“For a good business, we need to be pioneers and venture bravely, removing every stone in our way. As they say – keep on truckin’!”

I can be an entrepreneur. So can you. So can all of us. We recently met up with Bakhytzhan, a refugee from Kazakhstan, who goes by the nickname Baha in Serbia. He shared with us his extraordinary story about launching a business and entrepreneurship, as well as details about adjusting to life in Serbia from the perspective of a refugee.

Our interlocutor started his life in Serbia nearly seven years ago, when he first came to Belgrade, fleeing persecution in his country of origin. Thanks to his experience as a physiotherapist, he found his first job – as a masseur – in Serbia. Hardworking and driven by motivation, he went on to work as a physiotherapist and soon decided to launch his own business in this field.

The road he travelled was full of ups and downs, but as Baha told us, he had the hardest time when he arrived in Serbia. Baha began his life in Belgrade by applying for asylum with the Asylum Office of the Ministry of the Interior. He was soon granted protection and refuge in Serbia and then started adjusting to its culture and way of life. Throughout the process, he received support and legal aid from the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, which represents refugees and asylum seekers in Serbia and facilitates the refugees’ integration and their access to their economic, cultural and social rights.

Although the Asylum and Temporary Protection Law grants refugees most of the rights Serbian nationals have, refugees face numerous obstacles and problems, mostly administrative in character, inconsistent institutional practices and their unfamiliarity with refugee-related regulations. Baha had major difficulties opening a bank account; he has been unable to obtain a travel document, while his lack of knowledge of the Serbian language further impinged on his life in Serbia.

 Doing things all by oneself is not easy. Did you have anyone to help you when you were starting out? My business partner Branka, who was the first to hire me in Serbia, has extended me the greatest support in my work. We’ve been working together since day one and never has she had any problem with me being a foreigner and a refugee. I also got a lot of help from the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights and the UNHCR Office in Belgrade, which helped me buy the cedar barrel, which I needed to develop my business as a physiotherapist; I couldn’t have done it all on my own. Of course, my friends supported me at the very start – an honest recommendation is the best advertisement. The COVID-19 pandemic was also challenging; I couldn’t use city transportation and mostly cycled to work. Plus the volume of work went down at the time.

What motivated you to start your own business in Serbia? People in Serbia are really nice and friendly. When you find your first friends, you soon start wishing to settle down and work here. You realise that, thanks to your background, you have unique experience hardly anyone does and that you can offer exclusive services, so you offer what no-one else can.

Do you have any tips for those just starting out? If you want to open your own shop, you first need to see whether you’re up to it and find a job as a salesman. The same applies to any other business or occupation. That’s the only way to find out for sure if it’s the right fit for you. Also, before launching your own business, analyse the people’s needs – you will find out whether there is a demand for what you’re offering and whether your business will succeed.

Every business has to have plans for the future. What are yours? We want to expand, to offer other services unavailable in Belgrade, in addition to saunas and massage. I’d also like to help out other refugees who’ve come to Serbia and have experience working as masseurs or physiotherapists. I have paved the way and I want to help others to find jobs and become independent.

One final question, how would you describe your business in one sentence? My job is to make men happy and women beautiful.

If you want to support a small business and enjoy the charms of sauna in a cedar barrel and other exclusive services, visit Fitme’s website  (https://fitme.rs/) and do something nice for yourself.

Note – This text is the product of collaboration between the ASK Centre for Education and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights to promote the importance of the topic of refugees as entrepreneurs.