From an early age, Sami Rasuli knew he wanted to be a fashion designer. “I watched movies and fashion shows and I loved all that,” he says. Now the 18-year-old Afghan, who grew up in Iran with limited prospects for education, is studying textile design in Belgrade and has a real chance to qualify for the career of his dreams.
“Sami excels,” says Svetlana Tošić, one of his teachers at the TehnoArt Belgrade textile design school. “He makes sure he understands the task and then he puts his heart into it. He is such a good soul. You can see it from the warm colours he uses.”
Sami grew up in Tehran, the son of Afghans in exile, and the vibrancy he saw there influenced him. “I was inspired by the styles of my original country — long dresses full of colour and the jewelry of my sisters.” But not being Iranian, he had little chance of higher education.
“I left for freedom, to be a designer, an artist,” he says. “My parents had to accept it.
Sami knew Italy was one of the great fashion centres of the world, so when he left home, he was heading there. But he has met kindness in Serbia and come to realise Belgrade will give him the start he needs in a competitive profession.
“I have decided to stay in Belgrade. I think it is a good decision and I don’t see any reason to leave,” says Sami, who is now in the asylum process.
Sami arrived in Serbia in 2016, having travelled via Turkey and Bulgaria. Unlike many asylum seekers who try to go further into Europe, he did not push his luck in Hungary or Croatia but stopped in Belgrade. The journey had been tough enough.
“I was not on the street for long – only an afternoon in fact — before Serbian organisations helped me,” he says.
As an unaccompanied minor, Sami was accommodated in a safe house run by the Jesuit Refugee Service, given a guardian under a UNHCR scheme and enabled to complete his basic education at Branko Pešić Elementary School.
Now in his second year at the textile design school, he is the only refugee in the college and one of only four boys in a class of 28 doing fashion. In his first year, he was put on a general, technical course but when he was able to express himself in Serbian and when his teachers saw his talent, they moved him to the fashion course he wanted.
“We saw he had a talent for drawing,” says maths teacher and mentor Olivera Tubić, who came as a refugee from Croatia during the 1990s. “Look here at his school report, ‘he focuses on volume and plasticity of forms; he notices light and shade’.”
Over the four years of his course, Sami will go from drawing and learning to sew to creating a whole collection of clothes.
He begins his day in a workshop, where the students sit behind sewing machines, making small items such as bags and pillow cases. The girls have stitched flowers or faces on theirs but Sami has used geometric shapes. “These circles could be a logo for example,” he says.
Later, the class gathers for painting and drawing and Sami shows an abstract he has done in shades of pink and red. “I like abstracts,” he says, “because you can see whatever you want in them.”
Although he is from a culture that traditionally eschews the human form, Sami will also draw people. “Yes, not only patterns but people. I can draw anything because I am an artist.”
In the class, he has made friends; indeed the girls compete to help him. “If he doesn’t understand something, we explain to him in English,” says Nataša Jovanović, 17. “We are also teaching him Serbian slang,” laughs Jovana Sekulić, 18.
Outside school, Sami enjoys the city of Belgrade. He goes up to Kalemegdan Park, from where one can see the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. “I go with friends, or sometimes alone. I like to draw there. The air is fresh and there is a good view.”
He still cannot quite believe his luck in landing safely in Belgrade. “I never imagined I would live here,” he says. “I did not know anything about Serbia. It was not planned but when I came here, everything changed. Once you decide something, that something changes you.”
Being a refugee in Serbia should not prevent Sami from seeing the glamour of Rome or the catwalks of Milan some day in the future.
“Italy is the home of fashion,” he says. “Perhaps one day I will go there to visit or work. But I think I will always come back to Serbia because I have so many friends now. I feel good here. It’s calm and whatever I need, I can ask easily for help.”