Growing tensions in the Middle East over the last two years caused a massive exodus for thousands of families who fled to European countries, one of which is Serbia.
More than 4,000 migrants settled in Serbia with plans of moving farther west. However, the Balkan border was blocked and migrant families found themselves stuck in a country they knew little about. For over a year, they waited to cross the border and meanwhile had to readjust their way of life. Intervention came in the form of a women’s community center established by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Serbia and its partner, UN Women Serbia, and later supported by UNICEF.
In November 2017, ADRA Serbia’s women’s community center was officially opened. The center vouched to help the most vulnerable population of migrants, which are women and girls, to help them improve their knowledge and skills for a better future, and help them find a sense of belonging and purpose. After time spent in a country where the language is foreign and access to education is limited, the community center was recognized as a safe haven.
Thirty-year-old, Layla, who migrated from Afghanistan to Serbia more than a year ago said she found peace at the new center, made friends and learned new things. “We did not know how to write Farsi,” she said, “now we do.”
An additional 50 women, one third of whom are minors, from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, visit the community center every day learning language, English and math. Each woman works closely with a specialist who monitors her improvement. In all, there are 20 specialists, interpreters, and volunteers who offer their services. The women’s center also offers psychological and legal support.
“I have visited the ADRA center for the last 11 months because my children can play here and it’s a nice environment,” said Sotude Mirsaly, a mother who participates in the program. “I take part in the fitness class because it makes me feel energized and a lot better.”
Regardless of age, mothers like Mirsaly, are also taught unique trade skills, including sewing and baking. Young adult men who participate in the program take interest in either auto repair lessons and/or becoming a make-up artist. Recreational activities, such as piano, guitar and singing lessons are also activities held.
Transportation, in addition, is arranged by ADRA Serbia so that children can get to the community center. “Approximately 120 children are transported by van to the school and back to their residential areas,” said Igor Mitrovic, the executive director of ADRA Serbia. With the convenient services on hand for migrant families through the women’s community center, mothers and children have found it easier to cope. “Because they receive help from our teachers and staff, the children find it easier to complete their homework,” Mitrovic added.
The center, though meant to create a place of safety, security, comfort and support, is also being recognized as a place of empowerment. “The focus of this center is meeting the needs of the women and children. Unfortunately, they are not aware of their rights regarding asylum, if and how it applies to them,” said Mia Kisic, ADRA’s program coordinator at the center. With respect to cases of domestic violence, Kisic shared that sometimes women are not aware that they can be moved out of those environments. Since the center’s inception, an economic empowerment program has been created, which is particularly valuable for gender-based violence survivors.
More awareness is being created to help women and children recognize their right to feel in control of their lives, and gain independence according to Mitrovic. Meanwhile, the variety of courses offered has attracted more and more migrants requesting further education or learning a trade. As a result, 50 minors have so far been trained through internships on different trade skills.
ADRA Serbia’s women’s community center continues to serve as an integral connection for locals to meet common ground with migrants, as well. This has helped foster improved relations, develop tolerance, and break free of the prejudices they may hold against those who are different. With a strong support for the migrants and community development programs like ADRA, local Serbian officials anticipate that the families will remain in Serbia for a long time.