This October, Kathia, Sebtimio, Sami and Reza will enter the classrooms of faculties in Belgrade, on a pursuit of their dreams. A big step in anyone’s lifetime, for them it is at least one size bigger – coming after many actual steps they made on their way to finding home in Serbia. After experiencing hardship and danger, learning the new surroundings, culture and language.
This is the first time refugees from out of the region are to pursue higher education in Serbia. These dedicated youngsters have been awarded with DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) scholarships, thanks to the Government of Germany, which will cover their studying expenses.
Kathia Katihabwa Irakoze, a 22-year old girl from Burundi, has enrolled on Faculty of Chemistry. Sami Rasouli and Reza Sharifi, who arrived as unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, will now enter the classrooms and ateliers of Belgrade’s Faculty of Applied Arts, while 17-year old Lybian Sebtimio Sever Khalifa will start his studies at Faculty of Economy. All of them will study in Serbian.
This October will also mark the first time for a lot of students in Serbia to befriend peers from these countries, learn about their cultures and make them feel at home. Moreover, they will have the chance to hear the stories of these bold young people.
“I have two very important dates coming in October – the start of studies on 1st and my birthday on 5th. They mark a truly new phase of my life. I will get to meet many people that will become a huge part of it and I really want to have good relations with all of them, to offer and be offered help and support when needed. That way, all of us will be happy”, says lively and enthusiastic Sebtimio Sever Khalifa.
Sebtimio lives in Belgrade with his two younger brothers and parents. His family was granted refugee status, not only due to the situation in Libya, but also recognizing that they would personally be in danger of persecution. Like his brothers, Sebtimio attended the elementary school “Ivo Andrić”, and then graduated from the 10th Belgrade public Gymnasium as a regular student, with commendable results.
He invested a lot of effort to overcome the language and other barriers, achieve success in school and gain friends with his positivity and openness. Sebtimio has diligently prepared for the faculty entry exam through classes provided by UNHCR.
“In gymnasium I’ve received a really broad education base”, says Sebtimio with a smile. “My professors were great, and I was treated just like everybody else. I always liked stocks, cryptocurrencies, and when I was little I liked informatics. At Economy Faculty these things are combined, they have informatics course coupled with economy. The faculty has always been the most important thing for me, and it was a relief when I enrolled. Now I have to work and study”, concludes Sebtimio.
Slightly older than him, 21-year old Reza Sharifi left Afghanistan when he was only eight. He came to Serbia in 2017, was assigned a guardian by the Center for Social Work and accommodated in the Integration House “Pedro Arrupe” in Belgrade sheltering unaccompanied children, run by Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). He received his first ID in Serbia. In the secondary public school “DrvoArt”, Reza had the support of the teaching staff and peers, which motivated him to become a successful student. He showed great artistic talents – he began to draw and paint and thus overcame traumatic experiences and separation from his family.
“It was not easy, learning the language and preparing for the exam. But I made it. I’m very happy because of it, and because of all the support I received in Serbia”, Reza underlines.
His work, creative spirit and dedication showed results even before the studies – Reza had a solo exhibition and participated in several group ones. He’s been attending classes at the atelier of painter Marija Kauzlarić for three years: “I’d like to become a painter and find a job. I also love working as a carpenter, that’s what I learned in high school. I like helping people”, Reza told us.
“The first day at the uni will probably be hard and a bit stressful, but I’m sure after that things will be easier. I’m so happy. University is very important to me, it is a true success. Everything is hard if you don’t try. Once you do, it’s much easier”, says 20-year old Sami Rasouli, who came to Serbia in 2016.
His family fled from Afghanistan to Iran and Sami was born in Tehran. Although he lived with his parents, he did not receive any personal documents, like many Afghan refugees who have lived in Iran for decades, without access to basic human rights. Same as his fellow native and student Reza, since 2017 he has been accommodated in “Pedro Arrupe”, as its first resident. Sami completed primary education in Serbia, as well as Secondary School for Textile Design in Belgrade, majoring in clothing design.
“Everybody helped and encouraged me in his or her own way. At the Integration House, I’ve learned Serbian better. The professor I’ve worked with help me a lot to prepare for the exam, UNHCR to cover expenses”, Sami asserts.
He showed exceptional talent and exhibited his works at school exhibitions, but also at 2020 Mixer Festival in Belgrade. His great desire is to become a fashion designer. Sami is a calm and patient person, hardworking student fully focused on his academic goals. But also on his goal after the studies: “I’d like to launch my own fashion company. That step will take a big amount of experience, I do have a lot to learn at the faculty, but after that I’ll be able to start. My idea is that the company will be named ‘Mayy’, because I was born in May”.
Both Sami and Reza have received significant support from full professor of the Faculty of Applied Arts, Ljiljana Petrović, MA, who provided them guidelines for the preparation of the exam and additional useful activities, such as sewing classes. “Art and life have the same denominator – movement. They depend on time, space and the state of our spirit. When a person frees himself or herself, then the oscillations gain a bigger swing. I am sincerely amazed by the courage of young people as Reza and Sami, who crossed such a big and risky path with the clear goal of changing their difficult lives in a completely unknown country, Serbia, in an unknown language“, says Ljiljana Petrović, who teaches at the department for Costume, module Stage costume.
Kathia Katihabwa Irakoze found refuge in Serbia, together with her mother Theresa. Their first accommodation was at the asylum center in Banja Koviljača, and after receiving refugee status they moved to Belgrade. In Burundi, she graduated from high school with a major in science. She has been learning Serbian intensively and attended chemistry and biology classes provided by UNHCR to prepare for the entry exam.
Unlike many of her peers, besides studying, she had other important roles to take. Kathia worked at a call center with her knowledge of French until recently, to provide for her and her mother. She had to leave this job to be able to intensify the preparation for the entry exam. Same as Reza, Sami and Sebtimio, this young girl was chosen as a UN volunteer in a program that supports initiatives targeting young Roma, refugees and asylum seekers.
All this illustrates Kathia’s personal qualities and zeal. Unfortunately, the difficult life circumstances in Burundi forced her to stop her education after high school. That is another reason to support her to continue where she left off.
The students assert that starting the studies is for sure the most important step for them so far. As their peers, they also have other passions. Sami likes playing football and chess, reading books in Serbian, Persian and English, Sebtimio is writing and producing hip hop songs: “I think the most important thing in life is to do what you love. When I work with young Roma and refugees as a UN volunteer, I like to convey this message to them. Because, when you do what you love, life goes smooth and fast, but each moment is valuable”.
At the ceremony of signing their DAFI Scholarship Agreements, the four students were congratulated by the UNHCR Representative and representatives of the German Embassy and the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migrations.
“The scholarship is named after Albert Einstein, who was a refugee as well and who achieved so much. This should serve as a legacy and an inspiration for Sami, Kathia, Reza and Sebtimio. We are very proud of them, and also of the long tradition of the scholarship and of Serbia being a member of the DAFI family”, said Daniel Mohseni, representative of German Embassy in Serbia, at the event in UNHCR Serbia headquarters.
“Future is calling and all of you answered, getting selected for studies with DAFI scholarships. UNHCR congratulates you, cheers for you and stands by your side,” underlined Francesca Bonelli, UNHCR Representative in Serbia. She thanked the Government of Germany and all of the faculties for making everything possible, adding that the support through DAFI is a milestone in the refugee education in Serbia: “UNHCR will continue to identify the refugees and asylum-seekers in Serbia for support in enrolment in tertiary education”.
The Republic of Serbia has been committed to inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers into education, with notable results. The Government highlighted the inclusion of children and youth from the refugee population in higher education as one of its pledges at the 2019 Global Refugee Forum. UNHCR, together with partners, strongly advocates, supports and cooperates with the relevant institutions in reaching this important goal, that will enable many big steps in lives of those who were forced to flee.