I want them to come to me. But they don't want that," says Safaa, knowing that nobody with a sound mind would move from California to a Serbian province. "This is life," he admits.
Will he ever leave the center? "It has been ten years now. If mačka stays in one home for a few months, it can't go outside any more." Mačka is a Serbian word for a cat. "It cares about somebody who cared for her, who gave her a warm place. I am a mačka."