“Stefan is the Serbian name that I adopted, and everyone now calls me by it, even my friends who came here as refugees” says Dilsad* with a twinkle in his eye and in fluent Serbian.
Talking to this teenager whose smile never seems to leave his face, one would hardly believe that he left Iraq – his home country, his parents and five siblings – only three years ago and walking alone to Serbia. Back home, Dilsad played football and learned to become a barber. Only 16 years old, Dilsad is already fluent in four languages: Kurdish, Farsi, Serbian, and English.
Shortly after his arrival in Serbia, Dilsad was appointed a legal guardian from a project of the UN Refugee Agency and moved into the section for unaccompanied refugee children in Jovan Jovanović Zmaj Children’s Home in Belgrade. Determined to resume schooling, he joined his peers studying at primary school Branko Pešić. Then, two years ago, Dilsad and his guardian visited the secondary School of Beauty: “I liked the school at first glance. As the weeks passed, other students and I became good friends. It was then that I decided to stay in Serbia and apply for asylum. I will soon graduate from the school, but my friendships will remain – we regularly talk over the phone during the current lockdown.”
Dilsad’s legal guardian, Slađana Marinković, praises him as open and discreet young man, very well accepted by his peers. “His motivation and commitment to integration increased since he enrolled into the secondary school, learned Serbian and made new friends. Dilsad speaks to me candidly and often seeks advice – and not many teenagers do that. I am very proud of his progress and readiness to integrate in Serbia while preserving his identity and culture.“
When the coronavirus pandemic reached Serbia, hair salons closed while also the Children’s Home Jovan Jovanović Zmaj protected its young residents by restricting visitors and outings. So Dilsad now styles the hair of both Serbian and refugee children living in Zmaj. “They’ve become my models, I’ve been trying new styles on them and not a single one complained so far. I do not charge them. It wouldn’t be fair since I am not a fully-fledged hairstylist yet,” smiles Dilsad.
Like other unaccompanied refugee children, the UN Refugee Agency has been supporting Dilsad ever since he reached Serbia, assisting his education, with clothes, school supplies and barber tools. UNHCR project lawyers helped Dilsad to apply for asylum in Serbia. Now he is waiting for the Asylum Office to recognise him as refugee. His guardian Slađana, also employed by the UNHCR project, Dilsad now calls “my second Mum”.
“Dilsad was one of the unaccompanied refugee boys, who received guardianship in a project that UNHCR and its partner IDEAS developed and implemented in coordination with the Ministry of Social Affairs,” explains Ljubimka Mitrović, Assistant Protection Officer with the UN Refugee Agency. “More than 2,200 unaccompanied and separated refugee children benefitted from this project over the course of three years. All the children were appointed a guardian – a true advocate for their best interests and their person of trust, the one who supports and advises them as their parents would. Though many boys did not want to stay in Serbia at first, having a professional guardian, some like Dilsad, changed their mind and decided to stay. Recognizing its success, the Government adopted the UNHCR-IDEAS model to ensure that effective guardianship is provided to all unaccompanied refugee children in Serbia.”
Ambitious and motivated, Dilsad landed an after-school job in a local salon, where he observes and learns from experienced hairstylists. And once he obtains his secondary school diploma, Dilsad has been promised a steady job there: “It was the owner of the salon who told me one day that it was high time for me to also choose a Serbian name for myself. I suppose you could call him my godfather. Everybody in Belgrade now knows me as Stefan.”
*Name changed for identity protection