23.1.2023.Ahmed’s story in the RS began in 2014, when he and his family – his father, two brothers and two sisters – came to Niš so that their father could complete his graduate studies. Ahmed was 16 when he left his hometown of Baghdad in Iraq and substituted Asia with the Balkans.

When he looks back at his first days in the RS and life in Niš, Ahmed remembers the stark differences between it and his country of origin – the first thing he noticed was the luscious greenery and large parks, as well as the weather, describing the differences in the following way:

A complete opposite to my hometown.

Ahmed emphasised how surprised he was by the relationships between his peers in the RS, their obvious closeness and free communication, both among boys and among boys and girls, that he could talk freely with them and so on. Ever since he arrived in the RS, Ahmed has been surrounded by kind people, people who are extremely supportive of each other. He is of the impression that these qualities are particularly visible among people living in smaller communities in the RS.

Ahmed found his first friends in Niš through several of his Iraqi friends who were already living with their families in the RS. His teenage days in Niš and later in Belgrade totally differed from those in Baghdad. When we asked him what was different, he replied:

Everything – absolutely everything! I relished the freedom the most, freedom is what I felt the most – freedom with friends, freedom on the street, in the family…

Since he came to the RS eight years ago, Ahmed went back to his hometown of Baghdad only twice, for very short periods of time[1]:

I didn’t leave the house at all the first time. The second time, I took my sister’s car to go and buy something and I literally lost my way! I don’t know that city anymore, I have nothing there. I know Belgrade better. I’m more Ahmed from the [Belgrade suburb] Medak than Ahmed from Baghdad. 

Belgrade holds a special place in Ahmed’s heart. He says it’s difficult to provide a simple explanation of why he loves the city and what he likes the most about it. As he puts it:

Belgrade as Belgrade, there is no other city like it! Parties every day, people on the streets, something’s happening every day, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have money. Belgrade has this craziness in itself, I think Belgrade has a soul.

Whenever his relatives or friends from Iraq visit him in Belgrade, Ahmed first shows them the Zemun Quay, Kalemegdan Park, the Dorćol Quay, the Zvezdara Woods and Dedinje. He says he loves having his coffee in his favourite neighbourhood café and spending time with his friends at other popular hangouts in Belgrade.

Ahmed is now working at Belgrade Airport Nikola Tesla, where he is engaged in catering – preparing Arabic food. He first came to love making food when his father asked him to take over cooking for their large family. He honed his skills in his father’s restaurant, where he was sous chef. He went on to work at various restaurants and hotels and, for a while, worked as the head chef in the Iraqi Embassy. He says Serbian cuisine is like Arabic in many respects and singles out his favourites – stuffed cabbage rolls, cornbread and ćevapčići.

Asked how he imagined his future, Ahmed replies that he doesn’t know what it holds in store for him – he may continue working in the hospitality business, or perhaps change his occupation altogether. He says that anything is possible, that he has no fears or prejudices and will not  hesitate to seize all the opportunities that come his way.

Ahmed, who has been granted subsidiary protection in the RS, says he is often deprived of enjoying the “ordinary”, everyday things, which many of his friends in the RS take for granted. He illustrated one of them in his interview to the BCHR:

A co-worker of mine said yesterday: “Why don’t we go to the seaside, wouldn’t it be great?” and I told her: “I’ve never seen the sea in my life, I’ve never been to the beach. There’s nothing I’d rather do, but I can’t.”

Namely, Ahmed is facing a years-long problem of people granted international protection in the RS – they are unable to obtain travel documents. Ahmed’s freedom of movement beyond Serbia will be limited until the Serbian authorities finally regulate the procedure.[2] Until then, he can travel only with the passport issued by his country of origin. However, Ahmed needs a visa in his Iraqi passport to enter most countries. He told the BCHR he had once applied for a visa to enter Montenegro, but was rejected three months later. Although his travels to most countries in the world are limited, Ahmed has travelled extensively across the RS, basking in its natural wonders. He has also been attending music festivals and has visited many Serbian towns and thinks Aranđelovac is the most beautiful one.

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights talked with Ahmed about the cultural differences and how the RS differed from Iraq. We discussed slavas, family patron saint days celebrated by Serbs. Ahmed attended a number of them at the invitation of his friends. He thinks he has gotten so used to Serbian culture that he considers it his own more than the culture of the Arab nation he comes from. He also believes he would have had a harder time adjusting to the way of life in an EU country, primarily because of the congeniality and openness of the people in Serbia. In that context, Ahmed mentioned his brother, who, after years of travelling across Europe and living in Budapest, concluded that there was “no place like Serbia”. Here’s how he put it:

You’ll be a foreigner wherever you go, but not here, everyone here accepts you, your friends, your co-workers, and the girls. Here, you feel you’re part of the city, part of this country. 

Ahmed said he understood that people might by wary of foreigners, of someone of a different skin colour or speaking a different language. He said he had twice experienced minor problems because of his religion in the RS. He said that his friends, neighbours and co-workers in the RS generally treated him with respect and had understanding for the holidays of his culture. He said that during his many years in the RS, he noticed the many shortcomings of the social norms and customs in his country of origin, many of which he considers “incomprehensible” and “alien”.

During his interview with the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, Ahmed said he could not single out any situation he could describe as particularly difficult since he came to the RS. He said that the greatest challenge he faced in adjusting to the new community was his lack of knowledge of Serbian, a challenge he succeeded in overcoming with his father’s support. He thinks it played the key role in his successful integration in the RS. He said his first girlfriend in the RS also helped him master the language – she didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak Serbian when they met, and they helped each other master those languages.

People unaware of Ahmed’s background would not even presume that this young Iraqi was not born and did not spend his childhood in the RS. He told the BCHR that he often told people the following:

You know that feeling when you’re living abroad but you can never fully be part of society and fully understand them because you don’t understand the slang and the inside jokes? Well, I know the inside jokes, I’ve grown up here, Belgrade is my city!

[1] Ahmed and his family first came to the RS in 2014 so that his father could complete his graduate studies. However, as their personal circumstances changed in 2017 and the security situation in Iraq deteriorated, Ahmed’s father was forced to seek international protection for himself and his children in the RS. In early 2018, the Asylum Office granted subsidiary protection to this five-member family.

[2] More about the refugees’ inability to obtain travel documents and access Serbian citizenship in Right to Asylum in the Republic of Serbia 2021, pp. 124 and 151.